Divided government has been the American norm over the last 50 years. It has been our condition 70 percent of the time, and voters have ended every period of unified party control of both Congress and the White House after at most four years.
In that respect, we just had a very normal election. Voters experienced two years of of unchecked Republican dominance of Washington, and decided they had had enough of it - just as they decided that two years of Democratic control was enough after Bill Clinton’s first two years and Barack Obama’s first two years. But largely because so many of the Senate races were on Republican turf, Donald Trump’s party managed to gain seats in that body.
The principal consequences of these election outcomes are three. Republicans will be able to keep confirming the president’s nominees to the executive and the judicial branches. (They may be able to get slightly more conservative nominees through than they did before.) Democrats, however, will be able to use the subpoena power to conduct oversight of the administration or, as Republicans will probably soon be calling it, harassment. And legislative gridlock will continue. Republicans quit trying to advance major legislation a year ago, and now both parties will use legislation mostly to score political points rather than to actually get it enacted.
This last conclusion runs counter to some happy talk on election night about the possibility of bipartisan cooperation on infrastructure. But the parties don’t actually agree on much beyond their common liking of the word “infrastructure.” For action to take place, either one party would have to surrender or both would have to compromise on the policy questions.
Additionally, House Democrats would have to be willing to help the president score a bipartisan achievement. And all this would have to take place in the midst of legal battles between the White House and the House.
The split between the Senate and the House showed that our partisan divisions are deepening rather than being resolved. Differences between rural and urban voters, and between whites with and without college degrees, have continued to widen. The elections also showed some of the obstacles each party will face if it seeks to attain a governing majority in 2020.
The Republican coalition is not a majority, and is not holding. Trump won support from some white working-class voters who had previously backed Obama, but Republicans have not yet absorbed those voters into their party - and at the same time Trump has driven away college-educated suburbanites.
The Democrats may have a national majority, but if so it is a small one that is geographically distributed in a way that may put the Senate and the presidency out of reach. In the weeks before the election, Democrats boasted about their comeback in the Midwest. But that comeback was somewhat disappointing: They failed to win the governorships of swing states Ohio and Iowa.
The fact that a lot of great progressive hopes faltered in the election - Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Randy Bryce in Wisconsin all lost - might keep Democrats from going down one blind alley. But they may have to make concessions, especially on cultural issues dear to many Democrats, to be more competitive on the outskirts of Trump country.
Nancy Pelosi concluded her victory speech by suggesting, sweetly if fancifully, that Americans had cast a vote for “unity.” What we can more realistically look forward to is two more years of social division, partisan rancor and governmental sclerosis - all of that, plus a presidential election that we can now consider underway.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.