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Steve Kornacki on How Newt Gingrich Built ‘the Era of Nationalized Politics’ We’re Stuck In

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Even among harcore data nerds, Steve Kornacki stands out. His analysis, often conducted on the fly at MSNBC’s “Big Board” and for all of NBC News’ platforms, is as sharp as they come. He’s the one doing real-time calculations on-set as quickly as pages from the exit polls rip off the printers, inspiring MSNBC to keep a camera aimed at him on big nights for elections; the Kornacki Cam became a social-media sensation and Kornacki an unlikely pop-culture figure dubbed “America’s boyfriend.” He is as deft at breaking down precinct results as the odds of NFL teams’ postseason dreams coming true, Olympians making history, or even Kentucky Derby runners winning as part of NBC Sports. He knows the history behind the numbers, too; a gut feeling in the moment is seldom sufficient for him to frenetically include it in his analysis without the benefit of what patterns are unfolding. And thanks to his affable on-air style—and those khakis—he made a lot of folks care about politics.
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It’s against this backdrop that Kornacki, 43, on Monday is debuting a new podcast about a midterm election cycle that saw a first-term Democratic president face a frustrated electorate and reset the course of modern political movements. And, no; it’s not about 2022’s election, which is now a scant week away. Nor is it even about 2010, when the Tea Party roared and set into motion Donald Trump’s nomination. Informed by The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, his 2018 book about the 1994 wave we now describe as the Republican Revolution, the new MSNBC podcast called The Revolution with Steve Kornacki, is as sharp and perhaps prescient as anything being bandied about now.

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Ahead of his release—and a corresponding turn on Monday with “the Big Board” outside NBC/ MSNBC’s reopened Washington bureau on Capitol Hill—The D.C. Brief chatted with Kornacki about 1994, its lessons for 2022, and how we fix politics. (Hint: leaders matter.) The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Elliott: I have to admit: I was skeptical that the world needed this product, but it actually works. Congratulations.

Kornacki: Thank you.

Elliott: There are actual moments of sweetness in here. I love your callback to your time as a 15-year-old pundit on a public-access channel. You’ve been doing this now more than half your life. How the hell did you wind up here? What did your parents do wrong?

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Kornacki: You can thank the producers for finding that and for putting it in there. I don’t know. I caught the political bug early. The election bug is a big part of it, too. The excitement, the drama, the urgency, the spectacle of election night is something that’s always fascinated me, going as far back as I can remember.

When I think back to being younger and being interested in politics, that really set me apart from people, people my age. I can remember being in high school when it was Dole and Clinton, and trust me, I was probably the only one in that school who cared about it. And now you fast forward basically a generation later. And the level of, of interest in politics that’s out there, I never could have imagined it would be at the level it’s at. People who I knew 20 years ago who might not have even been able to tell you who the president was, now we’re talking about different congressional races, and the whole culture has—for better or worse—kind of taken to politics.

Elliott: Well, we’ve gamified it. You spell it out in The Red and the Blue that it matters what jersey you put on. That becomes part of your identity.

Kornacki: That’s what I’m hoping to get across with the podcast, too, is that ‘94 to me is the start of the era of nationalized politics. I think the evolution of the media has a ton to do with this. Wherever you live in the country, you’re consuming sort of a national political storyline. There’s a team aspect to it, too, where people have picked sides and they consume one version, one narrative of the national political drama. We pick a side, and we stay loyal to it, and we think poorly of the other side. That is a lot to do with where our politics are now. We’re almost wired as human beings to have almost tribal loyalties.

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Elliott: I buy your thesis that ‘94 was a reset in our national political discourse and identity. Are we due for another reset?

Kornacki: You kind of feel like maybe we are, but it’s hard for me to envision it. So much of where it’s evolved is kind of the nationalization of politics, and the nationalization of media syncing up with something that human beings are just hardwired to be, and that is tribal. I don’t know how you untangle that. At the same time, I could imagine the idea that a lot of people get sick of it. Human imagination is kind of endless, too. Maybe we find our way out of it. I don’t know exactly how, but maybe, it’s the old “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and maybe we find our way out of it just because we get so sick of it.

Elliott: In the podcast, you make an interesting observation that Democrats took for granted their power leading into ‘94. And I can’t help but feel there was an element of that in ‘09, and there’s an element of it today, that Democrats just lack the imagination to think that Republicans could get their acts together. Is that what we’re seeing, or am I reading too much into this?

Kornacki: What ended up happening in 2010 reinforced the kind of lesson the shift that 1994 offered. Democrats in ’09 had such a massive majority, coming off two straight wave elections. They had a hard time conceiving themselves that Republicans would be getting enough seats to flip it in 2010. Republicans had an even bigger 2010 than they had 1994. Republicans hadn’t even gotten close in 40 years. You just had Republicans walking around. [Former Minority Leader] Bob Michel, who features prominently in this, the Republican leader in the ‘80s and early ‘90s—by everybody’s account, a true gentleman and old-school kind of political figure—but he would pretty much tell people that he couldn’t envision Republicans having a majority. He’d been there for three-plus decades. He’d never served in the majority. Starting in ‘94, you don’t have that anymore.

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If the House flips, it’ll be the fifth time since 1994. I agree with you, in 2009 or so, when Democrats were feeling like they had locked something in or created something that was built to last, but they were obviously quickly disabused of that notion. It reinforced what ‘94 created, and that is a climate where parties lose power, but they never lose it in a way where they don’t feel they can get it back pretty quickly. Parties gain power and they never gain it in a way where it’s lasted.

Elliott: James Carville in 2009 wrote the book 40 More Years, imagining a permanent majority for Democrats. It’s an exercise in hubris that I think some in the party haven’t figured out how to shake.

Kornacki: Carville wrote the book four years after Karl Rove was talking about the 2004 election ushering in long-term Republican rule. And it’s just proven elusive for both parties to get full control, to implement an agenda, and then—the key part—to be rewarded by followers for it and not thrown out. We saw Bush get full control in ’02 and get reelected in ’04. He had a little window there, but then by the middle of ‘05, he was crashing badly. Then ’06 happens, and then the Democrats get it, and then they lose it, and the Republicans get it again with Trump, and they lose it. And Democrats have it now. We’ve been in this cycle where each party kind of has its moment, but no one’s figured out how to make it, make it last.

Elliott: Is that good for democracy?

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Kornacki: Yes and no. That’s a question that the podcast raises. I hope it’s one folks think about, because, one of the things we look at in the podcast is there’s a long road to 1994 for Republicans. Newt Gingrich eventually took the lead on this. There were a lot of things that were very unhealthy in Congress and in the House because Democrats had this seemingly permanent majority. Newt seized on those to rally Republicans around him and to create this much more aggressive style of politics in the House.

A lot of the things that he was seizing on were legitimate grievances and they were legitimate overreaches by Democrats and things that parties do when they think they can get away with them. There was a lot that came with that permanent Democratic Congress that probably wasn’t healthy for democracy.

On the other hand, you know, in this polarized, tribalized era where each party starts each election with, like, 47% of the vote. It’s just a question of Are they gonna’ win by a couple of points? or Are they gonna’ lose by a couple points? There’s not a lot of incentive there to learn hard political lessons because they never feel like they’re out of it. There’s not a lot of incentive there for parties to change, for consensus to develop as a party that, Hey, we got a problem here. Living in a political climate that’s this intensely polarized and this evenly divided, the instinct it creates in both parties is almost to just push harder and harder.

Elliott: Does Newt realize his place in history? He fundamentally changed this country as Speaker of the House.

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Kornacki: My sense is he does. He’s somebody who obviously studied history. He talks about how his desire to get into politics was rooted in visiting an old battlefield and recognizing the decisions of leaders have such extreme consequences. He had a desire to be one of those leaders and to be a shaper of history. Whatever you think of his long-term consequences, he recognized before just about anybody where politics was going. And what I mean by that is the nationalization of politics and the nationalization of media.

You could just watch him in this podcast slowly but steadily win Republicans over to that idea, which was kind of a radical idea when he first got to Congress. And then he makes it happen. Whatever you think of him, and whenever you think of the legacy of the 1994 Republican revolution, it is a historic achievement. They’ve all pretty much been nationalized since. I think we probably would’ve gotten there anyway. We might have gotten there differently, but he’s somebody who recognized it before many others.

Elliott: Finally, ending on the podcast. What does it say about us that a podcast about an election cycle 28 years ago got greenlit in the first place? You and I are roughly the same age, and this is more than half of a lifetime ago for us, and we’re revisiting it. What’s going on here?

Kornacki: It is sort of an origin story for where we are now, in a place of nationalized politics and sort of tribalized politics. You can look back at 1994 and say there was the first time you really had a nationalized midterm election, and what it really helped give rise to was the people picking sides, deciding, I’m a Democrat, or I’m a Republican. Eventually I’m Team Red, or I’m Team Blue. It’s all evolved and accelerated since then into what it is now.

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And I think another part of it, too, to be honest, is just, so many of the people who were around then are still around. Newt hasn’t gone away. The current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was in the House in 1994. The president of the United States was in the Senate in 1994. The Senate majority leader was in the House in 1994, got some big legislation through. So, so many of the characters who were there for this are still a part of our politics today.

Elliott: Can we ever go back to 1993? Can we un-ring the bell?

Kornacki: It’s hard for me to imagine, just because you see how locked in everybody’s become. I fall back on that idea of maybe we’re creative enough to find a way, I don’t know if it’s going back to 1993 or if it’s just finding something new, but different from this. If we are, it’s just because collectively we reach a point where we are just sick to death of it. I could certainly imagine us getting sick to death of it. I’m just not creative enough to imagine what the different new version of our politics would then look like.

Elliott: In candor here, Steve, you and I are what they’re sick of. We are part of the problem.

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Kornacki: I would say yes and no. I’m well-aware of what the poll numbers are when it comes to the media. But it’s also true that the level of interest; just measured by the voter turnout, I think we’re probably gonna have 125 million people vote in this midterm election. It was about 85 million just in 2014. This explosion of interest in politics among people who just 10 years ago weren’t interested has been staggering for me to see. I never imagined I’d be covering a climate like this.

Elliott: Steve, I really appreciate your time. Congratulations.

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