The deterioration of the Republican Party and the coarsening of national politics began with Newt Gingrich. Elected to the US House of Representatives in 1978, Gingrich arrived in Washington from Georgia with the goal of destroying politics as usual, which relied on Republicans and Democrats working together, compromising, and being civil toward each other. He argued that if the GOP ever wanted to defeat Democrats – who had controlled both the House and the Senate since the elections of 1954 – they needed to adopt an unforgiving style of partisanship employing character assassination and tearing down of governing institutions.
“If you teach them (Republicans) how to be aggressive and confrontational,” Gingrich wrote to House Minority Leader Robert Michel, “you will increase their abilities to fight Democrats on the floor.” If the GOP did become more aggressive, Gingrich believed, it would always remain the minority party.
When he became the Speaker of the House, Gingrich played a key role in undermining democratic norms in the United States and hastening political polarization and partisanship. According to Harvard University political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, Gingrich’s speakership had a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the health of American democracy. They argue that Gingrich instilled a “combative” approach in the Republican Party, in which hateful language and hyper-partisanship became commonplace.
Gingrich frequently questioned the patriotism of Democrats, calling them corrupt, comparing them to fascists, and accusing them of wanting to destroy the United States. University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason cites Gingrich’s instructions to Republicans to use words such as “betray, bizarre, decay, destroy, devour, greed, lie, pathetic, radical, selfish, shame, sick, steal, and traitors” when speaking about Democrats, fueling partisan prejudice and weakening social norms.
Boston College political scientist David Hopkins noted that Gingrich’s approach “directly contradicts the conventional wisdom of politics…that in a two-party system achieve increasing electoral success as they move closer to the ideological center…Gingrich and his allies believed that an organized effort to intensify the ideological contrast between the congressional parties would allow the Republicans to make electoral inroads in the South. They worked energetically to tie individual Democratic incumbents to the individual party’s more liberal national leadership while simultaneously raising highly charged cultural issues in Congress, such as proposed constitutional parliaments to allow prayer in public and to ban the burning of the American flag, on which conservative positions were widely popular, especially among southern voters.”
Gingrich and his cohort showed little interest in actually legislating, a task that had previously been seen as the primary responsibility of legislators. He paved the way for Republicans who have almost no interest in governance.
So how is it that the party of Lincoln allowed itself to become the party of Trump? For years, Republicans have sent their base into ever-greater rage with paranoia, conspiracy theories, lies, and denialism. McKay Coppin, writing about “The Man Who Broke Politics” for The Atlantic magazine, wrote, “Tomorrow morning, when these people turn on the news, they will see footage of a reckless president (Trump) who ascended to the White House on the power of televised politics. In a few months, their airwaves will be polluted with nasty attack ads. They will read stories about partisan impeachment efforts, and looming government shutdowns, and lawmakers more adept at name-calling than passing legislation. And though he won’t be there to say it in person, Gingrich will be somewhere out in the world…thinking, ‘You’re welcome.’
But with the advent of cable news, the internet, and the rise of social media, Republicans don’t have to “turn on the news” or “read stories.” Their message is all there all the time on Fox News, Facebook, and Twitter.
Over the last 20 years, the percentage of Americans who consistently hold liberal or conservative beliefs – rather than a mix of the two, which is true of most people – has doubled from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. At the same time, feels about the other side are becoming more negative. Since 1994, the number of Americans who see the opposing political party as a threat to “the nation’s well-being” has also doubled. This deepening polarization has given rise to violent protests and scathing attacks on elected officials. Could social media be driving polarization?
Pizzagate, QAnon, vaccines contain microchips, Trump won reelection – none of these unrealities would have reached the levels of belief they have without Facebook and Twitter.
Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that reinforce successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three, undermining trust in governments, news media, and people and institutions in general. This connection between social media and polarization weakens democracy.
Is polarization the new norm?
Mark Berg is a community activist in Adams County and a proud Liberal. His email address is MABerg175@Comcast.net.