Pundits and scholars looking for someone to blame for the dismal state of our politics often end up pointing the finger at the same man: former U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) . Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank argue in a recent column (and in his new book “The Destroyers”) that Gingrich “bears singular responsibility for the hastening of the ruin of the American political system.”
It’s an attractive argument, especially to those of us who worked on the Hill when Gingrich was there and witnessed his incendiary political style. But while Gingrich helped change the way congressional parties operate, his critics greatly exaggerate his influence on American politics.
Even before he was first elected to Congress in 1978, Gingrich believed the Republican Party’s most important goal must be to regain control of the House from the Democrats, who had always been in charge of the chamber since 1955. As we explain in our new book on Gingrichthe freshman congressman devoted his next 16 years in office to establishing himself as a party contractor, devoting scarce resources both to helping advance the goal of a GOP majority and to pursue his own career.
Gingrich believed a GOP majority would emerge if the party nationalized the election, better differentiated itself from the opposition, and undermined the Democratic Party’s reputation. He and his allies weren’t afraid to use aggressive tactics in the process. They accused some Democrats of being communist sympathizers and others of being anti-American (or worse). Gingrich himself orchestrated a media campaign against House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) who suggested (with little evidence) that Wright was corrupt, leading to the Texan’s resignation from the presidency in 1989. The following year, GOPAC, l Gingrich’s campaign organization, urged Republican candidates use inflammatory words such as “traitors”, “shallow” and “sick” to describe their political opponents.
When Republicans finally took control of the House in 1994, Gingrich went from achieving to preserving his hard-fought majority. But being in charge didn’t make Gingrich soft. Instead, he redirected his energies to fighting President Clinton, trying — and failing — to get him to accept GOP spending cuts by forcing two federal government shutdowns.
Certainly, many of these tactics have helped persuade other Republicans to be more internally opposed and unified, and to focus on messaging rather than legislation. Gingrich also successfully recruited young, outspoken partisan Republicans to run for Congress, which gradually increased the number of like-minded lawmakers serving in the House.
Moreover, the 1994 elections did more than just give the Republicans a majority: they convinced lawmakers of both parties that such aggressive tactics were the key to gaining power, thus helping to institutionalize these strategies.
In this regard, Gingrich had a lasting influence on the norms of partisan behavior within Congress.
Yet Gingrich alone has not fattened our political eloquence. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, for example, was a master of provocative language and was heard by far more people than Gingrich. In 1990, Limbaugh’s show broadcast on nearly 300 radio stations and boasted more than 5 million weekly listeners. Its success helped boost the careers of other conservative commentators, such as Sean Hannity and Tucker-Carlsonwhich are watched by millions of Americans every day.
The rise of right-wing political commentary is just one of many external factors that have encouraged tough political discourse. Modern congressional elections are another. Gerrymandered House districts lead to less competitive elections, with one party dominating a particular district for years. Fewer rotating districts mean lawmakers are more likely to lose a primary election than a general election. As a result, they are incentivized to position themselves as more extreme on the assumption that that is what primary voters will prefer.
Another factor is affective polarization – negative attitudes towards people on the opposing side – which is considerable and growth among citizens, creating an additional incentive for politicians to denigrate their political opponents. And the rise of social media, which is dominated by hateful and angry rhetorichas almost certainly done more to encourage lawmakers to speak negatively about the opposing side than anything Gingrich could have done three decades ago.
Milbank and others note that Gingrich made baseless, conspiracy-like claims about his opponents, but such behavior has a pedigree that long predates Gingrich’s time in Congress. Conspiratorial language was a feature of the John Birch Society, for example. In a New York Times EssayRobert Draper interviewed a far-right Arizona state party leader who cited as his influence not Gingrich but rather 1950s red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.).
What about another common criticism of Gingrich, that he did lawmakers prefer filibuster to bipartisan cooperation? As a backbencher, Gingrich may have pushed hard for his colleagues to stop working with the majority party. But after suffering years of brutal rule by House Democrats, they needed little encouragement to do so. Filibuster was also not a particularly new idea, having been used effectively in the Senate by conservative Democrats like James Allen (Alabama) and, in 1968, by Backbencher Donald Rumsfeld (R-Ill.).
Even though Gingrich has made cross-party cooperation an unattractive strategy, the level of partisan conflict in our national legislature is greatly exaggerated. James Curry and Frances Lee documented how Congress acts bipartisan much more than the public realizes, as evidenced the accomplishments of the 117th Congress in the past few months alone.
In short, Gingrich should rightly be credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective) for helping shape the two parties in Congress into more unified entities that emphasize partisan stance on bipartisan legislation. . Yet despite his enduring influence, no one — not even Gingrich — can be held singularly responsible for all that plagues our political system.
Jeffrey Crouch is Assistant Professor of American Politics at American University and author of “The Power of Presidential Pardon” and “The Theory of the Unitary Executive: A Danger to Constitutional Government”. Matthew Green is a professor of American politics at the Catholic University of America, a former congressman, and the author of several books, including “Legislative Hardball: The House Freedom Caucus and the Power of Threat-Making in Congress.” Their new book, “Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur,” is published by University Press of Kansas.