The lesson Cantor's loss should teach the left
by David Atkins
I have a piece up at Salon today about Eric Cantor's loss, and the cultural difference between the right and the left when it comes to elections. Main point? The left still has a lot to learn from the right.
More than that, however, this historic election should serve as a lesson for the left. It is the clearest demonstration yet of how and why American politics continues to drift inexorably to the right on all but a few social issues. The conservative base pulled off its biggest upset yet against a powerful establishment candidate, but underfunded radicals defeating establishment incumbents is a regular feature of the GOP primary process in a way that has few parallels on the Democratic side. Even in New York where anti-establishment progressives have a strong base in the Working Families Party, there was little appetite for directly challenging centrist Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In fact, the most noteworthy challenge to a Democratic congressional incumbent this year is occurring from the right in CA-17, as business-friendly Ro Khanna challenges longtime progressive Democratic incumbent Mike Honda.Click on over for the whole thing.
It is not an accident that the Republican Party continues to move rightward even in the face of negative public polling on most issues, even as the Democratic Party seems unable and often unwilling to advance legislation that meets with approval among majorities of the public. It’s not just the corruption of money in politics. It’s the direct result of the difference between voter engagement on each side of the aisle.
Democrats reliably vote in presidential elections, but tend to skip voting in midterms and are practically electoral truants in mid-cycle primaries. Republicans, by contrast, are much more motivated to vote in both midterms and intra-party contests. This is not just a function of economic and lifestyle differences. It is also, crucially, a function of political cultures and instincts.
The Tea Party is often viewed as the revival of the John Birch Society, but it is important to note that almost all Tea Party activism occurs directly within the rubric of the GOP. It is at heart an intra-party fight, not an inside-outside battle.
The culture of the left is quite different. Left-leaning voters disaffected with the Democratic Party tend to eschew the organization altogether. The more activist among them usually join issue advocacy organizations that are often directly and intentionally in conflict with the party and competing for the same resources. Even more important are the less activist disaffecteds, who tend to simply disengage from the electoral process in apathy rather than channel their anger into primary contests.
Ask a voter for Ralph Nader in 2000 if they feel any blame for the presidency of George W. Bush, and you’ll typically hear a definitive no. If the Democratic Party wanted their vote, it is said, the party should have taken more progressive stances. The thinking here goes that if voters on the left abandon the party by not voting or by voting for third parties, then the Democratic Party will have to chase them left. Conversely, it is often said, if the Democratic Party gets their vote regardless, why should the party ever listen to them?
But this is backward thinking. The Democratic Party has not in fact chased these voters to the left. Whether it be in 1994, 2000 or 2010, the Democratic Party always responds to significant electoral defeat by moving rightward — even when its defeats can most obviously be attributed to a failure to adequately motivate base progressives. The conservative base has proven, by contrast, that it can force the Republican Party to chase them to the right. And Cantor’s defeat puts an exclamation mark on the fact that when it refuses to do so adequately, the base can embarrass and punish the Republican establishment. While it is true that ousting establishment candidates has sometimes led to defeat in general elections for conservatives (see Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle), this has not led to diminished influence for the far right. Within the party, the primary vote is the one that really matters.
I've said it loudly and often here before: the way to win is to mobilize and organize not only outside of the Democratic Party, but within it as well. The right has been very successful doing so, and the left should take note.