Jul 22 • 53M

Partisanship and Religion and the Importance of Innovation in Politics

Speakers: Michele Margolis and Julian Zelizer

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Larry Bernstein

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. 

What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, finance, history, politics and current events. 

Today’s session is on the interplay between partisanship and religiosity as well as innovation in politics.

Our first speaker will be Michele Margolis who is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.  Michele has a new book entitled From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.

Michele believes that most political scientists misunderstand the role of religion and partisanship. The commonly held view is that religious people tend to vote Republican.  Michele believes that partisanship is the driving force and that Republicans want to be religious to fit in with their political ideology and correspondingly Democrats become more secular.

Our second speaker will be Julian Zelizer who is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University.  He has a book entitled Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich and the Rise of the New Republican Party.

Julian will talk about the rise of Newt Gingrich and his success of winning the HOUSE for the Republicans in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.  Julian will explain Gingrich’s political innovations like using C-Span, a Contract of America that nationalized a mid-term election, and aggressive use of ethic rules toppled the Speaker and led to a Republican victory.  I think the 1994 mid-terms has important similarities for the upcoming mid-term elections.

Let’s start with Michele Margolis.

Michele Margolis

Topic: Does Partisanship Explain Religiosity?
Bio: Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania
Reading: From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity is here

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Opening Remarks
An axiom of contemporary American politics is that Republicans are religious, and Democrats are less so. This is sometimes called the God gap or the religiosity gap, and it represents one of the most important and enduring social cleavages in the electorate. This God gap is relatively new. Prior to this, we thought of religious divides and partisanship in voting being along ethno-religious lines. Catholics were Democrats, mainline Protestants were Republicans, but this God gap is a coalition based on religiosity that is how devout you are.

Devout Catholics, church attending mainline Protestants, church attending evangelicals, Christians who don't use any of those labels, they're the ones who make up the Republican Party and the less religious are more likely to be Democratic.

If you compare the partisanship to those who attend weekly, which is about a quarter of the population, compared to people who don't attend church at all, that's about a 30% of the population. Only 25% of the population who never attend church identify as a Republican compared to 55% of those who attend weekly.

The conventional story is that religion and religiosity influenced politics. The Republican Party started to use more religious rhetoric and taking up religious issues such as abortion, gay marriage, school prayer.

The parties were not separated on abortion in the '70s. And the conventional story is the parties shifted. They split and people saw these differences and then they moved their partisanship and their vote choices based on their religiosity.  The religious people moved into the Republican camp; the non-religious moved into the Democratic camp.

American religion is changing. Who belongs to what faith, whether you identify with a faith or not, what church you go to, how involved you are in that church, all of these decisions are being made based on politics?

It doesn't mean that religion doesn't affect politics, but that politics are shaping religious choices.  It also matters for political mobilization. If Republicans are self-selecting into churches, that means the Sunday before an election, they are all in a pew. They are easily mobilized, they're all right there.

Churches used to be one of the places where people across political spectrums came together and got to know each other and that's not happening anymore.

By being a secular Democrat or a religious Republican, if someone then criticizes religious people, they're not just criticizing your religious identity, they're also criticizing your political identity.  This team that you're on is becoming more and more powerful because you have multiple identities wrapped up in it. If you meet a secular Democrat when you're a religious Republican, that person doesn't just look different from you on political side, it's religious, gender, maybe race. These identities make it much harder to bridge the gap across people, which is problematic.

Michele Margolis Full Transcript
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Julian Zelizer

Topic: How did Newt Gingrich succeed in winning the HOUSE for the Republicans for the first time in 40 years?
Bio: Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941, Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton
Reading: Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich and the Rise of the New Republican Party is here

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Opening Remarks
Steve Bannon, advisor to Donald Trump, said "Look, it's very simple. We go for the head wound, and your side has pillow fights. The head wound will always win over the pillow fight.” He was talking about Republicans and Democrats.

Bannon's quote is incredibly instructive, and it says a lot about American politics. It gets to the issue called asymmetric partisan warfare. What that means is that polarization has happened differently, that the Republican Party as a whole has moved much further to the right than Democrats, and in terms of partisan tactics, Republicans have become much more extreme in breaking with norms and important political traditions.

I wrote a book that tries to understand how did the parties move in different directions.

Many people who look at this question look at the big factors, such as the way in which voters sorted. Southern Democrats became Republicans, and both parties lost their center. In my book, Burning Down the House, I wanted to know more about the individuals who made a difference.

I zeroed in on Newt Gingrich who was one of the central figures in changing the Republican Party in the 1980s, when he's a young Republican from Georgia. He comes into the House of Representatives during a period when Republicans had not controlled the House since 1954; it was a Democratic institution.

Gingrich argues to his fellow Republicans that if they continue to play by the rules of Washington, they were never going to win power. He starts to push fellow Republicans to be much more aggressive in partisan warfare.

The book itself centers around a critical event in 1989, when Gingrich is able to bring down the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, using ethics charges to pressure him into resigning

That was a turning point, because, A) Gingrich, who didn't have any standing within the party, is able to spearhead a campaign that brings down the most powerful figure in Washington other than the President and B) he is elected as Minority Whip and the party legitimates the politics that Gingrich practices.

I focus on how Gingrich pushes his colleagues to use much more toxic language in political battle.

Second, using processes that had been put into place after Watergate to clean up Washington. Ethics rules put Congress on television, and he weaponizes them to bring down the Democratic majority.

By the end of the story, we have a Republican Party that's embraced a no guardrail partisanship. When Gingrich is made Speaker of the House in 1994, when Republicans finally win back control, his style of partisanship within the GOP is legitimated.

The legacy of Gingrich is felt today. We've had several generations who live in the world that Gingrich created in the 1980s.

Julian Zelizer Full Transcript
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