This Massachusetts-bred MSNBC anchor has a theory for why our politics have become so tribal

"In the story of the '90s, you can hear the footsteps of Donald Trump approaching."

MSNBC - ELECTION COVERAGE -- Election Night 2016 -- Pictured: Steve Kornacki, MSNBC Host and Political Correspondent on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 from New York -- (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/MSNBC)
Steve Kornacki on election night in 2016. –Heidi Gutman/MSNBC

You probably recognize Steve Kornacki from his TV appearances enthusiastically dissecting election maps as the national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. However, the Massachusetts native is dissecting a much different subject in his first book: the 1990s.

“We tend to look back at the ’90s as the decade when America worked,” Kornacki said in an interview earlier this week.

In reality, he says the deep divisions that now define the current political and cultural landscape of the United States were being sown below the surface.

“In the story of the ’90s, you can hear the footsteps of Donald Trump approaching,” he said.

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During the 1990s, Kornacki himself was growing up in Groton, before going on to attend Boston University to study film and television. And while the 39-year-old says he was interested in politics at the time and “did a few things for the school newspaper,” he didn’t think political journalism would be his career.

However, after getting his foot in the door covering the Wild West of New Jersey state politics shortly after graduating from BU, he ended up moving to Washington, D.C., and eventually joined MSNBC as a reporter and anchor in 2012. Though he’s admittedly part of the notorious cable news ecosystem, Kornacki has taken to trying to figure out why exactly tribalism has taken over American politics.

It wasn’t until recently that he realized the decade he grew up in was such a pivotal factor.

Ahead of his talk Thursday at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge about his recently released book, The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, Kornacki spoke to Boston.com about how the events of the 1990s precipitated the current political climate and what we might be able to learn from the decade today.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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How did you come to focusing on the ’90s for this project?

Having grown up there and kind of learning politics, I remember a lot of these players. Though I processed them as sort of a first-time observer would — with not a lot of historical context or anything. The events of the decade always kind of provided a point of reference for me, just watching everything that’s come since.

The book project itself started as something more small, something more narrow. But as I started to get into it, I realized that the decade itself — I think now, a generation later — really is a major turning-point moment in our politics because — it’s the title of the book — red and blue as terms with political meaning, terms with partisan meaning, that’s the story of the ’90s. By the end of that decade and ever since, it’s always red states, blue states; red America, blue America. At the start of the decade, those terms meant absolutely nothing in politics.

Was there any specific event that you think caused that divide?

There’s always been deep divisions in this country — we had a civil war — and they’ve been regional and cultural and demographic. They’ve always been there. The thing that changed in the 1990s was that they all kind of sorted themselves out along a much bigger partisan divide. And so the parties themselves came to encapsulate these bigger cultural divides, and I think what caused that was basically a series of political wars that played out through the decade.

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The two principal players that I focused on in this was Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

Bill Clinton broke what was known as the Republican electoral lock on the presidency, and Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992. That was sort of the impossible dream for Democrats.

And then Newt Gingrich had kind of been coming up on this parallel track on the Republican side, and the impossible thing for Republicans was control of the House. It had been 40 years since Republicans had a congressional majority. They called it the permanent Democratic Congress. And it was Newt Gingrich who repositioned the party on Capitol Hill on his rise to power.

The first two years of Clinton’s presidency are a disaster for him. There’s the Republican revolution of ’94. There’s the government shutdown in ’95, the Clinton comeback in ’96, the impeachment saga. All of these things, I think flow from that collision of a Republican Party that had been changed by Newt Gingrich and a Democratic Party that was able to win the White House under Bill Clinton.

The degree to which that all those divides you mention begin to map onto the political divides seems like a big change.

Right. Even at the start of the 1990s, you could look at the Republican Party and there were liberal Republicans. And at the start of the 1990s, there were conservative Democrats, generally from the south, but not always.

We’ll always romanticize the past. We did not have this great, glorious era where everything was bipartisan and everything worked, but there was room for bipartisanship. And there was room for government to be more functional. The country itself was forced by all the upheaval of the ’90s to take sides, to chose one or the other.

You included a lot about the 1992 election, and it’s striking how your hometown’s former congressman and senator, Paul Tsongas, and his presidential campaign was an example, as a pro-business Democrat, of someone who in a way cut across party lines.

He said he’s the best friend that Wall Street ever had, yeah.

The Tsongas-Clinton story, one of the interesting things about it is something I think that has been lost to history is that one of the biggest breaks [Clinton] caught was he didn’t have run to the left in the Democratic primary. When Mario Cuomo decided not to run, everything changed for Bill Clinton.

Instead, he got to run to the left of Paul Tsongas. And he got to rally the old Democratic coalition against this pro-Wall Street guy. It was a much, much easier task. It’s one of the reasons I think Bill Clinton was able to survive all the scandals — the Gennifer Flowers scandal, the Vietnam draft scandal, ‘I didn’t inhale,’ all these things.

Cuomo’s decision not to run, looking back, seems sort of underrated in terms of how stunning and important a moment it was.

I think it’s one of those great what-if moments. It’s easier to forget now — and for folks who didn’t live through it, it’s easy not to know — how big Mario Cuomo was in the Democratic Party in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The thing I liken it to is the speech he gave at the Democratic convention in 1984 had the effect of the speech that Barack Obama gave in Boston in 2004. And Obama then went and did the thing that Cuomo refused to do, but that everybody was begging Cuomo to do: Run for president.

A lot of the candidates in that 1992 election — Clinton, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan — each had elements of their campaigns that struck me as eerily similar to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.

It’s something that I took from writing it, and I hope that readers will take from reading it. You can almost, in the story of the ’90s, you can hear the footsteps of Donald Trump approaching.

You saw in those developments in the ’90s a lot of the seeds of what Trump did two decades later. He saw in Ross Perot that somebody could come from that rich, businessman background and sort of crash the party and have great success tapping into the populist vein doing that.

He ended up seeing, I think belatedly, in Buchanan and Buchanan’s message, that it was a platform he could do something with. He really adopted, a generation later, the Pat Buchanan platform.

And the lesson from Bill Clinton is whenever you’re hit with a scandal, you never ever quit.  

But it’s also I think the question that emerges is Bill Clinton’s survival, endurance, and ultimately success in the 1990s, politically, how much does that change what Republicans were willing to put up with and tolerate. It drives Democrats crazy these days, these folks on the right who were Clinton’s big critics during the ’90s on moral grounds, who are now Trump supporters. I think one of the ways that Trump supporters who were around back then justify that transformation is essentially ‘Bill Clinton got away with it, and hey, if that’s how they’re going to fight and win, that’s how we’re going to fight and win.’

Changing media seemed to play a big part in the growing divisions you described. How did that come about?

When we talk about the rise of tribalism, I think the evolution of media in the ’90s and beyond is a huge part of it. And you can draw a pretty straight line from Newt Gingrich recognizing the power of CSPAN.

A camera in the House of Representatives was placed there in 1979 and the average Republican member, the average Democratic member thought nothing of it. Newt recognized that you could now give a speech to an empty chamber and yet you were still talking to people, and you could broaden the scope of what you were talking about. You didn’t just have to talk about what was in the bill that was being marked up that afternoon. You could talk about national politics. You could talk about cultural issues. You could essentially do what I think he did, which was produce what you now recognize as a cable news talk show from the floor of the House.

Gingrich starts doing this in the early 1980s. The thing that starts happening in the late ’80s is that the airwaves change, especially on the radio side. Rush Limbaugh becomes a nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio show in the summer of 1988 out of WABC in New York. And Limbaugh almost instantly has millions of listeners. And Limbagh and Gringrich are simpatico. What Newt is saying on the floor of the House in those speeches to empty chambers on CSPAN is what Rush Limbaugh is saying on the airwaves every day from noon to 3 p.m. to 20 million people a week.

By 1996, Rush Limbaugh’s former television show producer, Roger Ailes, goes and launches the Fox News Channel, because he’s now seen, “Oh, you’ve got an audience out there on this side of things that really doesn’t trust the media.” And that’s the genesis of the Fox News Channel.

There’s other cable news channels — CNN in 1980, MSNBC comes in ’96, too — but in terms of MSNBC’s sort of primetime move to the sort of blue America side of things, I guess, you know, that comes later. That’s not a story of the ’90s, but that’s part of the evolution.

Looking at how stratified our media has become in the decades since then, is there any way for us to recover or break out from the divisiveness and tribalism that have become so central to our political culture?

It’s a great question, and I don’t have the great answer to it. I have more of an abstract sense of hope.

I think we are hardwired as humans to be tribal, and the evolution of media over the last generation has been supremely conducive to that. My hope is that this can reach a point — not just media, but in politics in general — where we all kind of collectively get tired of it — get tired of the moment-to-moment combat, the seething animosity from one side to the other, the divisions it causes in families and communities and all these sorts of things.

Do we collectively get tired of it and then does human nature find a way to get us out of it? I don’t know what the way would be, but, if there’s a will there, maybe we’re smart enough as humans to find a way.

We can look back at the days where there was more bipartisanship in Washington and when media worked in a way — the big three networks, they all sought to have a broad audience. One of the things you see in the 1990s is that there was a lot going on beneath the surface that wasn’t being picked up in our politics and our media, and there was a lot pent up frustration, a lot of pent up anxiety.

Gingrich started to recognize it and understood it. Perot understood it at a certain level. Buchanon understood it at a certain level. Even Clinton, in his own way, I think understood it at a certain level.  

There was a lot going on underneath the surface that probably needed to get vented and get aired in some way. And we may be in the middle of that process.

Is there any one big thing you think people will takeaway from reading your book?

I think we tend to look back at the ’90s as the decade when America worked. The economy was humming. There was one triumphant war at the start of the decade, generally peace after that. To the extent that there was military stuff going on overseas, it seemed very distant, it seemed very surgical to us as Americans. Television was cranking out good shows. People liked the movies. Things seemed to be going very well.

But the political story of the country was actually previewing the rupture that I think now has spread across almost everything. It all built in that decade politically to election night 2000. And you look at that map, and that map to me, that is the story of the ’90s in a nutshell.

The country was perfectly divided by the end of the decade. The divisions were regional. The divisions were cultural. The divisions were demographic. And we had a name for it, too: The red and the blue.

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