When the topic of gridlock and tribalism in Congress arises, scholars often reflexively view the death of civility in terms of before and after the Newt Gingrich takeover. In Hillsdale College’s online course, “Congress: How It Worked and Why It Doesn’t,” Professor Kevin Portteus explains how the modern Congress has been equally shaped by Republicans, Democrats, and the changing American electorate.
Historians’ rose-colored glasses see the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s as times when members’ kids played baseball together and civility reigned. It’s the ’80s that are credited with the rise of temper tantrums and personal attacks.
“[Newt] 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,” writes McKay Coppins in The Atlantic. Gingrich’s arrival in Congress in the ’80s, and his infamous 1994 Republican Revolution, are often considered distinct events leading to the decline in bipartisanship and civility.
It was Gingrich and his allies who actively drove moderates out of the Republican Party. They were united in their unwillingness to compromise and opposition to anything Democrats proposed.
Portteus argues that evidence suggests the radicalization of Congress and more frequent ill treatment of the other side actually began a decade earlier than Gingrich’s arrival. After the Watergate election in the mid-1970s, the Republican Party was in shambles and Democrats gained one of the largest majorities in Congress any party had ever seen.
Democrats dominated Congress in a way that completely pushed Republicans out of participation. An insufficient number of Republican seats were made available on committees, and if Democrats did appoint a Republican to a committee, they wouldn’t tell the Republican members when meetings were held.
Even as Republicans won back seats after Jimmy Carter was elected president, the Democratic leadership maintained minuscule roles for Republicans. They used forceful tactics in exerting their power, like the time Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd sent Capitol Police to drag GOP Sen. Bob Packwood to the floor to keep a filibuster alive, or holding open votes until they were able to convince enough members to vote their way.
These events in the late 1970s led Republicans believe that not only did Democrats have no interest in working together, but they were also willing to steal elections to maintain power. Democrats were actually the original inventors of procedural tricks and stubborn sleight-of-hands that conventional wisdom now blames the Gingrich coalition for.
Scholars often imply that when Democrats are in control, they behave like civil moderates, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Blue Dog Democrats are essentially extinct, and the centrist moderates they claim to have are nowhere to be found.
But perhaps it’s not just the major parties who are to fully shoulder the blame for the radicalization of their tribes. The American people themselves have become polarized, and that is reflected in our legislature. We have two camps with fundamentally different views of justice, the role of government, and identity politics — and each camp sends representatives to D.C. to fight for their side. It seems Congress will not be to able find a middle ground until their voters do.