Eric Cantor’s loss has obviously shocked the political world. Things like this just aren’t supposed to happen, and historically it was completely unprecedented. Congressional leadership members aren’t supposed to lose, and they most especially aren’t supposed to lose in a primary within the most profoundly red of gerrymandered red districts when they have nearly 50 times as much cash on hand as their obscure opponent, while outspending them 5 to 1. This is why everyone is now scrambling to figure out just how this happened, each taking their turns at slicing and dicing at Cantor’s now deceased political career. The prevailing mainstream conclusion has been that immigration killed Cantor. Such is a simplistic answer to such a spectacular fall from power is perhaps too rash a diagnosis. There’s no doubt Cantor’s theoretical if not genuine support of a most ridiculously common sense immigration stance that called for the children of illegal families who received a 4.0 GPA and served in the military to be granted citizenship (you’d have to wonder how many dreamers could this could possibly include beyond a literal handful, even before considering that anyone earning a 4.0 in high school is probably far too smart to voluntarily put themselves in mortal danger to participate in the bullshit oil wars the US engages in) may have hurt him with some of the most paranoid, vitriolic, xenophobic racists that can be found within the camp of ignorance-driven populist nativism that once supported him. Yet, if we’re going to be truly forthcoming with the results of our Cantor autopsy we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that this result is emblematic of far, far more than the simple inability of Mr. Cantor to pretend to be irrationally racist and nativist enough to retain the trust of his base.
So, what is really happening here? Well, for starters we are witnessing what’s so incredibly flawed with our electoral process. We live in a country where in most cases the state legislature divides the federal and state level congressional districts into a series of bizarre shapes designed to cluster like-minded extremists spread around large geographical areas into the same district so they can be represented by a like-minded extremist. In blue states you’ll find more gerrymandered liberal districts, and vice versa in red states, with a nearly equal number in purple states, but in all cases nearly every seat is a partisan slam dunk where the only real threat to an incumbent is a primary challenge from an individual even further off to the far right or far left. Sure, there are your scattered districts here and there around the country where the constituency is truly balanced and moderate, but those are few and far between.
Yet, even this gerrymandering could be largely offset if we had high voter participation. The reality of the situation is that most Americans are not extreme. The vast majority don’t call climate change a hoax, but also realize we can’t just stop using all fossil fuels tomorrow. Most wouldn’t say we should let anyone walk across our borders whenever we feel like it, but they also wouldn’t want to build some Great Wall of America and deport families who have been living peaceful and productive lives here for the past 10-15 years. Most wouldn’t say everyone should be able to carry assault weapons into bars, churches, and restaurants, but most wouldn’t want to ban people from having a handgun in their home. Most wouldn’t want to completely eliminate private health insurance, but on the other hand most wouldn’t want to turn Medicare into a voucher program and go back to the days when you could be denied coverage for having a pre-existing condition. I could go on all day, but the point is that most Americans are rational centrists who seek forward progressivism, while conservatively maintaining what works, and slowly phasing out what doesn’t.
The problem is that most people don’t vote. There are reasons for this, and ways to fix this. Obviously, when voting is what it currently is, only those who really feel passionately about one or multiple issues will show up to the polls. People who truly believe in their hearts that a fetus has a magical soul that a magical deity says makes it a human, which this magical deity favors above all other living things and will send anyone who kills such a creature to an eternal fiery pit, and will condemn societies that condone such behavior to horrible ends, will probably show up to the polls to vote for the person who shares that belief. People who truly believe that the only reason they are not living under a communist dictatorship that takes all their property, strips their freedom of speech, outlaws their religion, and puts them into FEMA work camps is because they and others across the country have a bunch of guns the government is afraid of, will probably show up to the polls. Etc, etc. If you really feel that communists, or God, or terrorists, or someone or something else is going to doom your society if your government doesn’t elect certain types of leaders with certain extreme positions on various issues you’ll figure out a way to get to the polls on election day, even though it’s a non-holiday, middle of the week workday that may or may not have decent weather, and which may or may not require you to travel by car, foot, or public transit quite a ways to a polling place to wait quite a while in line.
Meanwhile, everyone else, who no doubt have opinions, albeit far less extreme, more rational, and non-fear based ones, probably won’t get to the voting booth. If we lived in a country where election day was a national holiday where the schools, government buildings, and most private businesses completely shut down, much alike Thanksgiving or Christmas, we’d get more voters. We’d get even more voters if we moved it to a weekend. We’d get even more voters if in addition to the official one-day holiday we kept the polls open for several days. We’d get even more voters if all states stopped trying to suppress the common person’s vote with all sorts of things like voter ID laws to fight non-existent voter fraud, or the consolidating of polling places to save money that doesn’t need to be saved (which result in fewer people who can vote, and longer lines at further away places for many who still have or can somehow get the proper ID). We’d get yet even more voters if all states allowed everyone to receive their ballots in the mail weeks ahead of time, or if we even set up a digital voting system people could access from their computers or smart phones. And we’d probably get nearly everyone to vote if we did all that and we had a system like in Australia where people of voting age who didn’t qualify for some sort of rare exemption were forced to vote by penalty of a fine. That’s right, much like how the ACA sought to make it so that every poor and working class person could have health insurance either via signing up for Medicaid or getting dirt cheap subsidized insurance plans, and then said now that there’s no excuse everyone who refuses to go get the insurance they can afford will have to pay a fine since that puts everyone else who relies on a healthy (no pun intended) healthcare system at risk (because the uninsured receiving emergency care they never pay for raises the cost of healthcare for everyone else, and their not going to get preventative care that insurance would cover leads to more sick people down the line, causing greater backlogs in people needing care for things like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer), in Australia they have the ACA equivalent to voting. They take all kinds of steps like some of those outlined above to make it incredibly easy to vote, and then fine those who don’t vote despite their being a complete lack of an excuse for the refusal to vote, since lower participation hurts all citizens as it leads to more extreme candidates gaining power and enacting extremist legislation.
The fact of the matter is Eric Cantor’s primary had a 12% turnout rate. That means 88% of the adults Dave Bratt will probably end up representing in Congress (because the Democrat will not win this deep red seat) didn’t come out to vote for either him or Cantor (or the Democratic challenger if they took a Dem ballot). We’re looking at an already super extremist district (from gerrymandering) only turning out the 12% of people who are the most passionate and extreme about one or more political issues. That’s why Eric Cantor lost. It wasn’t immigration, and no, contrary to what all kinds of naïve optimists are trying to say, this doesn’t demonstrate that things like Citizens United and the McCutcheon cases have failed to ensure that a handful of billionaires with special interests get to pick who goes to Washington. It wasn’t even that Cantor lost because his campaign team simply didn’t take their opponent seriously enough (although the fact they didn’t spend nearly enough of their money on the race, relied upon an erroneous in-house poll that showed him up by 34pts, completely ignored his getting booed at town hall meetings and not being able to keep one of his loyalists as the chairman of the district’s local Republican Party, and had him out fundraising for other Republicans throughout the day, as though his race was a formality, tends to demonstrate they did miss some huge warning signs and acted too cavalier about the whole race). The simple reality here is that while those all played some part in this, Cantor lost because we allow the most extreme, of already extremist gerrymandered districts to choose who runs our country, since no one else finds it worth it, given the circumstances of our election day and voting laws.
Yet, one big question does remain for some, and that is, why doesn’t this happen with liberals? It’s an interesting question, but one with an obvious answer. You’ll never find someone trying to primary Nancy Pelosi, or saying that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders aren’t liberal enough for them, because the far left isn’t as far to the left as the far right is to the right, and there are many more far right people than there are far left people to begin with. The reasons for these realities are a little more interesting than their obvious existence. To understand why there are more people on the far right and why they are more extreme than the smaller group of people on the far left, you have to first understand what makes someone a liberal or conservative. There is a nature/nurture balance to the formation of political morality, but nature is a far stronger influence than nurture. Certainly if you grow up in a home that cares about politics (a rarity) there’s a chance you’ll be influenced by the opinion of your family, and same goes with living in a political active community (rare), having politically involved friends (rare), or pursuing educational opportunities pertaining to politics (rare). Family, friends, teachers, neighbors and the likes can influence your beliefs, as can your life circumstances, as, say for example, growing up rich might lead one to be less empathetic towards the poor than someone who grows up poor and then becomes rich later in life, or being gay can make one feel differently about gay rights than if that same person was straight, etc, etc.
Yet, those influences are surprisingly mild in comparison with what nature bestows us with. Essentially, the domino effect on the nature side is that different genes affect our brain structure and function, with that structure and function producing differences in our personality, which lead to the formation of different types and degrees of morality in various key areas, which serve as the basis for our stance on various issues. Neuroscientists have identified some structural and functional differences in various parts of the brains of conservatives and liberals, and many more likely exist, but have yet to be discovered. Conservatives ultimately end up with brains that produce a personality that is very much less open to new and strange people and experiences, very concitiencious, moderately less neurotic, slightly less pleasant, and slightly more outgoing. Meanwhile, liberal brains produce a personality that is very open to new and strange people and experiences, not very concitiencious, moderately more neurotic, slightly more pleasant, and slightly less outgoing. The pleasantness and outgoingness factors are minor, with the neuroticism factor being somewhat important, and the big difference being the extreme differences in openness and concitiencious. With these personality differences, liberals and conservatives end up with different moral structures. While liberals and conservatives care roughly equally about caring for the vulnerable and doing what is fair, the difference lies in how conservatives also care about loyalty, respect for authority, and purity, while liberals will be able to favor empathy and fairness over loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. The degree to which one has less of a tendency towards loyalty, respect for authority, and a desire for purity, the more liberal they will be, and the closer one is to having an equal tendency towards those three things and the first two values (empathy and fairness) the closer they will be towards being very conservative. In other words, when you are more concitiencious you will care more about things like loyalty, authority, and purity, which makes you more conservative, but if you are less concitiencious and you’re really open to strangers and change you probably don’t care so much about things like loyalty, authority, and purity. After all, if you are more accepting and trusting of strangers loyalty isn’t that big of a deal, if you are cool with change authority and traditional purity aren’t that big of a deal, and if you aren’t all that concitiencious it will matter even less. If you end up focused almost exclusively on empathy and fairness you can just ask hey how do we care for these people or things and what is the fair way to do things, without having to consider what the tribe you are loyal to thinks, what the authority says, or what the traditions of the group are. If the answer is sudden and/or drastic change it will be okay to go with such change if you don’t care about loyalty, authority, and purity.
So, that’s how liberals and conservatives are wired differently, but that doesn’t really explain why there are more conservatives than liberals and why conservatives are more extreme. There are a number of theories on this, which each might explain some piece of the full picture. Basically, there is the evolutionary explanation, which says that being accepting of change, accepting of strangers, and lacking in loyalty (essentially lacking in respect for one’s tribe), lacking in respect for authority (essentially lacking in respect for one’s tribe’s leader), and lacking in a desire for purity, would more often than not have led to death. If you are interested in change you are likely to deviate from what the elders who have been there instruct you to do, which can be dangerous. If you are friendly to strangers they can turn out to be dangerous and hurt you. If you are lacking in loyalty to the group or respect for its leaders you might easily be thrown out of the group, which could leave one vulnerable and in danger. If you are lacking in a desire for purity you might end up exposing yourself to more germs and dangers. So, the theory goes, the few liberals that survived sort of got lucky, because prior to civilization, holding liberal values probably put you at an incredibly increased risk of death before reproduction. Then, there’s also the theory that liberals were people from a minority of various nomadic and tribal groups of humans around the pre-civilization world that encountered very different environments than most other human groups, and thus they evolved different predispositions that were more advantageous to them. There’s also the theory that says liberals existed in every corner of humanity as a small minority within each tribe or group. They became more open to change, strangers, and less into traditional practices because they were, if male physically weaker, and if female less sexually desirable. Not being able to acquire as many resources for themselves as most other people, they had to develop brains that would allow them to first come around to the idea of, and then convince others in the group of, things like sharing, change, and openness to others; a more fluid and collectivist approach, than a stable, individualistic, and traditional one. So, liberals might be really cunning, traditionally weak minorities that were able to convince others to follow this group-oriented approach for personal survival. Or, another theory goes that groups actually liked to have a minority of liberals around, who were physically weak and/or ugly, but whom had unique brains and a desire to constantly challenge tradition, since the rest of the group would mindlessly keep on doing what they always did even if circumstances had changed and they needed to adjust their behavior. Having a few around who were always saying, no, let’s try a new way instead, might have helped groups better adapt the constantly changing world.
Whatever the case, there are probably many reasons why a minority of liberal minded people were able to survive alongside the usual conservative majority throughout human history, but the fact that most liberal values would have put humans at high individual and group risk out in the pre-civilization wild explains pretty well why there are far more conservatives than liberals within civilization today. You might be thinking to yourself that there are actually a roughly equal number of liberals and conservatives, but this isn’t at all true. It appears that way, at least in America, because America is a diverse place and conservativism is based on moral values like loyalty, and respect for traditional hierarchies. Thus, with there being many types of minorities within a racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse nation, all those minorities will turn against the idea of traditional power structures that the powerful majority will be in favor of using, since such structures put them at a disadvantage. The reality is that most black people would probably oppress whites if the numbers were reversed. Most Mexicans would be as xenophobic about Americans if the roles were reversed. Most gays would be intolerant of straight people if those numbers were reversed. Most Muslims would fear and scapegoat Christians if the numbers were reversed. Etc, etc, etc. At the end of the day most self-identified American liberals are not actually liberal, but rather doing what today’s true liberals’ ancestors once likely did. That is, most American liberals are at a disadvantage for some reason, so they oppose the traditional loyalties and hierarchies and purities that put them at such a disadvantage. Since collectively there are far more people who are either not white, and/or not Christian, and/or not native born, and/or not able bodied, and/or not heterosexual, and/or not male, and/or poor, within a society that is majority white, majority Christian, majority native born, majority able bodied, majority heterosexual, and also patriarchal and capitalist, there are far more people who benefit from opposing the idea that the majority should rule, men are above women, and that poverty is just a reality of life that some people just have to learn to deal with. Thus, a great many number of people end up supporting liberal ideas and policies, even though they are not actually liberal (that is, they are not truly open to new experiences and strangers, while being against loyalty, hierarchy, and traditional purity) by nature.
So, as it pertains to voting, there are a roughly equal number of self-identified conservatives and liberals in this country, but beneath the self-identification, there are far fewer people who are truly, on a biological, personality, and moral level predisposed to being passionate towards favoring liberal values than there are those who are predisposed towards passionately holding and defending conservative values. This true difference in the quantity of liberals and conservatives that seems to go against what surface observations might indicate is actually what explains the difference in the quality of conservatives and liberals on the far left and far right. There are more people who really, really care about conservative ideas than there are those that care about liberal ideas, so they vote more. Yet, that’s only part of the story. The other part goes back to that biology. You see, the kind of things conservatives care about are cared for with a far hotter burning intensity than the things even the true liberals care about. Conservatives are largely driven by fear, which isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s just a reality. Liberals are driven by softer emotions like empathy. At the end of the day the far right is more intensely afraid of things like gays, abortion, their guns being taken away, immigrants coming into their country, etc, than liberals are empathetic towards caring for minorities, poor people, the environment and the likes.
Eric Cantor lost because there were about 1 in 10 people in his district who were so afraid of things like immigrants, losing their guns, or women getting abortions that a guy who was nearly single handedly holding Boehner back from pursuing immigration reform, who had previously single handedly halted the 2011 grand bargain Boehner had with Obama (ultimately resulting in the nasty sequester cuts), who had 100% lifetime ratings from the NRA and Right to Life groups was beaten by someone who said he wasn’t actually doing enough, being extreme enough, or trying hard enough to get those people what they were so hell-bent on either getting or avoiding having happen. Liberals, the few of them who truly are liberal by nature, (rather than for self preservation,) just aren’t that passionate. They don’t primary Harry Reid out of office because he hasn’t found a way to outlaw all fossil fuels and make gay marriage legal in every corner of the country. Liberals don’t do things like that, but conservatives on the far right do things like this. I don’t know what they want, but I do know they won’t get it out of Dave Bratt. They are never going to get to live in some world where all immigrants are rounded up and thrown back over some huge electric fence, where gays are sent to jail, where women who get abortions get executed, where every component of the government except the military gets shut down tomorrow, where all forms of welfare are completely cut out, etc. Nobody is ever going to be conservative enough for them, so things like this are always going to happen from time to time. That is, of course, unless we actually go about finding a way to get everyone to vote…but this is America, so that’s never going to happen.