October 9, 2020


Newt Gingrich and Our Hyperpartisan Moment: a review of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party by Julian E. Zelizer (Michael Kimmage, 08 Oct 2020, American Purpose)

In Burning Down the House, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian and CNN contributor who writes prolifically on American political history, finds a new solution to an old problem. He explains the extreme partisanship of today's America by chronicling a single moment in the late 1980s, a clash of personalities and political ambitions that "opened up a new period in American politics." Burning Down the House is a brilliant microhistory of a year in the life of the U.S. Congress. It is a snapshot of overlapping transitions--in the media, in political style, in the structure of the Democratic and Republican parties--that document the story of our times. It is too slender and too circumscribed a subject to explain the rise of Trump, however, or to get to the bottom of the Spy vs. Spy acrimony of domestic American politics. It is a piece of a piece of the puzzle.

For Zelizer, the world before the fall was that of the midcentury United States. It corresponds to Washington in the "committee era" of congressional history, which ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. The decades between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War witnessed lots of political tumult, but within the halls of Congress there was a baseline consensus on how business was to be conducted. Committees could expect a degree of bipartisan compromise. The press was held at a certain distance, and seniority within Congress was a crucial commodity, keeping in check the ambition and fire of youth. Zelizer does not celebrate all of this. Congress in the committee era could be clubby and insular; it could be backwards-looking. Its value was that it could legislate, which it did on civil rights and many other issues.

In Zelizer's irony-filled telling of the tale, key transitions took place in the 1970s. Investigative journalism brought down President Nixon, releasing a wave of reform sentiment in Congress. The "Watergate babies," who were elected to Congress in 1974, were eager to tighten the rules on ethical conduct. This they did up to a point, without eliminating "the nexus between money and politics" that in fact grew stronger in the 1970s. Private money in politics, lobbying, and the burdensome costs of campaigning created incentives for members of Congress to bend the rules. At the same time, an emboldened news media was hungry for shocking revelations and front-page scandals. In the 1980s, they would not be disappointed: They feasted on a steady diet of information that might previously have been kept behind closed doors.

National politics was more paradoxical than polarized in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House as a conservative. He admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt--yet wanted to retire the New Deal, convinced that the free market needed to be unleashed. By contrast, the House of Representatives was "the last bastion for the liberalism that Democrats had championed since FDR," Zelizer notes. Democrats had had the upper hand in Congress since 1954, the year Senator Joseph McCarthy went down in flames. Whereas Reagan promised a break with the past, the House of Representatives was the guardian of New Deal tradition, and it could do a great deal to slow Reagan down. A clash was bound to come.

The Republican dog caught two cars between 1988 and 1994 and didn't really know what to do with either.  First, Ronald Reagan toppled the Soviet Union and with the end of the Cold War, the glue that held various factions on the right together disappeared, along with one of the big substantive issues that had separated right and left. Second, the GOP took the House, which had been considered unachievable for decades and found itself forced to actually govern, which meant effectively jettisoning six decades of opposition to a welfare state that voters had come to depend on.  Meanwhile, the Democrats had stolen a march and arrived at the Third Way first, so you had Bill Clinton who was free of the taint of foreign policy anti-Americanism and who was eager to put said welfare state on a more stable--capitalist--footing.  Indeed, Clinton and company were prepared to embrace free markets on nearly all economic questions.  So the GOP and the Democrats found themselves meeting in the middle--where the polities of the English-speaking world had already arrived. This led to a uniquely fruitful bipartisan legislative epoch and, not coincidentally, explosive economic growth and budget balancing.

But with nearly no significant issues to separate the parties anymore, folks began to grasp on to the mere fact of their party affiliation and opposition to the 'other" party as the cause to which their lives were dedicated.  After all, the only difference between Newt and Bill was the "R" or "D" after their names.  Ever since, our national elections are won by whichever candidate is most closely identified with the Third Way, irrespective of party.  But the wings of the two parties then work themselves up into frenzies of hatred against their own leaders precisely because they could lead the other party with so few adjustments.  

As in all things, Donald is sui generis in this regard.  Despite being rejected by the great majority of the GOP in the primaries and losing to Hillary in the general, precisely because he ran on an old ideology--racism--he managed to take office and empower the Right.  Democrats, stunned by their failure in 2016, happily punted on Progressivism and nominated Uncle Joe, who would have been right at home in the 80s GOP.

We are left with a Right whose experiment in governing crashed and burned around their ears and a Left who thought their time had come, only to discover that a Democratic Party made up of everyone but old white men is rather conservative.  So we have hysterical hyperpartisanship between the wings of the parties at a time when there is overwhelming consensus among the electorate on nearly every major issue.  

All this presents Joe Biden with the opportunity that Florida denied W, to not just govern from the middle but to be seen to do so. He could easily co-opt Republicans by including a few in his cabinet and reaching out to Ben Sasse and any other willing Senators to see if they would be willing to work on a set of institutional/governmental reforms and to try and get them to participate in legislating, rather than just retreating to the McConnell obstruction model. The enire party might still vote against something like an Obamacare improvement bill, but by including a few ideas that are precious to reform-minded conservatives he could show himself to be governed by more than mere partisanship abn=nd perhaps get them to turn down their temperature too.   

Posted by at October 9, 2020 6:27 PM