Thursday, June 12, 2014

Crafting the narrative that explains Cantor's defeat

Eric Cantor's primary defeat is one of those things that fascinates me about politics. As I mentioned yesterday, pundits are not only tripping over themselves to understand why it happened, but also to predict what it means for the future. In order to do so, they have to examine the motivations for human social behavior - and I suppose it shouldn't surprise us that an awful lot of them are really bad at that.

It strikes me that what happened is that a narrative everyone had settled on to understand social behavior (how Republican primary voters would behave in the midterms) got broken by Cantor's loss.  And now everyone is scrambling to be the one who tells us what the new narrative will be. We need a narrative to understand what's happening - that's why storytelling is so important. The trouble is, these things take time to develop and understand...and we're impatient.

In the meantime, we have folks telling us that it was all about immigration reform, or that it portends the rise of populism in our politics. The one thing I can guarantee you is that anyone who says they know the one and only reason for Cantor's defeat right now is likely wrong. These things are always more complicated than that.

Eventually a new narrative will develop. But it won't be a reflection of the actual reality of what happened. It will be shaped by what people chose to believe about what happened and how that influences their behavior in the future. History never has a beginning and ending, its a continual process of events, the stories we tell ourselves about those events, and how those stories affect our interactions in the future.

One part of the story I think is important to recognize, but hasn't gotten much attention, is what David Jarman wrote about the reasons for Cantor's defeat. He's smart to listen to the analysis of Erick Erickson - someone who has played a key role in the tea party insurgency. Here's the money quote from Erickson:
Cantor and his staff both lost the trust of conservatives and constituents. They broke promises, made bad deals, and left many feeling very, very betrayed. Much of it was because of Cantor’s hubris and the arrogance of his top staffers. He could not be touched and he could not be defeated. He knew it and they knew it. He kept his attention off his district, constituents, and conservatives while he and his staff plotted to get the Speaker's chair.
And here's Jarman's insightful conclusion:
"Hubris" may be the key word here. The climb through the ranks through treachery and intimidation, and then the sudden realization when you're at the top that you've burned through all your allies, is almost allegorical. It's a pattern we've seen many times before, whether it's from the Greek playwrights or Shakespeare, or in the collapse of some of history's nastiest regimes: When the leader who appeared to rule effortlessly suddenly falls with a lot of knives in his back, few people are saddened, while many people are surprised at just how thin and flimsy his support actually was, and how he was just staying in power propped up by a combination of fear and entropy.
Beyond hubris, what Jarman is describing is someone who went all-in with the power of dominance.

That is the achilles heel of Republicans - because its their go-to mode on a style of leadership. Its also why President Obama's call to remind us of the responsibilities of citizenship (ie, the power of partnership that is the very basis of democracy) is the critical message for today.

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