If you’re trying to determine the reasons for America’s deep partisan divides and the source of our current partisan bitterness, you won’t lack for culprits. Think of the tidal changes in American society in the last half-century. Positive and negative social movements alike have swept through our nation, upending racial relations, sexual morality, family dynamics, and religious faith. Such profound transformations (even the good ones) cannot possibly happen without profound division, and our politics will reflect the intensity and gravity of this social change.
Or you can blame Newt Gingrich.
The former speaker of the House is having yet another moment. First, there was McKay Coppins’s long and entertaining profile of Gingrich in The Atlantic, titled “The Man Who Broke Politics.” Then, today, the popular New York Times podcast “The Daily” produced an episode called “How 1994 Gave Us Today’s Politics.”
The theme of the Atlantic profile is that Gingrich damaged the House. “By the middle of the 20th century,” Coppins argues, “lawmakers had largely coalesced around a stabilizing set of norms and traditions. Entrenched committee chairs may have dabbled in petty corruption, and Democratic leaders may have pushed around the Republican minority when they were in a pinch, but as a rule, comity reigned.”
Can I note that this alleged “comity” just so happened to coincide with Democratic dominance? After all, the Democrats controlled the House for an astounding 40 consecutive years – from 1955 to 1995 – and for 18 of the 22 years before that.
Gingrich rejected business as usual and courted fights. He sought out the camera. Coppins quotes Thomas Mann as saying that Gingrich “took a wrecking ball to the most powerful and influential legislature in the world.”
The Times podcast focuses less on Gingrich’s style and more on his use of so-called “wedge issues.” Times columnist Jennifer Senior interviews Republican former congressman Vin Weber about how the GOP “exploited” American differences on cultural issues such as partial-birth abortion and gay marriage to help hand them their first majority in two generations.
But it turns out that “wedge issue” is just another word for “popular position.” In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a meaningful electoral constituency for gay marriage. There wasn’t much public support for partial-birth abortion. By bringing up cultural issues, the Republicans not only gave voice to millions of Americans who had deep concerns about the cultural direction of the country, but also exposed divisions in the Democratic coalition.
Gingrich’s Contract with America (you can read it here) was extensively poll-tested to present only promises that had overwhelming public support. Gingrich was a political street fighter, yes, but he was playing a very strong political hand. Congress was overdue for serious change.
Moreover, it’s hard to argue that he “broke politics” when the GOP House and the Clinton administration worked together to enact significant legislation. As Coppins admits, “There were real accomplishments during Gingrich’s speakership, too — a tax cut, a bipartisan health-care deal, even a balanced federal budget — and for a time, truly historic triumphs seemed within reach.” Clinton and Gingrich, it seems, were on the verge of reforming Social Security. So, what happened?
Check out the very next paragraph:
But by then, the poisonous politics Gingrich had injected into Washington’s bloodstream had escaped his control. So when the stories started coming out in early 1998 — the ones about the president and the intern, the cigar and the blue dress — and the party faithful were clamoring for Clinton’s head on a pike, and Gingrich’s acolytes in the House were stomping their feet and crying for blood . . . well, he knew what he had to do.
That sound you hear is every Republican reader tearing their hair out. The impeachment battle is about Gingrich’s poisonous politics? What? The president of the United States (a man who is almost certainly a sexual predator, by the way) had an affair with an intern in the Oval Office and lied about it under oath. He lied to the American people. He conducted a systematic smear campaign against his accusers and his investigators. None of this was Newt Gingrich’s fault.
It is absolutely worth profiling Gingrich and considering his role in American politics — including the undeniable part he’s played in American polarization. Some of his tactics have absolutely been destructive. But the diagnosis here is just fundamentally wrong.
Did Newt Gingrich “break” American politics more than Roe v. Wade did? Do progressives know or care about the shock waves Ted Kennedy’s “Bork’s America” speech sent rippling through conservative America? Lest you need reminding, here is the key part of that vile text:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.
But for progressives, Roe is good and Bork is bad, and so a bit of sloppy judicial reasoning or rhetorical excess is but a trifling compared to the worth of the broader cause. It’s the arc of history bending towards justice, and that’s not always neat or clean.
There’s no question that Newt Gingrich was an important figure, but he was an inevitable important figure. If Gingrich hadn’t ended Democratic dominance of the House, someone else would have. There were tensions in the Democratic coalition that could not be avoided. The Democratic hammerlock on the House was out of step with the composition of the American electorate. The tidal forces of cultural conflicts launched decades before were going to tear apart Congress in the same way they’d torn apart campuses and caused conflict at kitchen tables.
So, no, Gingrich didn’t break American politics. But he did help break a progressive monopoly on the House, which the GOP has controlled 20 of the 24 years since. And given the aggression and incivility they overlook on their own side, it’s clear that for many commentators on the left, ending Democratic dominance is Gingrich’s truly enduring sin.