BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party
By Julian E. Zelizer
When did American politics take the wrong turn that led to our present era of endless partisan warfare and hyperpolarization? According to the Princeton University history professor Julian E. Zelizer, politics went pear-shaped in the period from January 1987 to March 1989, when the maverick Republican representative Newt Gingrich rose to power, which culminated in the forced resignation of Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. Zelizer makes a convincing case that Gingrich not only “legitimated ruthless and destructive practices that had once been relegated to the margins,” he also helped to degrade Congress’s institutional legitimacy and paved the way for the anti-establishment presidency of Donald Trump.
Although “Burning Down the House” is not the first history to cast Gingrich as lead assassin in the murder of bipartisanship and effective governance, it is an insightful if deeply unflattering portrait of Gingrich himself, highlighting his signature traits of arrogance, ferocity, amorality and shoulder-shrugging indifference to truth. It’s not surprising that Gingrich declined the author’s interview request. And the book’s narrow time frame, which stops well short of Gingrich’s leading the House Republicans to their 1994 electoral triumph and his subsequent elevation as speaker, supplies a detailed and nuanced historical context that makes Gingrich’s actions more understandable if not excusable.
Gingrich first won election to Congress in 1978, representing a district based mainly in the northern Atlanta suburbs. It was a transitional moment when an older generation of Southern Democrats was being displaced in Congress both by reform Democratic “Watergate babies” and a rising wave of conservative Republicans like Gingrich. Zelizer’s masterly 1998 work, “Taxing America,” focused on one of those old Southern Democrats, Wilbur Mills, who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from the 1950s through the 1970s.
[ Read an excerpt from ”Burning Down the House.” ]
Gingrich’s adversary, Jim Wright, was a Texan born in 1922, from a political generation between Mills (born in 1909) and Gingrich (born in 1943). A protégé of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, he was sufficiently a part of the old Southern Democratic tradition that he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But he soon regretted that vote and supported the Voting Rights Act the next year.
Zelizer’s portrait of Mills made clear that many of the old Southern Democratic committee chairmen were inclusive dealmakers concerned to reach bipartisan agreements and move legislation forward — with the glaring exception of any issue involving race. Zelizer doesn’t quite spell this out, but while Wright clearly was not a racist of the old stripe, neither was he a dealmaker of the same caliber as they were. That was partly because the post-Watergate reforms prevented the kingpins from negotiating behind closed doors, and partly because of ideological sorting within the parties. But it was also because House Democrats by the 1980s, convinced that Republicans would be permanently in the minority, regularly abused their majority power.
Democrats denied minority legislators adequate staff, excluded them from committee deliberations, gerrymandered their districts and even, Republicans were convinced, stole elections. Wright piously recorded in his diary that Republicans were making it impossible to “rely upon the gentlemen’s rules which have prevailed for all of my 30 years in Congress,” but the speaker broke plenty of norms himself with his parliamentary rule-bending. And despite the Watergate babies’ desire to remove money from politics, the Democrats did little to halt the stream of funds from lobbyists, private money and special interests that flowed principally to the majority party.
Those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Democratic bullying made moderate Republicans willing to empower Gingrich — their support was critical to his election as minority whip in 1989 over a more conciliatory candidate — and to tolerate his scorched-earth tactics. Gingrich insisted that the only way to end the Democrats’ four-decades-long majority was for Republicans to destroy Congress in order to save it. They would have to “put aside their concern for governance until they regained power,” according to Zelizer. They would seek to persuade the public that Congress had become “morally, intellectually and spiritually corrupt,” in Gingrich’s words, and to overthrow Speaker Wright as the embodiment of that illegitimate establishment. In pursuit of these ends all means were permissible, including the shattering of traditional customs, the destruction of opponents’ reputations and the embrace of maneuvers long held to be off-limits, like shutting down the government.
Zelizer argues that Gingrich made the media unwitting accomplices to his partisan crusade, just as the unscrupulous anti-Communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy had done in the 1950s. “The number-one fact about the news media,” Gingrich observed, “is they love fights.” By provoking confrontations with the Democrats, Gingrich would gain media attention — even more so when he succeeded in goading the Democrats into retaliation, which he portrayed as further evidence of their tyranny. The Woodward-and-Bernstein-inspired influx of young investigative reporters into Washington, most of them educated and well intentioned but ignorant of the practical operation of politics, offered a decisive opportunity for Gingrich, who “instinctively grasped the possibilities for taking advantage of their idealism.”
Zelizer sees Gingrich’s “masterstroke” as the co-option of reform-oriented institutions that, in Watergate’s wake, were supposed to make government more accountable and progressive. The ethics charges that Gingrich brought against Wright were, in Zelizer’s view, mostly spurious. But scandal-seeking journalists served Gingrich’s cause by churning out so many thinly sourced stories about Wright’s supposedly shady involvement with Texas oil executives and bankers that the leading good-government organization, Common Cause, felt compelled to call upon the House Ethics Committee to investigate him. This instantly transformed what otherwise would have seemed “a shabby partisan coup” into a respectable campaign, giving cover to Republicans who previously were reluctant to enlist in Gingrich’s vendetta and undercutting Wright’s Democratic defenders. From then it was just a matter of time until Wright was forced out.
Zelizer provides a moving description of Wright’s farewell address, in which the resigning speaker decried the “mindless cannibalism” that had overtaken politics, and he delivers an eloquent indictment of all those responsible for Wright’s downfall. These include Gingrich, of course, along with the journalists and good-government organizations he made his patsies. But they also include the Democrats who failed to stand by Wright, thus incentivizing Republicans “to ramp up their efforts and engage in even more brutal fights,” and Wright himself, who couldn’t adapt to a new era of partisan warfare.
Zelizer reserves some of his harshest verdicts for the Republican Party leaders who naïvely believed they could harness Gingrich’s insurgency. He acidly observes that while Republican gatekeepers of the early 1950s used McCarthy to attack their opponents, they never made the renegade senator their leader. Many, perhaps most of the Republicans of the Gingrich era deplored what the minority leader Bob Michel called “trashing the institution.” But Republicans who upheld reasoned opposition, bipartisan compromise, civil discourse and mutual respect deceived themselves about their ability to control the revolution and ended up being devoured by it. To quote the Talking Heads song that shares the title of this book, “Watch out — you might get what you’re after.”
Many social scientists believe that the partisan polarization that now afflicts us was all but inevitable, a byproduct of geographic and ideological sorting that led to more consistently ideological parties. If Newt Gingrich hadn’t pursued no-holds-barred partisan warfare, according to this line of thinking, someone else would have. But Zelizer forcefully counters that this view “denies agency to the politicians and leaders who pushed partisan combat into a deeper abyss at very specific moments.” The battle to overthrow Wright, he concludes, was one of those critical turning points “from which Washington never recovered.”
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“The wait of centuries is over” were the words of Narendra Modi, as the Indian prime minister laid the foundation stone of a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya last week.
“This was the greatest dream of our youth, and now it has been accomplished” was how Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it, shortly before the Turkish president led the prayers in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on July 24, after its reconversion to a mosque.
Mr Modi is a Hindu nationalist. Mr Erdogan is an Islamist. The Indian and Turkish leaders look like potential rivals in a clash of civilisations. But they are pursuing political projects that are mirror images.
Both are champions of a brand of politics that seeks to fuse religion, the nation and the leader. Both lead countries with secular constitutions but want to place religion back at the heart of the nation and the state.
Mr Modi launched his political career in the 1990s, by campaigning for the destruction of a mosque at Ayodhya and its replacement with a Hindu temple — an ambition he finally realised last week. Mr Erdogan has long demanded that the Hagia Sophia — inaugurated as a basilica in 537, converted into a mosque from 1453 and then a museum from 1935 — should once again become a Muslim place of worship. After 17 years in power, the Turkish leader has achieved his ambition.
Both leaders have grandiose views of themselves as refounders of their own nations. Mr Modi calls himself the champion of a “new India”. Mr Erdogan talks of a “new Turkey”. This common language reflects more than a weakness for the same kind of marketing-speak.
In rejecting secularism, both the Indian and the Turkish leaders have placed themselves tacitly in conflict with the founding fathers of their modern nations. Kemal Ataturk, the creator of the Turkish republic, was an alcohol-drinking secularist. Mohandas Gandhi, who led the campaign for Indian independence, was a champion of religious pluralism and was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
In rejecting secularism, Erdogan-supporting Islamists and Modi-supporting Hindu nationalists argue that their chosen leaders are returning Turkey and India back to their authentic religious and cultural roots — and away from the alien traditions of the west, championed by secular urban elites. The most ardent fans of Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan argue that, in time, the current leaders of India and Turkey will come to be seen as greater and more significant figures than Gandhi or Ataturk.
Both Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan also aspire to be leaders of a global faith community. Digital renderings of the new temple in Ayodhya were beamed on to a giant billboard in Times Square in New York, presumably as an inspiration to expatriate Indians. Mr Erdogan has claimed that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia” represents the “will of Muslims all over the world”.
For two such important nations to turn their backs on secularism and liberal values is significant in itself. But the changes in India and Turkey are also part of a broader global story of the rise of identity politics at the expense of liberal universalism. This is a story that, in different ways, is also playing out in China, Russia, the US and Europe. It is closely linked to the rise of strongman leaders, who claim to be protectors of a faith, a nation or a chosen ethnic group, or some fusion of all three.
In China, President Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation involves an increasingly ruthless suppression of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has forged close links with the Russian Orthodox Church as part of his nationalist project. In the US, Donald Trump has promised evangelical voters that with him in the White House, “Christianity will have power”.
The current coronavirus-driven economic slump strengthens the temptation for strongman leaders to play the identity card. In their first terms in office, Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan stressed their credentials as economic reformers. But with the Turkish and Indian economies in deep trouble, both leaders need other means of rallying support.
The ceremonies at Ayodhya and the Hagia Sophia were perfect ways of stirring the emotions of their core supporters. Secular liberals in India and Turkey were mostly reluctant to come out in open opposition to these crowd-pleasing measures. In both countries, liberals are already aghast at what they see as an assault on fundamental liberties, such as the freedom of the press and independence of the courts. The process is significantly more advanced in Turkey, but Mr Erdogan has been in power for a decade longer than Mr Modi.
Identity politics thrives on division and distinctions between friends and enemies. Often, the focus is on the “enemy within”, such as religious or ethnic minorities, or liberal elites. But strongman leaders also have to be seen to be tough with the nation’s enemies overseas. Mr Erdogan has committed Turkish troops to wars in Libya and Syria. Mr Modi authorised a bombing raid on militant camps in Pakistan, just ahead of the 2019 election.
A rejection of secularism and an embrace of identity politics is a potent way of rallying political support. But, both at home and abroad, it is also a recipe for conflict.
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