by Tony Wyman
We can spend 1907 words in this article beating around the bush, listing examples of how the Democratic Party contributes to the problem Americans have with the state of politics in our country.
There is, afterall, some meat to that argument. Clearly, the Democrats have their share of scoundrels who have lowered the level of civility and decency in American politics (I am looking at you, Rod Blagojevich).
But if we really want to speak the truth about why 70% of our countrymen are angry about the state of affairs in Washington, we need to look past the minor leaguers in the Democratic Party and go straight for the heavy hitters who changed American politics into what they are today.
We have to point the finger of blame at the Republican Party.
And if we are going to be completely truthful, we can’t pin all the blame on Donald Trump for the GOP’s decline into abject corruption. Certainly, Mr. Trump is the scion of a kleptocratic family polka dotted with disgraceful misconduct so reprehensible he should have been immediately dismissed as a serious candidate by the Republican Party.
And that should have taken place the minute he descended the elevator at Trump Tower to announce his plan to divide America and undermine our nation’s tradition of self-rule. I mean, to run for president. But the moral collapse of the GOP started way before that woeful day.
No, the transformation of the GOP from a force for political good to what it is today started before the 80’s with the rise of Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich.
Almost from the start of his tenure in Washington in 1979, Mr. Gingrich waged a calculated campaign to militarize the way members of the House and Senate dealt with each other, the way the two parties did the people’s business.
His inspiration was nature, specifically the brutal way in which species navigated their environments and competed with each other for the wild’s limited resources.
The Law of the Jungle
Mr. Gingrich, famously a passionate student of animal behavior, seemingly takes perverse pleasure in lecturing listeners about the lessons humans could learn from animals in the wild.
In a 2018 The Atlantic magazine interview, he told writer McKay Coppins that it was vital that humans learned from nature, that we saw nature, from which socialized human existence sprung, as “a very competitive, challenging world, at every level.” This world wasn’t “vicious,” as the writer suggested; it was, significantly, “natural,” in Mr. Gingrich’s view, showing humans how things should be.
It was this Machiavellian view of the natural order of things in the animal kingdom, this eat-or-be-eaten perspective, that Mr. Gingrich brought with him to the House of Representatives as a freshman member in 1979. And, from it, he changed the political environment there from one mostly congenial and civilized, yet partisan, to one where the law of the jungle ruled, where only the strongest and most ruthless deserved to survive.
Mr. Gingrich didn’t go to Washington to work with Democrats in the spirit of bipartisanship; he went there to start a right-wing revolution and wage a political war he knew would divide Americans and reduce national politics to a zero-sum bloodsport.
He launched politically-motivated ethics charges against Democratic opponents, mostly famously Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts who was reprimanded by Congress for being in a relationship with a male prostitute.
Gingrich proceeded in changing the right’s tone of discourse from one of reason and respect to unrestrained vitriol and hyperbole, and introduced a level of self-righteous pomposity that exists today in the mini-Newts in the House, people like Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert and Matt Gaetz.
Republicans, intimidated by Mr. Gingrich’s aggressive style, followed suit and joined him in accusing their Democratic colleagues of being enemies of American principles and values, calling them “crooks” and “thugs,” members so dishonest and dangerous they were “traitors,” rather than honest opponents promoting their vision for America.
Newt Gingrich Sows Political Wild Oats
Newt traveled the country, regaling enthralled crowds with his angry and pugilistic rhetoric, shepherding in a new style of campaigning against the Democrats, one relying not on reason, but on the emotional energy created by rancor and rage.
He threatened political civil war against the left, challenging their legitimacy to serve in office, and attacking their loyalty and patriotism.
Social conservatives in particular rose to their feet cheering when Mr. Gingrich said things like, “The values of the left cripple human beings, weaken cities, make it difficult for us to in fact survive as a country . . . The left in America is to blame for most of the current, major diseases which have struck this society.”
Members of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that claims to be “Building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish,” exploded in applause when Mr. Gingrich said Texas Democrat and Speaker of the House Jim Wright “will try by chameleon-like actions to destroy our country,” singling him out as a major impediment to the coming “civil war” with the left. “This war has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars,” Mr. Gingrich told the awe-struck conservatives at Heritage.
In a 1978 address to young college-aged Republicans, Mr. Gingrich, then a professor of geography at West Georgia College said, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words.” He said this to young, impressionable men and women looking for guidance on the role they should play in the GOP in the years to come.
It is in ideas like this, ideas rejecting faithfulness and courtesy in American politics, where we find the source of the seismic shift in the GOP that lead to Trumpism, to the end of civility and decency in the Republican Party’s approach to politics.
Here is the genesis of today’s scorched-earth partisanship, to the use of name-calling and slander instead of thoughtfulness to win votes; to the abandonment of reason and the reliance on easily-disproved conspiracy theories that appeal to the emotions of people who want to believe the worst in their political enemies.
Here, also, is the genesis of the use of obstructionism as a means to paralyze the government and neutralize the legitimacy of the voter-granted political power of the other side and to plunge Washington into a perpetual state of dysfunction. A dysfunction in which the power of the executive branch is amplified at the expense of a gridlocked Congress made impotent by partisan warfare.
“Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence,” wrote Mr. Coppins. “Twenty-five years after engineering the Republican Revolution, Gingrich can draw a direct line from his work in Congress to the upheaval now taking place around the globe. But as he surveys the wreckage of the modern political landscape, he is not regretful. He’s gleeful.”
That’s a charge Mr. Gingrich doesn’t even try to deny. ““The old order is dying. Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working.”
And is such discord and division, such loss of faith in institutions and traditions, a good thing? Mr. Coppins asked “It’s essential if you want Western civilization to survive.” replied Mr. Gingrich. In other words, to save the political village that is America, you first have to destroy it.
Newt Gingrich and the politics of the battlefield – in victory, the seeds of failure
That is how today’s GOP, the birth child of Newt Gingrich, sees politics in America: as a battlefield upon which the fate of Western civilization will be determined.
And a battlefield isn’t a place where two opposing sides find ways to work together for the common good; it is a place where one side slaughters the other in the pursuit of imposing its will upon the vanquished. The civilizing handshake of democracy is replaced by the brutal thrust of a political bayonet.
The problem with this is that when a party moves so far from convention, when it abandons the give-and-take inherent in a two party system of self-rule, it leaves no room for compromise, no means by which the nation’s government can deal effectively and constructively with the challenges facing the country. And that is what is happening in the GOP.
Since 1975, the “average ideology” of a typical Republican has moved dramatically towards the extreme right. Self-identified Republicans in 1975, averaged approximately 57 on the scale (0 being extremely liberal with 100 being extremely conservative). In 2018, that number exceeded 70 for the first time in the survey’s history.
Furthermore, a Gallup poll showed that 57% of Republicans want their party to become even more conservative, while 54% of Democrats want the DNC to become more moderate.
At the same time, the GOP is becoming older, whiter and less educated than the country, as a whole, meaning it is less likely to reform in the future, more likely to become even more strident and regressive than it is now. Today’s GOP is likely to be tomorrow’s, as well, even after the end of the Trump presidency.
Stridency Instead of Moderation
There are also virtually no moderates left in national offices in the Republican Party. Only nine members of the GOP scored below a Democrat on the American Conservative Union conservative scale in 2018. Nearly four times the number of Republicans (221 to 59) had conservative ratings of 70 or better than did members scoring 69 or lower.
And it is getting harder and harder for moderates in the GOP to win or retain seats. Those who fail any of the party’s litmus test issues – abortion, gun control, border control, religious freedom, tax cuts, climate change, support for President Trump – routinely find themselves challenged in the primaries and shunned by conservative PACs and fundraisers.
“The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy,” wrote career GOP staffer Mike Lofgren, “and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”
If the health of our democracy is going to be restored, it is vital the Republican Party rejects the scorched earth political guerrilla warfare tactics introduced by Newt Gingrich more than four decades ago.
The GOP must return to its historic past of promoting its vision of America through reasoned and rational argument, paying homage to and respecting the truth, as well as America’s traditions and institutions. It must reject the politics of the jungle and, instead, return civility to the halls of Congress and the White House.
If it fails to do these things, continuing, instead, down the path set for it by Mr. Gingrich, the future of the American Republic is in question.