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The Power of the Few

Eric Cantor, a conservative Republican, was not conservative enough to ward off a challenge from the tea party.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Eric Cantor is no ideological moderate. Yet Cantor, overly smug and confident in office, lost to a tea party challenger because he failed to protect his right flank.

The lesson most Republican politicians will draw from Cantor’s defeat is that even the most tepid temporizing on an issue of importance to ultra-conservatives, such as the majority leader’s flirtation with immigration reform, can lead to defeat in Republican primaries, where only the most dedicated and the most conservative vote. Cantor’s colleagues, reading the tea leaves, will conclude that moving to the right is the best, and the only, guarantee for staying in office.

Sixty-five-thousand people voted last Tuesday in Virginia’s 7th congressional district. That’s 20,000 more than voted in 2012, and most of that increase probably represented people angry at Cantor for one reason or another; most no doubt voted for David Brat, Cantor’s opponent. Cantor’s internal polling failed to anticipate the increase, which is why the incumbent was confident of victory on election day.

There is another way to read the election turnout. The population of Virginia’s 7th congressional district is almost three-quarters of a million people, 550,000 of whom are of voting age and 270,000 of whom are thought to be Republicans. Brat received 36,000 votes, or not quite five percent of all the residents of the district, or just 6.6 percent of the voting age residents, or a little more than 13 percent of all Republicans in the district.

In other words, from any perspective, only a small minority of people in Virginia’s 7th congressional district voted to oust Eric Cantor and replace him with David Brat. Yet that small minority has scuttled immigration reform and just about any other action with which extremist Republicans disagree.

The success of extremist candidates like David Brat rests on their success in driving the right-wing base to the polls in primaries. But while a candidate like Brat can attract more voters than usual to low-turnout primaries, the number who vote is still small and it disproportionately influences American politics.

Immigration reform is an example. Recent polls show that 62 percent of Americans favor providing a way for immigrants currently residing in this country to become citizens. This is not just the view of Democrats and independents; 51 percent of Republicans favor a path to citizenship.

With the backing of more than six-in-ten Americans and over half of all Republicans, an immigration reform bill ought to sail through Congress. But it hasn’t and it won’t, because of the power of a few tea party extremists who vote in primaries.

The same with the minimum wage. Polls show 71 percent favor raising the minimum wage, a total that includes exactly half of all Republicans. But the right is opposed; and congressional Republicans don’t dare to vote for an increase.

Of course, it can be argued all this is fair, since ultra-conservatives who oppose immigration reform and raising the minimum wage vote in large numbers, while the rest of America, which favors immigration reform and raising the immigration wage, does not.

But it’s not that simple. The power of the few, in this case ultra-conservatives, is magnified by gerrymandering, which gives the Republican Party, and by extension its ultra-conservative wing, control of the House of Representatives. In the last election, Democratic House candidates cumulatively outpolled Republican candidates by about 500,000 votes. Yet Republicans, because of patchwork electoral districts drawn by GOP-controlled state legislatures, control the House 233-199, with three current vacancies. Had electoral districts been fairly drawn, the Democrats would have had a slight advantage in the lower chamber to go along with their control of the Senate and the White House.

Gerrymandered districts give Republicans artificial control of the House of Representatives; low-turnout primaries, in which only the most extreme vote, give conservatives artificial control of the political process. The result: Policies favored by a majority of Americans are defeated and the nation’s politics is driven further and further to the right.

This is not how majority rule should work. But it is emblematic of our dysfunctional political system.

It’s up to the majority — often a silent majority — to assert itself. And it’s up to progressives to figure out how to mobilize that silent majority and get it to the polls to implement meaningful reform favored by most Americans.

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