How the Politics of Nostalgia Sank Eric Cantor

His loss isn't about immigration narrowly. It's a lesson in how any legislation that threatens cultural transformation can raise the hackles of Tea Party Republicans.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Eric Cantor’s unexpected loss to David Brat, a relatively unknown, Tea Party-backed candidate Tuesday has pundits across the spectrum reading the tea leaves, speculating about what it means for other primary races and for the 2014 midterms. By my lights, there are convincing close-to-the-ground reasons Cantor lost—poor tactical decisions to attack an unknown opponent early in the race, a widespread perception that he had lost touch with his constituents, inaccurate internal polling that misled him into thinking he had a comfortable lead, a redrawn district that was more rural, and perhaps even his Jewish religious identity in contrast to Brat’s pan-Christian background that combines a reformed Protestant college and seminary background with his current Catholic affiliation.

Like Tea Party challengers across the country, Brat sought to make immigration reform a defining issue in the campaign, accusing Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for immigrants in the country illegally, even though Cantor opposed the comprehensive, bipartisan Senate bill and only supported (but did not bring to the floor) a more limited Republican version of the DREAM Act, which allowed children brought to the U.S. illegally to be eligible for in-state college-tuition rates. Despite its prominence in the debate, there is good evidence that immigration reform was not the decisive factor in the election. Both a PRRI/Brookings poll released the same day as Cantor’s defeat and a poll conducted in Cantor’s district show majorities of Republicans supporting immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Moreover, Lindsey Graham handily won his primary in conservative South Carolina, despite being dubbed “Grahamnesty” by opponents.

While support for a path to citizenship may not be a third rail for Republican candidates, it’s a good proxy for the cultural war inside the GOP that began with the rise of the Tea Party. It’s a war over the politics of nostalgia, and it’s demonstrated by the yawning gap between Tea Party Republicans, who constitute about one-quarter of the whole, and establishment Republicans on a range of questions about cultural and demographic changes in America. The politics of nostalgia is especially intense among Tea Party Republicans, and far more tempered among establishment Republicans.

On basic issues of immigration policy, there is an attitude gap of more than 20 points between Tea Party Republicans and non-Tea Party establishment Republicans. Among establishment Republicans, 56 percent favor allowing immigrants in the country illegally a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, compared to only 34 percent of Tea Party Republicans. Among Tea Party Republicans, a plurality (41 percent) say that illegal immigrants in the country should be identified and deported, a view shared by only 26 percent of establishment Republicans. There are similar patterns about the economic and cultural impact of immigrants. Among Tea Party Republicans, more than six in 10 (62 percent) say immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care, compared to only 46 percent of establishment Republicans. Sixty-three percent of Tea Party Republicans say the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values, while less than half (48 percent) of establishment Republicans agree.

These divides are mirrored when the conversation moves beyond immigration, which is dominated by debate about Hispanics. Last year, PRRI and Brookings found that Tea Party Republicans also held much more negative views about the impact of other minority groups as well. Approximately six in 10 Tea Party Republicans say both Muslims (59 percent) and gay and lesbian people (61 percent) are changing the country for the worse, compared to approximately four in 10 establishment Republicans who say the same about each group. Moreover, Tea Party Republicans report feeling changes in American society more intensely than establishment Republicans; six in 10 Tea Party Republicans say immigrants today are changing Americans society a lot, compared to half of establishment Republicans who feel the same.

Ultimately, the question at the heart of the civil war inside the GOP is about the changing cultural, religious, and ethnic identity of the United States. PRRI recently asked Americans the following question: “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” Overall, the country is nearly evenly divided on this question, with 44 percent saying it has changed for the better and 46 percent saying it has changed for the worse. There are telling deep divides not only between the major political parties but also between factions inside the GOP. Less than one-third (32 percent) of Democrats say the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s, and independents are nearly evenly divided. On the other side, six in 10 establishment Republicans agree, but among Tea Party Republicans, this negative assessment of cultural changes is particularly intense, jumping to 72 percent.

Republicans overall are more likely to be white than the general population, and Tea Party Republicans are more likely than non-Tea Party establishment Republicans to be male, older, and evangelical Protestant. These are attributes of people who have historically enjoyed a place of privilege and cultural dominance. Cantor’s defeat should not be read as a narrow lesson about the fate of Republican candidates who support immigration reform. Rather, it is valuable because it gives us a window into what any accommodating legislation on immigration reform may signify for Tea Party Republicans: a surrender to the lengthening shadows in what was a bright, familiar cultural world. The key question for the future is whether the relatively small band of Tea Party Republicans will continue to win skirmishes that may ultimately cost the GOP the war.