The sudden and unexpected defeat of (now former) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary has been the talk of the new media these last two days. There have been a lot of people parsing all kinds of theories as to why. Some claim voters punished Cantor for not being a hard-liner on immigration, others think he lost touch with voters back home, and others see a reaction against the Washington elite. Some ask whether this means that the Tea Party is still relevant, or whether the Republican party is tearing itself apart.
Most of this analysis leaves me cold, because it does not go deep enough. I rarely write on the daily political news anymore, since I think that most of the quotidian disputes and point scoring matches are happening within and being determined by a larger superstructure. Cantor's loss is no exception, but is much more notable.
The truth of the matter is this: a small minority of hard core, ideologically-driven conservatives is holding our political process hostage. With Cantor out, the conventional wisdom says that immigration reform is now impossible, because whacko nativists on the right will punish any Republican who dares to compromise, this despite the fact that immigration reform is widely popular. (This by the way is why we can't have things like universal background checks for guns, a measure which the public supports by huge majorities.) The hard Right is so obsessed with hating Obama that any Republican who dares work with him, even on legislation beneficial to the country and with a support of the majority of the people, will get primaried. Those ideologues like Ted Cruz who shut down the government on a lark are thus perversely rewarded for their behavior. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, the GOP establishment that astroturfed the Tea Party is now at the mercy of its own creation.
The consequence for the rest of us is that the country has become ungovernable. With a divided government compromise is necessary for problems to get solved, and with one party never willing to compromise, the problems only get worse.
What makes it that much more insane is that the number of true believers who are holding the country hostage are rather small. In the election in Virginia, only 65,000 bothered to show up to vote, meaning that only about 35,000 people were able to veto the majority will of a nation of hundreds of millions to humanize our immigration policy. It is a crazy, stupid, and dysfunctional way to run a country, but that's the way things are today.
The only real way to stop the extremists on the Right is to outvote them. That isn't happening, despite their extremity and the unpopularity of their positions. Low voter turnout means that the real winner of practically every election in America is "none of the above." The bitter partisan environment cultivated by extreme conservatism drives away the moderate middle by making politics unappealing and divisive. Voters in more conservative states will loyally vote for the GOP, and not for a Democrat, regardless of whether that Republican is moderate or extreme. (Once he got the nomination, Ted Cruz's election in Texas was secured.) The Democrats are so afraid of losing corporate backing that they do barely anything economically to appease their own base and give them a reason to vote. Case in point: Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised a court case yesterday striking down teacher tenure laws in California. Teachers unions have worked hard to put the Obama administration in power, and in return they get a big kick to the teeth. When they finally proposed universal health care it was a market-oriented model cooked up by the Heritage Foundation. No wonder there is no Tea Party of the Left.
On the other hand, the Right wing ideologues have a captive party to play with, they are swimming in contributions for Koch-style plutocrats, and they have a vast propaganda arm on Fox News and talk radio to enforce message discipline and spread disinformation. (The support on talk radio for David Brat helped him make up his funding gap.) They are a minority, but are a big enough minority to control a political party, and to benefit from low voter turnout and recent attempts at voter suppression. As long as those who aren't extreme conservatives are apathetic and as long as Democrats fail to give their base a reason to care, this state of affairs will just keep getting worse.