"You're fighting a war," Gingrich said. "It is a war for power. ... Don't try to educate. That is not your job. What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority."
Gingrich won his majority in 1994, but the cost was high. This is not to say that Democrats were pacifists. But I'd argue that the critical shift happened on the Republican side. The turning point came when President George H.W. Bush was punished by members of his own party, including Gingrich, for agreeing with Democrats on the need for a tax increase in 1990. It was a watershed for the GOP. Republicans would never again repeat what they saw as the elder Bush's "mistake."
Political scientists Steven Webster and Alan Abramowitz, pioneers in identifying "negative partisanship" (i.e., preferences driven primarily by intense dislike of the other side), have shown that our deepening differences are driven by disagreements on policy. It goes beyond mere name calling.
Look at the issue of gun violence. When even mild measures such as background checks are cast as draconian impositions on the right to bear arms, we simply cannot have a rational back-and-forth on practical steps to make events such as Wednesday's a little less likely.
Or take health care. Say what you will about Obamacare, but it really did try to draw on conservative and Republican ideas (health insurance exchanges, subsidies for private insurance, tax credits and the like). As Ezra Klein wrote recently on Vox, the lesson of the repeal effort (now being carried out in secrecy in the Senate) is that "including private insurers and conservative ideas in a health reform plan doesn't offer a scintilla of political protection, much less Republican support." Civility is a lot harder to maintain when you try to give the other side its due and get nothing in return. And it only aggravates already existing policy differences when one side regularly moves the goal posts.
Yes, I am offering a view of our problem from a progressive perspective. For what it's worth, I have over the years written with great respect for the conservative tradition and conservative thinkers from Robert Nisbet to Yuval Levin. Conservatism has never been for me some demonic ideology, and I am happy to take issue with those who say otherwise.
But I would ask my friends on the right to consider that ever since Bush 41 agreed to that tax increase, conservatives and Republicans in large numbers have shied away from any deal-making with liberals. They have chosen instead to paint us as advocates of dangerous forms of statism. This has nothing to do with what we actually believe in or propose. Every gun measure is decried as confiscation. Every tax increase is described as oppressive. This simply shuts down dialogue before it can even start.
John F. Kennedy once spoke of how "a beachhead of cooperation" might "push back the jungle of suspicion." So let us begin with that Ryan-Pelosi moment. We can at least agree that political violence is unacceptable and that each side should avoid blaming the other for the deranged people in their ranks who act otherwise. Things have gotten so intractable that even this would be progress.