The Limits of Highmindedness

Review: 'The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism' by Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki / Getty Images

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The political reporter Steve Kornacki wants to rise above the fray. You can see it in the first few pages of The Red and the Blue, his new book on the 1990s birth of tribalism in American politics. You can see it in the occasional sententious asides. You can see it in the hortatory conclusion. All of it is goo, of course—a little pomposity, a little pleonasm, an attempt or two at highmindedness, and there we are: the fray, successfully risen above.

That's not a crime, of course, or even necessarily a fault. Think of it as a nod toward the gods of fair play. Both sides do it, and No side is free of blame—we used to understand such pronouncements as required gestures in public-intellectual publication, especially from journalists trying to do a little deep-thinking in book-length writing. By the old understanding of their profession, they were supposed to be neutral and profoundly skeptical about all political claims. For that matter, deep-thinking by its nature is supposed to avoid partisanship—especially when, as in Kornacki's book, it looks back at old political issues, long after the partisan dust has settled.

The trouble is that highmindedness ain't what it used to be. A perch above the fray proves illusory when all the information available has already passed through the ovens of partisanship and been left baked. Or half baked. Subtitling his book The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, Kornacki wants to explore the present by means of the past, explaining the origin of the era of Donald Trump by looking to the days of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

There's something to this. In the trivial sense, that's because history is, you know, historical: The recent past influences the present because the present doesn't emerge from nothing; what occurred yesterday has effects on what occurs today. Who would be surprised that the happenings of the 1990s helped define the possibilities of the 2010s?

In The Red and the Blue, however, Kornacki seeks a stronger sense for his thesis that the recent past created the present. The politics of the 1990s, he thinks, are uniquely influential, shaping our situation now far more than, say, the 1980s or the 2000s. Far more than the 1960s or the 1970s, as far as that goes. For good or for ill—and mostly for ill, he thinks—Clinton and Gingrich made us who we are.

Again, there's something to this. The Red and the Blue oversells the uniqueness of the 1990s. The 1850s were far crazier, the 1960s far weirder, and we could find several other decades that shaped their subsequent eras much more comprehensively than the 1990s shaped the 2010s. Still, something was born in the political machinations of Clinton and Gingrich that does pass down to the fervor surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump. Something happened then that would grow into what's happening now.

Mostly, for Kornacki, the blame belongs with Newt Gingrich. Bill Clinton certainly helped, but the Clinton machine was forced to behave the way it did because the good-guy Democrats needed to fight the bad-guy Republicans—who, led by Gingrich, were determined to break American politics.

As The Red and the Blue tells the story, the Democrats' decades-long control of the House of Representatives was in essence nonpartisan, the result of a kind of American agreement about how effective government would work. When Gingrich was first elected in 1979, he wanted to break that agreement, even if the result was an end to good feeling and good government. If the Republicans were able to win large presidential majorities, then the reason they did not control Congress must be that congressional elections were not nationalized. If they forced even local campaigns to be about national politics, the Republicans would win. And they did with the victories in the 1994 election that made Gingrich the first Republican speaker of the House since Eisenhower was president.

Meanwhile, a dynamic young Democratic politician named Bill Clinton was rising, falling, and rising again in Arkansas. Perceiving that the Republicans were breaking the old norms, he figured out that he could squeeze his way into the White House in the 1992 election by cobbling together the stray bits of the old Democratic bases—especially the unions and his own Southern roots—with the more recent coalition of "campus, ghetto, suburb" that McGovern had begun to form. Add in a Democratic field of more established figures reluctant to run against what seemed the strength of George H.W. Bush. Toss in an outsider campaign by Ross Perot (read by Kornacki as a proto-Trump). Stir in a bit of triangulation, promising a centrist government. And there we are: Bill Clinton as president. A Bill Clinton who, alas, was forced by Newt Gingrich to practice a destructive form of politics that required tribalization.

Al D'Amato, Zoë Baird, Jesse Jackson, and other figures of the time make appearances in The Red and the Blue—especially Pat Buchanan, whom the book poses as an especially important catalyst to the creation of American political tribalism in the 1990s. No Pat Buchanan, no George W. Bush in 2000, in Kornacki's view. No Buchanan, no Trump in 2016, for that matter.

And one last time, there's something to this. Not as much, however, as MSNBC's Steve Kornacki thinks. One problem with The Red and the Blue is that it generally mistakes symptoms for causes. Gingrich didn't come from nowhere or spring full-grown from his own head. The political battles of the 1990s were determined in some important ways by older politics, reaching at least as far back as the 1972 McGovern campaign and Nixon's subsequent impeachment. The high-liberal consensus of the 1940s and 1950s was breaking down long before Newt Gingrich got his hands on it.

The greater problem with The Red and the Blue, however, is that Kornacki proves tribal without knowing it or even wanting it. Racism is the only explanation he can find for anyone voting Republican after Buchanan. (Or after Reagan, he suggests. Or even after Nixon's "Southern strategy.") Bill Clinton comes in for his share of complaint, in line with a post-Obama, post-Hillary Democratic view that he needn't be entirely defended anymore. But everything Gingrich did in those days, along with every Republican effort, is reported as though the partisan Democratic talking points of the 1990s were accurate, nonpartisan history. Democrats sometimes reluctantly set principle aside to fight as dirty as their opponents. Gingrich Republicans had no principles; breaking politics was their only goal.

Why should we expect tribalistic talking points to provide an explanation for the birth of tribalism? In his way, Steve Kornacki may be a good proof of his own thesis. He wants to be fair and high-minded, perched above the fray. But he can't quite manage it—because, if he's right, there's nowhere left to perch.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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