By Richard Reeves
The most fascinating of the many theories about the fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary earlier this month has to do with the redistricting after the 2010 Census. He was supposed to be helped by having very politically conservative New Kent County added to the 7th Congressional District in place of more liberal precincts in the Richmond area. But the voters of New Kent, a 75 percent Republican stronghold, voted against Cantor by almost 2-to-1.
Why? Well, there are many theories about that, too. They were new people in new developments, many of them white-flight people and conservative Christians running from Richmond, who did not know much about Cantor other than that he was a big deal in Washington. So, reflecting conservative anger at the Washington establishment, it is said, they voted for an "unknown" college professor named David Brat, who may or may not be even more conservative than Cantor.
Who knows? Few people vote in primaries and strange thing happen. Certainly no one in Washington knew. In Virginia, though, Jeff Schapiro, the political columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch, seemed to know. Writing before the election, he said:
"The closest people in New Kent County come these days to seeing their congressman, Eric Cantor, is his sagging 4-by-6 campaign sign on the south side of U.S. 60, just beyond a filling station. There’s been a wave of mail. And the television ads, including one depicting his primary opponent, Dave Brat, as an out-of-touch, ivory-tower liberal who is wobbly on higher taxes."
The ads on billboards and especially on television were as untrue as they were counterproductive. A lot of folks had never heard of Brat before Cantor started attacking him.
"The [ads are] supposed to turn voters against Brat," wrote Schapiro. "Instead, [they’re] turning out voters for him, mostly tea partyers and libertarians whose thinking is ABC: anybody but Cantor."
Schapiro, noting that the district, with New Kent added, was at least 60 percent Republican, continued: "But it’s a district in which partisan homogeneity masks cultural heterogeneity. It is both country club and countryside, perhaps widening the distance between Cantor and his constituents."
The phrases "partisan homogeneity" and "cultural heterogeneity" are interesting additions to the political jargon of the day. A number of new studies and analyses are indicating that Americans, who once chose neighborhoods that reflected their own ethnicity and religion, are now moving to places where they feel ideologically comfortable—a development that will make American politics even more polarized than it already is.
There is, of course, a difference in New Kent, a place that is doubly polarized, between liberals and conservatives, and between conservative and very conservative Republicans.
A new Pew Research survey states that 50 percent of conservative voters and 35 percent of liberals say that it is important to live where most people share their political views—say, in New Kent County and Greenwich Village or San Francisco. That’s interesting stuff to those of us born in a time when "their own kind" meant Protestants, Catholics or Jews, Irish or Italian or Germans.
Now, "their own kind" means something different, and it also probably means more political and geographic polarization.
The devil in the details of the Pew survey taken between January and March includes numbers like these on marriage: Among self-identified conservatives, 30 percent say they would be "unhappy" if a family member wanted to marry a Democrat. And among Democrats, 23 percent say they would be unhappy if a family member were to marry a Republican. As for race, 1 percent of Democrats say they would be unhappy if someone in the family married someone of a different race. The corresponding number among conservatives is 23 percent.
So much for the melting pot early in this new century.
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