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Cantor’s Loss and the Search for a Unified Field Theory

There’s no question that the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was a significant, even unprecedented, political event. As the Washington Post put it, “Historians said that no House leader of Cantor’s rank had ever been defeated in a primary.”

It’s not surprising, then, that there’s been an avalanche of commentary attempting to explain why Mr. Cantor was defeated. Some have argued it was because of his stand on immigration. Others said the majority leader was too closely identified with Wall Street and the GOP “establishment.” Still others argued that Cantor had lost touch with his constituents. Ron Fournier suggests that Cantor’s defeat may signal a “populist revolution.” Mr. Cantor’s pollster, John McLaughlin, says the race was decided by Democratic voters.

Each of these things may well have contributed to the outcome of the race. Or perhaps only some of them. Here’s the thing, though: We’ll never really know, given the limited post-election data we have to examine; and we certainly won’t know how much weight to give (if any at all) to Cantor’s stance on immigration v. the perception that he’s too closely tied with business interests v. the sense among some of his constituents that he had grown aloof.

This will not, of course, keep political commentators from instantly and authoritatively interpreting the outcome of the race, often in ways that advance their own pre-existing views. (If you’re a critic of “comprehensive immigration reform,” for example, you’re probably more likely to interpret Cantor’s loss as a result of him holding views at odds with your own.) What I’ve learned over the years is that what will soon emerge is a perceived wisdom, which may be largely baseless but will nevertheless be important. Important because lessons that are incomplete or wrong, when internalized, still influence how people act.

So let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Cantor’s stance on immigration was a contributing but not an overriding factor in his loss. Yet if the post-election “narrative” is that his approach on illegal immigration cost Cantor his seat–if that is seen as the dominant issue–that is what other Republicans will take away from the race. And they will adjust to what they think reality is, whether or not it happens to be true.

There’s a natural human tendency to interpret things in life, including in political life, in somewhat superficial ways. Nuances and subtleties give way to simplistic explanations. That happens a lot in politics; and I imagine it’ll be amplified in this instance. Because the bigger the event, the greater the temptation to produce a Unified Field Theory. Such theories can often be interesting and creative; but usually they are mistaken. And that actually matters.


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