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Doyle McManus: Cantor revolt a sign of the polarized times

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Friday, June 20, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Voters’ revolts are always instructive. But first you have to figure out what the voters were trying to say. And in the days since Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who was the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, lost his GOP primary election, there’s been plenty of disagreement about that.

The prevailing conclusion in the GOP establishment has been that Cantor was mostly a victim of incompetence – his own and his pollster’s, who told him he was leading in his Virginia district by a margin of 34 percentage points.

Cantor was a conservative who opposed most of the efforts of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to negotiate fiscal compromises with President Obama and the Senate. He sought to align himself with tea party-oriented Republicans. But he was toppled by voters who decided he wasn’t conservative enough.

Just days after Cantor’s loss, the Pew Research Center released a massive study on polarization in the electorate that helps explain how that could happen. The Pew poll found that Republican and Democratic voters are more ideologically distant from each other than at any time in recent history. The bipartisan “center” is shrinking, while the percentage who hold either consistently conservative or consistently liberal positions has doubled over the past decade, now accounting for about one-fifth of all Americans.

Animosity between the two sides is rising, too, Pew reported. More than one-third of Republicans and more than one-fourth of Democrats said they thought the other party was “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”

And polarization affects elections, of course; voters with more intense views are more likely to turn out – especially conservative Republicans, according to Pew.

And what about immigration? In early analyses of the Cantor race, the consensus was that his flirtation with a mild version of immigration reform was a big part of what drove voters to his opponent, Dave Brat. In a poll released after the primary, only 22 percent of Brat’s supporters said immigration reform was the main reason for their vote.

That doesn’t mean immigration wasn’t a factor, but it suggests it was a top priority for only a relatively small group.

Still, a perception that the issue might tip the scales in close races has virtually guaranteed that the House will delay any attempt to pass an immigration bill until after the November election – if then. A Boehner adviser noted that there’s still no consensus among House Republicans on what kind of bill they want to pass.

Does the Cantor race suggest that American politics is irredeemably in the grip of two mutually hostile ideologies, one zealously conservative, the other rabidly liberal?

Not really. The Pew survey found plenty of evidence that a center still exists. One-fifth of all Americans are either consistently liberal or conservative, but that means four-fifths are neither. On individual issues, Pew found that majorities on both sides actually hold relatively moderate views. On immigration, for example, 76 percent of Americans told Pew they believe undocumented immigrants should be eligible for citizenship after meeting certain requirements; even among conservatives, 51 percent embraced an eventual path to citizenship.

So is a moderates’ revolt possible? Sure. All they need to do is get as fired up and passionate as their polarized neighbors, and turn out for some primaries. But that wouldn’t be very moderate, would it?

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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