Got a Problem With Politics Today? Blame These Guys

New Gingrich (Gage Skidmore/Shutterstock) and Bill Clinton (Flickr/World Economic Fourm 2011)

The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, by Steve Kornacki, Ecco/HarperCollins, 496 pages

Our semi-civil civil war continues unabated. Changing demographics remain a flash point, and the country’s cultural divides are as explosive as ever. The looming midterm elections and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are the latest installments in our ongoing scrum. Red and blue are no longer mere colors, but the war paints of choice of America’s dueling tribes.

Into the fray jumps NBC’s Steve Kornacki and The Red and the Blue, a smart and welcome take on U.S. politics over the past two decades. Kornacki traces how we arrived at we where we at to the 1990s, with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich playing outsized and starring roles.

The Red and the Blue treats Clinton’s 1992 win and Gingrich’s ascension to House Speakership as pivotal moments in a decade marked outwardly by peace and prosperity, but with combustible waters bubbling to the surface in the face of political strains.

Ostensibly, Clinton rode to the White House on the mantra of “it’s the economy, stupid,” but the former Arkansas governor’s ability to the straddle the waves of cultural discontent proved to be determinative. On that score, Kornacki details how Clinton took on Sister Souljah—with an embarrassed Jesse Jackson looking on—and transformed his own candidacy into something more than just another exercise in ambition by a Democratic southern governor.

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Sister Souljah, a teenage recording artist and activist, had told the Washington Post in a May 1992 interview, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton adroitly seized the moment, telling her off, and came November he pocketed the electoral votes of Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and West Virginia, states that have now become reliably Republican.

Looking in the rear view mirror, 1988 has now emerged as the last time a non-incumbent Republican actually won the popular vote. By the same measure, however, in neither of his presidential bids did Clinton ever garner a majority. America’s emerging divisions were coming into focus.

Specifically, his first time out, Clinton managed to score only 43 percent of the electorate in a three-way race that included Ross Perot. Four years later, running against a “snake-bitten” Bob Dole and Perot for a second time, Clinton still couldn’t break the 50 percent barrier.

Rather, his candidacy remained a fusion…

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