Voters' revolts are always instructive. But first you have to figure out what the voters were trying to say. And in the days since Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, lost his GOP primary election, there's been plenty of disagreement about that.
The prevailing conclusion in the GOP establishment has been that Cantor was mostly a victim of incompetence — his own and his pollster's, who told him he was leading in his Virginia district by a margin of 34 percentage points.
But whatever the reasons for Cantor's loss, it illuminates broader issues, and Republicans spent the week nervously sifting through them. (Democrats should too, but they've mostly been enjoying the GOP's discomfort.)
One thing both sides must contend with is that the polarization of American voters is intensifying, with Republicans growing more conservative and Democrats more liberal.
Cantor was a conservative who opposed most of Speaker John A. Boehner's efforts to negotiate fiscal compromises with President Obama and the Senate. He sought to align himself with tea party-oriented Republicans. But he was toppled by voters who decided he wasn't conservative enough.
Just days after Cantor's loss, the Pew Research Center released a massive study on polarization in the electorate that helps explain how that could happen. The Pew poll found that Republican and Democratic voters are more ideologically distant from each other than at any time in recent history. The bipartisan "center" is shrinking, while the percentage who hold either consistently conservative or consistently liberal positions has doubled over the last decade, now accounting for about one-fifth of all Americans.
Animosity between the two sides is rising too, Pew reported. More than one-third of Republicans and more than one-fourth of Democrats said they thought the other party was "a threat to the nation's well-being."
"Everybody wants to know whose fault it is," said Carroll Doherty, who directed the study. "But we found polarization on both sides."
And polarization affects elections, of course; voters with more intense views are more likely to turn out — especially conservative Republicans, according to Pew.
It found that 54% of consistently conservative voters said they voted in primary elections, compared with only 34% of consistent liberals and 18% of voters with "mixed" political attitudes. In Cantor's district, the hotly contested GOP nomination battle drew 38% more voters than his primary election two years ago, and most of the voters chose the most conservative candidate they could get.
And what about immigration? In early analyses of the Cantor race, the consensus was that his flirtation with a mild version of immigration reform was a big part of what drove voters to his opponent, Dave Brat. In a poll released after the primary, only 22% of Brat's supporters said immigration reform was the main reason for their vote.
That doesn't mean immigration wasn't a factor, but it suggests it was a top priority for only a relatively small group.
Still, a perception that the issue might tip the scales in close races has virtually guaranteed that the House will delay any attempt to pass an immigration bill until after the November election — if then.
To skittish Republican incumbents, immigration reform just looks too risky at the moment. As GOP pollster Glen Bolger put it: "All it takes is one high-profile crash and nobody wants to fly on airplanes for a while."
Besides, a Boehner adviser noted, there's still no consensus among House Republicans on what kind of bill they want to pass. "That might take three weeks, three months or three years," he said.
That dilatory calendar may be comforting for GOP members of Congress, but it's bad news for Republican presidential candidates who might benefit among Latino voters from a demonstration that the GOP isn't hostile to immigrants.
Does the Cantor race suggest that American politics is irredeemably in the grip of two mutually hostile ideologies, one zealously conservative, the other rabidly liberal?
Not really. The Pew survey found plenty of evidence that a center still exists. One-fifth of all Americans are either consistently liberal or conservative, but that means four-fifths are neither. On individual issues, Pew found that majorities on both sides actually hold relatively moderate views. On immigration, for example, 76% of Americans told Pew they believe undocumented immigrants should be eligible for citizenship after meeting certain requirements; even among conservatives, 51% embraced an eventual path to citizenship.
So is a moderates' revolt possible? Sure. All they need to do is get as fired up and passionate as their polarized neighbors, and turn out for some primaries. But that wouldn't be very moderate, would it?