The Cultural Contradictions of Newt Gingrich

by Daniel Bell

Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, has galvanized American politics. For the first time in 40 years, there is a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. He has promised a ``Contract with America'' that would be enacted within the first 100 days of the session of Congress. More than that, he has said grandly that he and other Republican leaders would ``rethink the entire structure of American society and the entire structure of American government.'' Clearly, he commands attention.

Gingrich espouses traditional family values, new-age spirituality and cyberspeak technology, all juggled through one quick mind and glib tongue. And yet all this finds a ready (if wary) appeal for a large portion of the American populace. How can this be explained?

There are three facets to the sources of Gingrich's thinking and its appeal:

Let us explore these elements further.

Populism was a turn-of-the-century movement of farmers who felt themselves exploited by the interest charged by bankers when they borrowed money for each planting season, by the railroads which carried their grain at exorbitant rates and by corporate monopolies which charged high prices for their farm equipment. The original cry of populism was for government regulation of these monopolies, for government support of rural electrification and cheap electricity and, during the New Deal, for mortgage protection against the loss of farms.

In the Midwest, the populists were visible in the Progressives in the Republican party, such as Senators George W. Norris of Nebraska and William E. Borah of Idaho, and in the South by reactionary Democrats such as Mississippi Congressman John Elliott Rankin (a sponsor of the Tennessee Valley Authority for cheap electricity) and Senator Theodore Bilbo, who were anti-Semitic and anti-black. The contradictions of populism were summed up by William Jennings Bryan, who ran as a radical for President in 1896 on the Democratic ticket, thundering against the ``cross of gold'' on which the farmers were crucified, and in the Scopes trial in 1924, when he defended creationism against the teaching of evolution.

Much populist thinking was expressed in conspiracy theories about secret forces that manipulated their farm prices (they never believed it was the market), and, just as the English essayist William Cobbett had thundered against ``The Thing'' in the 19th century, they denounced ``Wall Street'' and later ``Madison Avenue.'' The rhetoric of conspiracy carries over today against The Media, The Liberals, The Beltway, as if these were all monolithic entities.

Behind all this is a visceral degree of resentment now against ``The Intellectuals'' expressed by men who have long felt themselves to be scorned by the intellectual elite. Gingrich went to Emory University in Georgia and graduate school at Tulane, in New Orleans, both first-rate universities. But at Tulane, he wrote, inexplicably, a Ph.D. thesis, at the suggestion of a professor, on education in the Belgian Congo, a subject to which he never returned for the rest of his life. He taught American history and geography at West Georgia College in rural Carrolltown for eight years and, after entering Congress, gave lectures at Kennesaw State College, a commuter school north of Atlanta, that were broadcast by satellite to 25 other colleges across the United States.

As Speaker, Gingrich picked as House historian a political scientist at Kennesaw State, Christina Jeffrey, who was quickly dropped when it was discovered that she had criticized ahigh-school curriculum on the Holocaust for failing to present the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan points of view. And as personal historian, Gingrich designated his closest friend and intellectual companion, Stephan Hanswer, a retired professor at West Georgia College, who said sarcastically to the Wall Street Journal: ``Look, my noncredentials are in order: I have nothing to do with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and any of you other dinosaurs of the discredited elite....''

Gingrich himself shares, viscerally, this anti-elite feeling, yet he has also embraced a set of ideas that derive quintessentially from such places as Harvard and Yale. His mentor in this respect is Alvin Toffler, a journalist whose book, The Third Wave, is a vast simplification of sociological theories already more than 20 years old, but presented in a hopped-up prose that leaves one breathless.

This is the picture Toffler now presents regarding the apocalypse that is churning the present: ``A powerful tide is surging across much of the world today.... Value systems splinter and crash, while the lifeboats of family, church and state are hurled madly about.... Humanity faces a quantum leap forward. It faces the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time.... A new civilization is emerging in our lives and blind men everywhere are trying to suppress it.... The new civilization, as it challenges the old, will topple bureaucracies, reduce the role of the nation state and give rise to semiautonomous economies in a post-imperialist world.... Third-wave civilization begins to heal the historic breach between producer and consumer, giving rise to the prosumer economies of tomorrow.''

One of the difficulties in trying to keep one's head above the battering of Toffler's prose is seeking to find out exactly what this ``third wave'' is about, other than the fact that it goes beyond the agrarian and industrial civilizations of the past. The problem is the presentation of ``civilization'' and ``society'' in synoptic terms, as if these are unified wholes that turn completely in the tumble of the wave. If that were so, how would one explain the persistence of the great historic religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam over millennia of time, while empires have crumbled, political orders have disintegrated, and economic systems have decayed. Social change is not and cannot be uniform, and the metaphor of waves is wet and misleading.

The argument, if argument it be, is based, necessarily, on new technologies that permit customized production, electronic democracy and the like. These may be potentialities, but they are not irresistible forces that override social structures and values. Technology is primarily instrumental, but its adoption or rejection necessarily derives from the values that one wishes to defend or enhance. The founders of American democracy, for example, rightly understood the dangers of ``instant democracy,'' for they feared the volatility of instant decision-making. And for Toffler to say, for example, that majority rule is obsolete and has to give way to ``minority power''---does Gingrich endorse that? It is a slogan about ``empowerment'' that evades all questions of coalitions and gridlock.

But the final irony, perhaps, is that the requirements of an information-based society, with its need for greater literacy and numeracy in the population, enhance the role of the knowledge elite. The ``third-wave'' industries such as computers and telecommunications derive from the codification of theoretical knowledge (quantum theory in physics and molecular biology in genetics) that are created in the major research universities in the country, not the Kennesaw States, which are usually remedial institutions. Gingrich, if he wants to surf-board on the ``third wave,'' had better make his choice.

But let me turn from rhetoric to the reality. There is little question that the middle class in the US is unraveling and ridden by anxieties that may not have surfaced before. One statistic is telling. In the 1991-1993 recession, more than 45 percent of the unemployed were white-collar workers, double the number of the previous recession 10 years before. The crack-up of IBM, the downsizing of corporations, the shift of managerial and engineering employment to new niche firms no longer offer security to white-collar workers---security that was once thought to be inviolable.

Gingrich and Republicans have touched a chord among the electorate by emphasizing two themes that resonate: instead of a welfare state, an opportunity society; not government handouts, but personal responsibility. The means of realizing these goals would be to devolve government, utilize new technologies, end national welfare programs and return operation to the states.

Let me separate the attention to Newt Gingrich as an individual from the institutional problems of the society. There is little question that bureaucracy has become burdensome and that uniformity in government programs is often not responsive to the variety and needs of local institutions. But the simple slogan of ``devolution'' ignores the salient fact that such a move may create a worse mess than a rethought national program. The US comprises 50 states, most of whose size and shape bear little relation to the functional or regional requirements of the different locales. We have states as small as Delaware and Rhode Island and states as large as Texas, where the distance from Brownsville at one end to Texarkana at the other is, quite literally, the distance in Europe between Brussels and Moscow. And what does the Atlantic tidewater edge of New York City have in common with the Great Lakes shore of Buffalo to the West? If one looks at gridlock in Congress, multiply that 50 times in the future.

Personal responsibility is a necessary condition of a truly civil society. As Aristotle wrote in his Politics 2,000 years ago, the dignity of a person and his self-esteem are the condition of equal participation in the citizenship of the self-governing community. But the basis of such personal responsibility is to have a job, and if that is so, then full employment, not the deprivation of welfare, might be the prior consideration for the good society.

Gingrich's vision of America is one of small communities tied together by communication networks. Yet such a vision has to embrace as well the reality of a world economy where the volatile flows of capital, currency and commodity markets, or the demographic tidal flows of displaced workers, swamp all nations.

For a realistic reference one can look back to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For varying ideologues this was ``creeping socialism'' or the ``shoring up of capitalism.'' Whatever the truth in these partial views, they ignore the institutional fact that from 1900 to 1930 the US had become a national economy, but there was no matching political power--- for the states were ineffective--to deal with these national forces. What the New Deal did was to create national political institutions---such as a Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate financial markets, a National Labor Relations Board to enable collective bargaining---so that the society could function more effectively.

What one needs today are realistic structures, at the different levels of government and economy---to match the problems that have arisen from technological change. The questions are one of appropriate scale: what legitimately belongs to local communities, what to states, what to regional organizations (which may necessarily cut across states), and what to the national government in setting the standards appropriate to the decentralized operations. This is the hard work of thinking that needs to be done, not the chimeras of Gingrich's gurus.

New Perspectives Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 5