The essential nature of Gingrich’s insurgency in the House and his conduct as Speaker was the destruction of the informal institutions of American governance. By “informal institutions,” I mean those habits and customs outside of formal, written law that make democracy work. Some things are simply not done; everyone agrees to resist the temptation for political advantage in order to make the system work.I would add two points. First, when the Bush crew came in, they destroyed a whole fresh set of norms. They politicized hiring in the Justice Department; they advanced absurdly sweeping "theories" of executive power, asserting that the president has the right to abrogate any treaty and any law if he deems doing so necessary to the national defense; they institutionalized torture of suspects as official U.S. policy, putting the U.S. in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture; they set back the global advance of human rights fifty years.
Gingrichism is the philosophy that all means short of illegality are fair game in the struggle for political power. He came to the fore in the House minority by personal attacks on other members’ patriotism; he stirred up the Republican base with the argument that the Democrats were not merely wrong, but evil and a threat to the Republic. As Speaker, he destroyed the existing committee structure and bill mark-ups, did away with Congressional institutions to educate members (such as the Office of Technology Assessment or the Administrative Conference of the United States), and centralized power in the leadership. When he did not get his way with Clinton, he cavalierly shut down the government. Not cowed by the political disaster that ensued, he used the House’s impeachment power for political purposes and put the House Oversight Committee in the hands of Dan Burton with the express mandate to harass and cripple political opponents. Gingrich broke institutions not by accident, but on purpose.
And if we examine the most malignant trends of the Republican Party over the last 15 years, many (although not all) of them represent this pattern of destroying institutions — and, importantly, any sense of impartiality, good faith, or nonpartisanship — for the purpose of achieving political power.
It's the erosion of our political institutions -- always and to ever new extremes by Republicans since Gingrich took control of the party -- that constitutes the strongest evidence of American decline. Deficits, an aging population, inadequate schools, an overextended military -- all would be manageable problems if our institutions remain capable of grappling with major national challenges.
Second: when Ezra Klein, James Fallows and other good-government advocates get excited about ending the filibuster and other institutional changes, I always think, it's not the rules that are killing us, it's the norms. In fact, with one of our two major parties sunk in extremism and the kinds of tactical maximalism described by Zasloff, those archaic rules that slow legislative progress to a crawl when a reality-based party is in power remain as the chief bulwark against wildly destructive policies when the pendulum swings back to the extremists (that is, if GOP extremism has not been chastened and moderated by another major defeat at the polls before they once again take power). I tremble to contemplate a party that has embraced and extended Gingrichism taking control of all three branches of government (as in 2002-2006) without so much as a filibuster to stop them.
6/12/11: Re Sullivan's "When did we become Rome?" string: further thoughts here.