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.
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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.