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Playing to the Cameras

In today’s television landscape, one thing is clear: being in politics can score someone a major media payday — regardless of ideology. Less than a year after stepping down as press secretary for President Joe Biden, Jen Psaki took over as host of her own talk show at MSNBC. Mick Mulvaney, former head of the OMB and acting chief of staff for Donald Trump, last year landed a gig as an on-air contributor at CBS, stirring up some controversy in the process.

The benefits for politicians are clear: they make money and remain in the public eye. News (and entertainment) executives, conversely, recognize that insider expertise can be good for their outlets’ ratings and relevance, even (or especially) if it stokes controversy. Indeed, when figures like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum took positions at Fox News, it not only boosted their own public profiles, but also the political power of the cable channel within the Republican Party.

The prominence of politicos-turned-pundits is a product of the cable news industry’s turn to opinion commentary as a cheap and easy way to meet the needs of 24/7 coverage. The result has been an ideological echo chamber that treats politics as warfare and promotes a kind of historical amnesia, ultimately perpetuating an incentive structure that challenges the very operation of today’s democratic institutions.

This dynamic is particularly strong within the Republican Party, where an extremist faction dedicated to media-driven obstruction has brought about historic failures of leadership. The former politicos tapped to explain the situation are the very ones who made it possible in the first place. For example, as a band of eight rebels precipitated the ouster of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from the speakership in early October, one of his predecessors, Newt Gingrich, took to the pages of the Washington Post to accuse them as acting in “the pursuit of personal attention and fundraising.” He extended this commentary during appearances on Fox News, where he labeled these members “traitors,” and advocated for the party to expel the faction’s leader, Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

Understanding that many would see such statements as hypocritical, considering that he, like Gaetz, once rebelled against party leadership, Gingrich took pains to differentiate his efforts from Gaetz’s push to depose McCarthy. In Gingrich’s telling, his own challenge to President George H.W. Bush’s proposed tax increase in 1990 was in keeping with his “commitment to the American voters,” in stark contrast to Gaetz’s thirst for political celebrity.

Yet Gingrich’s version of this history erased the fact that his battle against Bush was a culmination of more than a decade of challenging Republican leaders and the very culture that enabled Congress to be productive. Long before 1990, he successfully pioneered a media-driven style of obstructionist politics that made securing the limelight by raising the ire of voters—whether infuriating opponents or stoking grievances of supporters—the point of politics.

By 1979, when Gingrich joined the House, Democrats had controlled the chamber for 25 years, and most observers thought that their majority was unbreakable. These power dynamics had led Republicans to focus on governance and bipartisanship, which enabled them to have more legislative influence.

Gingrich scorned this approach to legislating. He entered office pledging to shake things up. On the campaign trial, he had told younger supporters, in particular, to “be nasty” and to do whatever it took to get attention for their oppositional views. Early on in his career, he wrote out strategy notes on yellow legal pads. “Bomb appropriate persons,” “use freshman block to obstruct”; “swing or withhold votes to attract attention.” And, “have no shame.” In short, he and other allies on the party’s fringe, like Bob Walker from Pennsylvania and Vin Weber from Minnesota, saw politics as warfare — a stark departure from the hierarchical, seniority-driven norms of the times.

Television and procedural issues were both battlefields and weapons. None were more important than the C-SPAN cameras, which were also new to the House chamber in 1979. The cameras presented an opportunity for Gingrich and his allies — first to create enemies and then to confront them.

That’s what happened with “Cam Scam” in 1984. For months, Gingrich and his small band of fiery conservatives, including Walker, had manipulated C-SPAN coverage of the House. They used “Special Order” speeches — often delivered at the end of the day to an empty chamber — to challenge the integrity of Democrats. Because C-SPAN allowed the House to control the cameras, and the original policy stipulated that only the speaker would be on camera, viewers had no clue that the House chamber was empty.

When House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) took action, he only poured fuel on the fire. On May 10, the Speaker ordered the cameras to pan the chamber during one of Walker’s tirades. The images of Walker railing to an empty room proved deeply embarrassing, igniting a partisan war about camera angles. Several days later, Gingrich refused to apologize for a previous rant about Democrats, and O’Neill finally lost his temper. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and you challenged those people and you challenged their Americanism and it’s the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”

O’Neill was ruled out of order for personally attacking Gingrich, and his words were taken down from the record—a major penalty in the House. But the incident was caught on tape, and people across the country couldn’t stop talking about it. “House members are embroiled in a power play for what is a relatively new, and not completely understood, kind of power,” observed one journalist.

In the end, Gingrich’s ploy worked. In the aftermath of the media spectacle he had created, Gingrich rose quickly through the ranks of the Republican Party. In 1995, when the GOP assumed control of the chamber for the first time in four decades, he was elected Speaker of the House. By then, aggressive confrontation had become a staple in GOP politics. With the explosion of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh on the airwaves at the same time, such bomb-throwing and resistance to compromise became part of the news and entertainment the GOP’s supporters consumed each day.

But Gingrich himself also came to suffer the consequences of the very style he had helped to pioneer. Time and again, his efforts to negotiate legislation with the Democratic White House generated distrust and suspicion from a new generation of rebellious backbenchers who had learned from him how to take down their enemies.

The expanding media ecosystem offered few incentives for political compromise, especially as Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch eagerly embraced Limbaugh’s confrontational infotainment to launch Fox News in 1996. By the 2004 election, Fox News had emerged as a breeding ground for aspiring Republican politicians, and a lucrative career path for those who lost elections but caused a ruckus in the process.

The lesson is that this revolving door between media and politics isn’t just political theater. It’s a system that rewards extremism, warfare, and obstruction, by design.

As the institution of Congress becomes increasingly broken, more than three dozen members of Congress, including former Speaker McCarthy, have announced that they won’t be running for reelection. In a recent op-ed explaining his decision, McCarthy professed his commitment to keep fighting for the Republican Party. But if he ends up following Gingrich’s path to television punditry, it won’t be surprising if McCarthy’s commentary erases his own role in fueling such a corrosive brand of politics, deepening the dysfunction that threatens to engulf the GOP and the very functioning of democracy.