How Clinton and Gingrich started the great American divide

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In 1984, a brash young congressman from Georgia seized the House floor, night after night, and denounced the ruling party to an empty chamber. The “permanent Democratic majority,” in power for 30 years, ignored Newt Gingrich — who was a nuisance even to his GOP leadership.

But the backbencher had a mighty tool: a television camera. C-SPAN was in its infancy, and Gingrich weaponized it. His inflammatory TV rhetoric goaded Speaker Tip O’Neill into a shouting match on the House floor that galvanized the House minority — and its constituents. The Republican congressional comeback had begun.

“Gingrich went around his party and the major media outlets and found a way to get to the grass roots,” says Steve Kornacki, NBC News political correspondent and author of “The Red and the Blue” (Ecco), out now.

“A generation later, we saw Donald Trump doing that same thing with Twitter,” Kornacki told The Post. “And just like we never thought we’d see a President Trump, nobody ever thought they’d see a Speaker Newt Gingrich.”

Our politics today were molded by the tumultuous period leading up to the 2000 election, when the nation split right down the middle over Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore in the closest presidential contest in modern history.

In November 2000, the media settled on a color scheme — red for Republicans, blue for Democrats — to represent the two sides of a national divide that in our day has become tribal in its intensity.

“Today we take it as a given, red versus blue,” Kornacki said. “But so much of it is a product of what happened in the 1990s” between Gingrich and his nemesis, Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, who campaigned as a centrist, entered the White House hobbled after taking only 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992’s three-way presidential race. That left him beholden to the powerful Democrat-majority Congress.

Gingrich, by then the central strategist of the House GOP, still wielded confrontation as a strategy — and offered no compromises.

“With a Democratic Congress and no help from the Republicans, Clinton governed like a liberal Democrat,” Kornacki said. In his first two years, the new president stumbled into controversies over gays in the military, his wife Hillary’s health-care plan, and a massively unpopular tax bill.

‘It’s never been easier to surround yourself with the views that you like hearing and insulate yourself from what you don’t like hearing.’

Gingrich played up the ideological gap for all it was worth, issuing a conservative “Contract with America” in 1994 ahead of Clinton’s first midterm election. The GOP’s 54-seat pickup flipped the House into a Republican majority for the first time in four decades.

“Gingrich thought the 1994 midterm was the last step before finishing off the Democratic Party for good,” Kornacki said. “Instead, Clinton turned his presidency around. It worked well for Clinton to have the House Republicans as a foil.” He won a second term in 1996.

But his constant sparring with Gingrich’s contentious House only deepened the national divide. The government shutdown in 1995, the lengthy Whitewater investigation and ultimately the House impeachment vote in 1998 all led directly to the bitter, weeks-long recount brawl of 2000.

At the same time, the rise of alternative information sources — first talk radio, then political blogs and Internet news sites and finally social media — cultivated radically different red and blue worldviews.

“It’s never been easier to surround yourself with the views that you like hearing and insulate yourself from what you don’t like hearing,” Kornacki said. “Within that media ecosystem, those voices only reinforce each other — and the distance between us increases.”

Trading on those divisions has paid off for both parties over the last two decades. Ticket splitting and swing voting has declined sharply as more Americans stick with only one faction or the other at the ballot box.

Today, both parties recognize that turnout is everything. Months after the 2016 election, political analysts crunched the data and found that crossover voters — individuals who pulled the lever for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 — were too few to have been the difference makers. Instead, disaffected Democrats in key states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania had chosen not to vote at all, tipping the balance in those closely divided states toward the Republicans.

“As human beings, we are almost hard-wired for tribalism,” Kornacki said. “And the way our media and our political parties evolved over the last generation has been maximally conducive to that very human impulse being fed.”

He pointed to a 2017 study by political scientist Lynn Vavreck that asked both Democrats and Republicans if they would object to their son or daughter marrying a spouse from the opposite political party.

“Most of them — 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans — said yes, they would object,” Kornacki said. “You used to get numbers like that on polls asking about interracial or interreligious marriage. Now you’re talking about that kind of prejudice extending to political parties.”

In other words, our party identification has come to mean something far beyond the issues of the day.

“It’s now a very central part of our personal identity, our community identity and our cultural identity,” Kornacki said. “It doesn’t seem like a healthy thing.”

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