This month, the Tea Party combined with the American system of primary elections to mount yet another tangential triumph sending all sorts of contradictory messages. The number two Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, lost his bid to be the Republican candidate for his Virginia seat. It is measure of the age of unreason that Cantor, a poisonously reactionary shill for moneyed interests, appeared as a moderate when the Tea Party united to defeat the seven-term incumbent. It is almost heartening that he lost despite being backed by lots of campaign funding from the businesses he did so much to serve during his time in Washington.
There are many lessons from this about American politics. Cantor is so far to the right that he would have been almost unelectable 40 years ago, even in Virginia. In those days, the South was virulently racist, but it was quite appreciative of populist government measures that benefited the white poor and middle class. When the Republicans re-conquered the South from the old Dixiecrats, Cantor helped to bring a virulent neo-liberal ideology to the South, and from that base tried with some considerable success to impose it on the rest of the country. It is the combination of Dixie racism and Ronald Reagan’s California neoliberalism that has reshaped the global political landscape.
For ideologues like Cantor, the racist dog whistle was just a convenient tool to persuade poor and middle-class white Southerners to vote for their own economic destruction, and so he made two big mistakes: one was to be relatively rational on immigration reform, and the other was to be too visibly interested in national politics. In the words of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local” – and Cantor neglected his base, concentrating on his national ambitions, both personal and political. The successful Tea Party candidate emphasised that – and also Cantor’s subservience to the banks. It has to be said that few, if any, successful Tea Party candidates vote against big money when they take office – but they do talk about it.
Little remarked in the American media, the vote also represents a major defeat for the Israel lobby, for which Cantor was a fervent advocate. The lobby often claims success in overthrowing any candidate who had been in the slightest way critical of Israeli policies, but they are keeping understandably quiet about their abject failure to keep Cantor in power, which is a double failure since the lobby’s reputation rests on its ability to marshal funding for or against candidates. In this case, the well-funded Cantor’s loss signals that money is not necessarily everything in an election.
The success of the “insurgent” Tea Party candidate has emboldened many other contenders, so the inner-part conflict within the Republican Party will be accentuated even more, as two sets of reality-challenged reactionaries battle within it for dominance. The reaction of what passes for “moderate” candidates will be to adopt even more hardline positions – in effect, granting ideological victory to the rabid wing of the party.
However, these primary victories are within a small subset of the voters. The turnout for the primary elections is very low at the best of times, so a small, motivated group of voters can choose a party’s official candidates – who the majority of the actual voters in the general election might well find irrational and unsupportable.
Once again, the loopiness of the primary system comes into play. In many states, there are open primaries – which means that you do not even have to be a nominal supporter of a party to vote in its primary to pick the candidates. So now so-called moderate Republicans are trying to persuade black and Latino voters to support them in primaries against the more extremist Tea Party candidates.
Do Ed Miliband and his advisors really know the practical consequences of their zeal for primary elections?