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

February 2, 2023 1:00 am

Columnist Jay Bookman opines that a deep pathology in the U.S. body politic is a Gingrichian premise, that compromise is surrender. This photo shows Newt Gingrich at a fall 2022 GOP meeting at the U.S. Capitol. Kevin Dietsch/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? 

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. 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 current 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 amidst 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.

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.


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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.