Princeton historian and CNN Political Analyst Julian Zelizer shares the history of the "new" Republican party with Bruce McGuirk, leader of Pages Through the Ages, Westport Library's history discussion group. In BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party, Zelizer pinpoints the moment when our country was set on a path towards the current era of bitterly partisan politics, arguing that Newt Gingrich’s ruthless political strategies in the 1980s inspired some of the most divisive episodes in contemporary American politics.
If you missed this event, you can watch the recording in our video gallery here.
Elected to Congress in 1978, Gingrich quickly became one of the most powerful figures in America through a calculated campaign of attacks against political adversaries. He weaponized newly introduced government reforms against corruption and used them to attack his opponents. At the same time, post-Watergate investigative journalism--meant to hold Washington accountable--became a partisan weapon, as Gingrich and his allies manipulated well-meaning reporters. Gingrich routinely mixed fact and fiction and smeared opponents through a new, brass-knuckles form of politics. Ultimately, Gingrich orchestrated the demise of the most powerful Democrat in the country, Speaker Jim Wright, and led Republicans to their first majority in Congress in decades.
Gingrich’s brand of warfare worked not as a strategy for governance but as a path to power. What Gingrich planted, his fellow Republicans reaped, and Democrats failed to take an effective stand against this turn. Partisanship came to define how elected officials dealt with almost every issue, ranging from who should lead the parties to mundane budgeting matters to decisions over war and peace. We see Gingrich’s legacy throughout US politics today: The Republican Party’s denial of the 2020 election results, the misinformation campaign that contributed to the January 6th insurrection, and the enduring triumph of partisanship over political ideals all have links to the sea change that Gingrich created in the 1980s. Like a narrative alarm bell, BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE rings with urgency as Zelizer both enlightens us about a pivotal time in American life and provides essential context for America’s current political crisis.
Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, a CNN political analyst, and a contributor to NPR’s Here & Now. His most recent books are Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (co-authored with Kevin Kruse) and The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for best book on Congress. Zelizer has been awarded fellowships from the New-York Historical Society, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and New America.