While the beltway chatter grows over the political death of Eric Cantor, the first House leader to be unseated in a primary, it would be easy to lose sight of how unsettling his demise is for our politics in general.
On one level, it is a glaring example — and condemnation — of the staggering levels of voter apathy that exist the further an election race is from presidential politics. Only about 65,000 people voted in the Republican primary in Virginia's 7th District on Tuesday. This is in a district of nearly 760,000 people, and in which Mitt Romney bested President Obama in 2012 by 15 percentage points.
In case you're struggling with the math here, Ezra Klein of Vox broke it down this way: In 2012, 381,000 residents of the 7th District "voted in the congressional election, 223,000 of them for Eric Cantor." He continued:
"Cantor's loss came at the hands of about 5 percent of his constituents. It came at the hands of about 9 percent of the total number of people who voted in the district's 2012 congressional election. It came at the hands of about 16 percent of the people who voted for Cantor in that election. And though Cantor's defeat is national in its effects, less than three-hundredths of 1 percent of the people who voted in the 2012 House elections voted against Eric Cantor last night."
What does it say about America as a society and as a class of voters when so many sit home and allow the voices of so few to carry so much weight? Not only did recent Republican redistricting — and yes, gerrymandering — create fewer swing districts and safer, more politically homogenous ones, it has also most likely created districts in which that very security gives rise to more strident candidates.
And now that many of them no longer have to worry about appealing to moderates, minorities and women — "stop chasing ethnic groups, stop chasing genitalia," the conservative talk show host Mark Levin told Fox News on Tuesday — they are open to challenges from more ideologically extreme candidates. We have to worry about the message Cantor's loss sends to the Republican caucus — that if they bend, even a little, in the interest of not completely grinding government to a halt and if they suggest an openness to even the most minor movement of necessary legislation like immigration reform, they could be vulnerable, and lose their seats.
Stacking the deck against politicians who deign to compromise with their Democratic counterparts in general, and this president in particular, does not bode well for us as a nation. The party of the president is important when it comes to things like foreign policy and the selection of federal and Supreme Court justices, but laws are not passed in the executive branch, and as long as our legislative branch is teeming with obstructionists, we're at an impasse.
Cantor's defeat on Tuesday may now be the subject of Schadenfreude and chops licking, but it may also be a terrible omen.
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