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A Senate majority is overrated. (We checked.)

Divided government sometimes overperforms expectations.

SHARE A Senate majority is overrated. (We checked.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in March.

Erin Schaff, The New York Times

Many progressives are in despair at the prospect of Joe Biden facing a Senate with Mitch McConnell as majority leader. On top of that, this might be as good as it gets for Biden: The president’s party almost always loses seats in Congress at the midterm, which may well mean divided government for his entire term.

Does that mean that ambitious things — climate change legislation, health care and policing reforms — are off the table, and little of consequence will be achieved?

Not necessarily. That’s because divided government sometimes overperforms expectations. Unified governments, on the other hand, usually end in disappointment for the party in power. The hard truth about the U.S. political system is that very little legislation gets enacted without bipartisan support.

Even as voting in Congress has polarized generally, there has been no increase in the share of legislation enacted on party-line votes. Laws rarely pass without substantial backing from the minority party. Since 2011, 90% of new laws that cleared the House and 75% that cleared the Senate received positive votes from at least a majority of minority party members.

This kind of broad support is not confined to minor legislation. Fully 90% of the laws included on a list of landmark legislation enacted during that time (put together by the political scientist David Mayhew of Yale) received support from most minority party members in one or both chambers. They often receive less attention because they do not involve as much partisan combat, but they are instructive for the way the system works, with compromise on each side. For example, the 21st Century Cures Act (2016) dramatically increased National Institutes of Health funding (a Democratic priority) and streamlined FDA approvals (a Republican priority); the 2018 bipartisan deal ended spending caps established by the Budget Control Act, and Republicans got military spending increases while Democrats got domestic spending increases.

We looked at the success of majority parties in achieving their stated policy goals, from 1985 through 2018, by tracking more than 250 proposals. For each, we marked whether Congress enacted a law that achieved most of what the party wanted, some of what it wanted or none of what it wanted as it failed to pass any new policy. The parties failed outright roughly half the time; there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans and no long-term trends in success or failure over time. When one party had unified control, it made only a modest difference: In a unified government, congressional majority parties failed on 43% of their agenda priorities; in divided government, the number was 49%.

Overwhelming partisan victories are incredibly rare. Over the past 30 years, we identified only a dozen instances when a majority party won the kind of victory progressive Democrats envision for their more ambitious proposals: that is, by achieving a policy goal over the other party’s sustained resistance. These victories do include some major achievements like the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

But even this short list includes a number of enactments of modest significance, such as the 1993 “Motor Voter” reform of voter registration or the Democrats’ budget-balancing rule of 2007. This list even includes one law that Democrats subsequently disowned: the 1994 crime bill, with its “three-strikes” criminal sentencing mandates.

While parties with unified control can achieve some policy gains, they also frequently experience disastrous defeats on even their highest priorities. The Democrats collapsed spectacularly on health care reform in 1993-94. In 2005-06, Republicans sought to add individual investment accounts to Social Security. But while newly reelected President George W. Bush campaigned around the country promoting the idea, neither House nor Senate Republicans could agree on a bill to report out of committee. In 2009-10, Senate Democrats never came close to passing a climate change measure, even though they briefly held 60 seats. In the most recent case of unified control, Republicans could not coalesce on their highest priority, repealing and replacing Obamacare. They were unable to bridge their differences, even on the watered-down “skinny repeal” bill, which three moderates, including Senator John McCain, decisively rejected. Given this track record of infighting and underperformance across recent episodes of unified government, there is little reason to believe that Democrats would deliver on much of progressives’ wish list even with favorable outcomes in the Georgia Senate runoff elections.

Our political system is not conducive to unfettered majoritarianism.

Rather than steamrollering their opposition, majority parties achieve more policy success by building bipartisan support. This is true regardless of unified or divided party control and no less true amid today’s polarization. Most of each party’s policy wins over the years have occurred by co-opting the minority party, rather than by overpowering it. In 2018, Democrats and Republicans passed criminal justice reform by overwhelming bipartisan margins. In 2013, Democrats expanded the Violence Against Women Act by building enough support to pass the bill in the Republican-controlled House. In 2007, Democrats struck a deal with Republicans to increase the federal minimum wage.

Single-party partisan control of the federal government is overrated. Majority parties find legislative success especially through two paths: Either they propose something that can garner broad support in both parties, or they back down from the more contentious aspects of their legislative proposals.

The incoming Biden administration will necessarily utilize these approaches. With a Republican majority Senate, Democrats will not be able to pass their preferred $3 trillion pandemic relief package. They will have to settle for something closer to the Senate Republicans’ $500 billion proposal. On policing reform, immigration and other issues, the Democrats simply will not have the votes to legislate their wish list, but will have to try for half a loaf.

Our political system is not conducive to unfettered majoritarianism. Despite party polarization, building bipartisan support for legislative proposals remains by far the most likely path to policy achievement.

James M. Curry is associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. Frances E. Lee is professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. They are the authors of “The Limits of Party.”