The history of party control in Congress

One of the big revelations I had as a high school student in the early 2000’s was that Democrats have almost exclusively controlled the House since the Great Depression, and have mostly controlled the Senate. This was not the impression popular media gave me, where the fluctuation in the president’s party and our “deeply divided country” took precedence over partisan control of Congress. This struck me a slightly absurd, because legislation and policy originate in Congress, not the presidency. Shouldn’t the originators of policy be at least as important than the administrative branch of government? Was there something else I was missing because I didn’t see the bigger picture?

Frustrated that I could not easily visualize the evolution of Congress and the presidency by party control over the entire history of our country, I looked for someone else who had done it. As amazing as the xkcd version is, the visual implies that the red/blue- Republican/Democrat- liberal/conservative split has persisted for all of our history. This is a fundamental misinterpretation of how parties and ideologies evolve. It’s not just that the partisan split has changed over time or that parties themselves have appeared and disappeared. The problem runs deeper. The fact is that the “liberal” and “conservative” perspectives from the 1840s would have been completely foreign to us today. So I grabbed some data from Keith Poole’s website , reorganized it by party control over time, and stuck into into some graphs color-coded by party. The results are shown below:

House of Representatives
housePartyProportionsGgplot

Senate
senatePartyProportionsGgplot

Legend
legend

Look at how many parties come and go for the first 75 or so years of government, and that doesn’t even account for the complete change in our form of government that occurred in 1889. For 13 years before the first Congress, we were governed by the Articles of Confederation. Some days I’m glad our parties are so stable today, and others I wonder if we should worry about stagnation caused by excessively sticky institutions that don’t adapt easily to changing social realities.

And because I was on a roll, I created a graphic for the party of the president throughout our history. It’s kind of fun that the less representative a chamber/office gets, the more fluctuation in party control we see.

President
presParty1

The graphs don’t show everything I want to know about party control of our government, but it’s a start.

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