Bookman: Newt Gingrich is father of today’s compromise-is-surrender GOP politics

February 3, 2023 7:00 am

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during the America First Agenda Summit on July 26, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In an NBC News poll last month, just 23% of Americans said they believe the country is headed in the right direction. Among Republicans, just 7% liked the way things are going. (Among Democrats it was 41%.)

In any country with such deep discontent within a major faction, this one included, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a rising tide of extremism, even desperation, on the right. To the contrary, when such a significant portion of a population loses almost all faith in their country, its institutions, and its future, an inclination toward political violence should almost be expected. It is difficult to love this country yet no longer have faith in it or its future.

It also presents a challenge to leaders on the right. Do they recognize the dangers of that growing frustration and work to try to restore public confidence and heal the breach, or do they play to it and provoke it, seeking power by telling their voters that such of lack of faith and confidence is justified?

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks during a hearing, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)

Unfortunately, most have chosen that second course of action. Even worse, if your grip on power depends on convincing people that government doesn’t work, the incentive structure rewards you when you prove that viewpoint accurate.

A new poll conducted here in Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution offers another perspective on the problem. In the poll, conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, voters were asked whether it was more important for elected officials to compromise to find solutions to our problems, or to stand firm on principle even if it means that no progress can be made.

Again, the partisan differences were stark. Overall, voters embraced compromise, with 54% telling pollsters they valued negotiated compromise over principled stalemate. Among Democrats, 71% said they wanted negotiated solutions. However, a plurality of Georgia Republicans – 48% — said they don’t want compromise, they want principled stalemate, with a minority of 40% willing to pursue compromise.

Corrosive character

You can see that sentiment play out in the cast of characters that Georgia Republicans have elected to Congress, with representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde. It’s a testament to the corrosive power of gerrymandering that a purple state that voted for Joe Biden and has elected two Democratic senators has a GOP House delegation that is one of the more extreme in the country.

And if you start to look back, wondering how it was that we got into this situation, Georgia again plays a prominent role.  A growing number of historians and political scientists have identified Newt Gingrich, a Georgia congressman and later speaker of the House, as Patient Zero for our political dysfunction. Back in the early ’90s, Gingrich told the world that he was setting out to alter the tone and character of American politics, and, unfortunately for all of us, he has largely kept that promise.

Much of that scholarly analysis has centered on Gingrich’s advocacy of angry, over-the-top rhetoric as a political weapon, which indeed has had an impact. That approach, combined with the rise of social media, has made talking to each other difficult amid the yelling and screaming.

However, I would argue that the deeper pathology has proved to be a related Gingrichian premise, that compromise is surrender. I’m not sure if Gingrich himself has ever put it in such stark, simple terms — “Compromise is surrender” — but it’s an accurate distillation of his mindset.

And if compromise is surrender, it’s hard to see a pathway out of this.

Compromise or dominion

Basically, there are two ways to enact and implement changes in government policy. One is compromise; the other is domination. Domination is the means by which many European countries govern themselves. In a European parliamentary system, the party or coalition that controls the legislative branch often controls the executive branch as well, which makes policy easy to enact and carry out.

There are few checks and balances on power in such a system. Gingrich, who holds a doctorate in European political history, gravitated toward that approach both by training and temperament.

However, the Founders had also studied the British parliamentary system, and they had other ideas. The Constitution as they designed it is a compromise-forcing machine, with domination possible only in very rare political circumstances. And as we’ve seen, trying to operate a constitutional system of checks and balances with a parliamentary mindset of domination is like trying to run a gasoline engine on diesel fuel.

As long as compromise is surrender, our constitutional system can’t work, and the pessimism that permeates much of the country is likely to remain a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note: This article is republished from the Georgia Recorder, a member with the Phoenix of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman is a columnist at the Georgia Recorder, a media outlet of the States Newsroom. He covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He was awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press. The Florida Phoenix is part of the nonprofit States Newsroom.