Cantor's demise brings huge lesson: Here's why the Tea Party is so coddled

GOP pays attention to its base because it votes in primaries. Democratic base doesn't -- and is ignored (UPDATED)

Published June 11, 2014 12:45PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann                                                                   (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)
John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

It's hard not to feel some schadenfreude at the defeat of Eric Cantor in last night's primary election. The Republican House majority leader outspent his Tea Party opponent Dave Brat by a 25-1 margin, and was widely expected to sail on to a fairly easy victory. Cantor was on track to become the next speaker of the House, despite consistently taking stances aggressively hostile to compromise with Democrats and often directly at odds with Speaker Boehner. So it isn't exactly surprising to see many denizens of the left cheer in celebration at Cantor's unexpected downfall.

But that reaction, while understandable, is foolish and shortsighted. Brat's victory was a momentous, unequivocal win for the far right. Tea Party types had been strongly pressing for Cantor's removal for a long time, particularly because Cantor was seen as insufficiently hostile to immigration reform. Assuming that Democrats cannot take control of the House in 2014, Cantor's defeat means that our broken immigration system will not see any significant fixes from the legislative branch until 2017 at the earliest.

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 millionaire* Ro Khanna challenges longtime progressive Democratic incumbent Mike Honda.

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.

Back in the 1960s there was a battle within the conservative ranks between the adherents of William F. Buckley, who advocated for mobilization within the GOP of Dwight Eisenhower, and the so-called "Rockefeller Republicans" to shift the organization rightward, and the more radical followers of Robert Welch and Cleon Skousen, who advocated a more-or-less outside strategy. Buckley won that battle for the heart and soul of the conservative base, a victory that led inexorably to a slow but certain mobilization of radical conservatives to take over the GOP from the ground up. 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.

The simple fact is that politicians and campaign professionals do not care about people who do not vote. Democrats who turn out to vote in general elections but not in primary contests are taken for granted. Left-leaning citizens who don't vote are simply ignored. No politician ever looked at an angry social media rant by a non-voter and wondered if maybe they should change positions to encourage that person to vote for them; instead, they look at the most reliable voters and try to figure out how to retain their loyalty in the next election.

The Republican Party pays attention to its base because its base votes in primaries, and isn't afraid to use them for leverage against the establishment. The Democratic Party feels free to ignore its base all too often because its base doesn't turn out in primaries, and usually lacks both the courage and will to use primary elections to hold its politicians accountable.
Rather than laughing in the wake of Cantor's defeat, base Democrats should take a long look at what the Tea Party was able to accomplish. They're a long way behind.

Update, 11:30 a.m.: A representative for Khanna says he is not a millionaire, and is in fact still paying off student loans. We regret the error.

By David Atkins

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