Anyone who has watched on-air MSNBC and NBC News correspondent Steve Kornacki knows how much he revels in the many twists and turns of U.S. politics. Now Kornacki brings his insights and enthusiasm to his captivating new book, The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, which tackles the question that both sides of the political aisle have been trying to answer: How did our country become so divided?
It’s amazing to think that the terms red and blue weren’t used consistently for Republican and Democratic states until the 2000 presidential election night. It feels like we’ve had those terms forever. You also write that “Blue America” was born during the 1996 presidential election, although “no one had a name for it yet, or knew if it would endure.” At what point did you settle on the book’s title?
Literally 20 years ago, if you told someone that you lived in a red state, they would have no idea what you meant. Maybe they’d think you were talking about communism or something. On election nights into the 1990s, the TV networks would randomly assign colors. Sometimes the Democrats would be blue and sometimes they’d be red. In 1984, David Brinkley on ABC opened their election coverage by telling viewers that the Republican states would be colored in red that night―because “red” and “Reagan” started with the same letter.
Back then, though, the color scheme often didn’t matter. We had landslide elections. But in 2000, it was the closest to a perfect tie we’ve ever had, and the divisions were so stark. It just so happened that every network was using the same colors that night, and the country was left for weeks after the election to stare at and contemplate that map as the Florida recount played out. At one point, David Letterman joked that he had a solution to the disputed election―Al Gore could be president of the blue states and George W. Bush could be president of the red ones. That’s what we had become and that’s the basic division that has endured ever since.
When did you start working on The Red and the Blue, and what compelled you to write it?
I’ve been saying that I worked on this so long that it sometimes feels like I started writing it back in the ’90s. My first idea came about nine years ago, and it was for a much more narrow and limited project looking at the rise of Bill Clinton and what might have been with Mario Cuomo. But almost as soon as I got into the research, I realized there was so much more to the era and a much bigger story to be told. I was looking back at election nights from the ’80s, when there were coast-to-coast landslides, and I was realizing how far we’ve come from that. No one is about to win 49 states these days, but back then it happened, and the ’90s were sort of the bridge between the two―the decade when the red and blue America were born and the divide we live with today was created.
You grew up watching most of the political drama that you describe. How did your perceptions change as you wrote?
I did follow a lot of [what I cover in the book] in my politics-obsessed youth, so I came into the research and writing knowing most of the key characters and plot points. What I hadn’t gotten in real time, though, were the backstories. Why were all of these people in the position to do the things they did in the 1990s? How did they get there? What forces had propelled them before? Pat Buchanan, whose ’90s presidential campaigns stressed themes that are almost identical to what Trump would embrace 20 years later, is someone I came away with a much better understanding of.
Did you have any research stumbling blocks? Or lingering questions you would like to ask the politicians and personalities involved?
He never addressed it with much depth before he passed away a few years ago, but I have wondered a lot about Mario Cuomo’s fateful decision not to board that New Hampshire-bound plane [in order to declare himself a presidential candidate] in December 1991. He would have instantly been the Democratic front-runner and would very possibly have knocked off Bill Clinton and won the presidency. I think I understand why he passed that up, but I would love to have asked him—and for him to have answered in a very straightforward and introspective way. (In other words, in a very non-Cuomo way.)
A character in Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, notes: “History is not good news or bad news, it’s just one big story unreeling.” You obviously adore the “big story unreeling.” How did you manage to digest so much information and turn it into such a compelling narrative?
All I can think of his how much I left out! The challenge for me in trying to convey what I think of as the political legacy of the ’90s was to pick my spots to go deep. The Gingrich-Clinton collision and the wars it unleashed are, to me, what forced Americans to take sides, leaving us a nation divided into red and blue camps. But I felt I needed to show readers what political lessons Americans had internalized before that collision—to understand why they acted the way they did. So, for example, there’s a lot in the book about Gingrich in the ’80s staging what amounted to guerilla attacks on the House floor, enraging Democrats. Gingrich then got flooded with adulation from the grassroots base, showing his fellow Republicans that this stuff worked.
Was it difficult finding time to write while you carried out your on-air duties at MSNBC? You must have found endless parallels between past and present as you carried out both tasks simultaneously.
Writing this book in 2016 and 2017 ended up being an escape for me. The second-to-second breaking news environment we live in turns every minute or fragmentary development into a Big Moment, even though most of them end up fizzling out fast and being forgotten within days or even hours. So it was fun to sequester myself in my office or in a Così restaurant, put my headphones on and just immerse myself in a different time. The characters I was researching and writing about started to feel as contemporary to me as the names in that day’s news―although, then again, a lot of the characters from the ’90s are still characters in today’s news.
Do you have any idea how politics might become less tribalized and more about the art of compromise? Do you see any signs of hope?
On some level, I think, as humans, we are hard-wired for tribalism. What’s happened is that over the last few decades, our media and politics have evolved in a way that is maximally conducive to this instinct. My hope is that if human nature helped to get us to this place, maybe we will collectively grow sick of it and that human nature will help us find a way out. There were a lot of strong populist undercurrents that were not being expressed in our politics and media a few decades ago. But they were there, and they were not going to go away. Now they’re getting aired, and one of the effects is to feed all of this instability and tribalism. But maybe a few decades from now we’ll be able to look back at this period and be able to say that it was nasty and divisive but also a necessary bridge to something better.
What is it like being an on-air personality in these days of increasingly tribalized media and “fake news” attacks?
I like to think that I occupy one of the few lanes in political media that can actually be a bridge between the two tribes. No matter which side you’re on, everyone has a stake in trying to understand why things are playing out the way they are. I try to use numbers and maps and historical context to tell that story and facilitate that conversation. I’ve found that there’s a lot I can talk about with both blue and red audiences without having to change the substance of what I’m saying.
What’s your favorite part of your TV job?
Election nights are my favorite, hands down. There’s just so much going on, so much information coming in, so many unexpected twists, especially when a race comes down to just a few votes in just a few precincts.
Your book is filled with so many fascinating anecdotes and quotes. One that seems particularly prescient comes from Jim Squires, who was Ross Perot’s spokesperson. Discussing the populist energy that Perot managed to lasso as a presidential candidate, Squires said, “The next time the man on the white horse comes in, he may not be so benign. He could be a real racial hater or a divider of people.” Were you startled to see that comment?
As soon as I saw that quote I jumped back and said to myself, “This has to be in the book!” One of the themes of the book is that the formula for what Trump pulled off in 2016 was essentially revealed through a few different characters and moments in the ’90s—and here was someone looking at the potential of a party-crashing populist billionaire and anticipating the exact thing that would later be said by critics about Trump.
Have you started thinking about ideas for another book?
The plan is to keep going and to look at what happened next: The America created by the ’90s and the George W. Bush era, when Bush came to office after a disputed election—settled only by a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling—and leads the country through 9/11 in a way that seemed to shatter all of these new divisions, only to watch them all resurface and intensify as he pushed the country to war and won a narrow re-election in a “battle of the bases” election that set a new template for how campaigns are won and lost.
Author photo by Anthony J. Scutro