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A Political Disaster Caused by Newt Gingrich?

The same individual is frequently singled out by pundits and academics as the culprit for the depressing state of our politics: former House Speaker and U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Gingrich “bears a sole responsibility for initiating the downfall of the American democratic system,” claims Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in a recent essay and in his new book, “The Destructionists.”

It’s a compelling case, particularly for those of us who worked on Capitol Hill under Gingrich and have firsthand experience with his inflammatory political rhetoric.

However, even though Gingrich did contribute to altering how legislative parties function, his detractors vastly exaggerate his impact on American politics.

Gingrich believed that regaining control of the House from the Democrats, who had held it continuously since 1955, should be the Republican Party’s top priority even before he was first elected to office in Congress in 1978.

As we detail in our brand-new book about Gingrich, the congressman spent the majority of his remaining 16 years in office building himself as a party entrepreneur, allocating limited resources to both achieve the GOP majority goal and advance his own career.

If the GOP nationalized elections, better distinguished itself from the opposition, and damaged the Democratic Party’s standing, Gingrich felt, a GOP majority would emerge.

In the process, he and his associates weren’t reluctant to employ violent methods. They alleged that some Democrats were un-American and others had communist sympathies (or worse). House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) resigned from his position in 1989 as a result of Gingrich’s media campaign, which implied (with no evidence) that Wright was corrupt.

The following year, GOPAC, Gingrich’s political operation, advised Republican candidates to disparage their political rivals with incendiary terms like “traitors,” “shallow,” and “sick.”

Gingrich changed his focus from achieving to maintaining his arduous majority when Republicans eventually took control of the House in 1994. Gingrich, however, remained firm despite being in command.

Instead, he refocused his efforts on President Clinton, making two partial government shutdowns in an attempt—failed—to persuade him to accept GOP budget cutbacks.

Undoubtedly, a lot of these strategies contributed to other Republicans becoming more oppositional, more cohesive internally, and more focused on the message than on legislation.

Additionally, Gingrich was effective in persuading brash, partisan young Republicans to run for office, steadily increasing the proportion of like-minded representatives in the House.

In addition, the 1994 election did more than just give the majority to the Republicans; it also persuaded lawmakers from both parties that such aggressive strategies were essential for gaining control, aiding in the institutionalization of these tactics.


In this regard, Gingrich has had a long-lasting impact on the standards of partisan conduct in Congress.

Gingrich did not, however, doom our political discourse on his own. Rush Limbaugh, a radio pundit, was an expert at using aggressive language, and he was heard by many more people than Gingrich.

By 1990, more than 5 million people were listening to Limbaugh’s program each week on about 300 radio stations.

Other conservative commentators like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who are viewed by millions of Americans every day, benefited from his popularity by advancing their careers.

Several external forces have encouraged strong political speech, among them the rise of right-wing political commentary. Another example is the current congressional elections.

House districts that have been gerrymandered provide less competitive elections where one party can maintain control for many years.

Since there are fewer swing districts, politicians are more likely to lose a primary than a general election. Because they believe that primary voters will favour this, they are motivated to present themselves as more extremist.

Another issue is emotional polarization, which refers to citizens’ widespread and growing hostility toward members of the opposing party.

This gives politicians an added incentive to disparage their political rivals. And more than anything Gingrich may have done three decades ago, the rise of social media, which is characterized by vicious and enraged discourse, has almost likely encouraged lawmakers to speak disparagingly about the rival party.

Milbank and other critics point out that Gingrich made irrational, conspiratorial assertions about his rivals, but this type of conduct has a long history that dates back well before Gingrich’s time in Congress.

For instance, the John Birch Society was known for its conspiratorial discourse. Robert Draper interviewed a far-right leader of the Arizona state party who credited Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Red-baiting senator from the 1950s, as her influence rather than Newt Gingrich (R-Wis.).

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What about a different widespread complaint against Gingrich, that he led politicians to favour obstruction above cross-party cooperation?

Gingrich may have exerted considerable pressure on his fellow backbenchers to stop cooperating with the majority party.

However, they barely needed much encouragement to do so following years of oppression at the hands of House Democrats.

In fact, obstruction wasn’t even a very novel concept; it had been successfully employed in the Senate by conservative Democrats like James Allen (Ala.) and by House backbencher Donald Rumsfeld in 1968. (R-Ill.).

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Even if Gingrich did make bipartisanship unattractive, the extent of partisanship in our national legislature is substantially overstated.

The achievements of the 117th Congress in just the last few months show how James Curry and Frances Lee have shown that Congress acts in a bipartisan manner much more frequently than the public is aware of.

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