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The winner in Tuesday's mind-boggling defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wasn't just David Who? (Actually, David Brat.) It also was gridlock - for the remainder of this congressional session, and the next one, and probably for a number of years beyond that.
Brat's victory is almost certain to push the Republican Party to the right on the very issue that will cement the Democrats' hold on the White House: immigration. It's not that Cantor's alleged squishiness on the undocumented was the only issue in play; there were many reasons why Brat prevailed. One of them, surely, had to be voters' almost pan-ideological revulsion at the congressional leadership. Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, also attacked Cantor for his consistent defense of Wall Street.
"All the investment banks in New York and D.C. - those guys should have gone to jail," Brat said at a tea party rally last month. "Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric's Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks."
But Brat reserved most of his ire for Cantor's willingness to entertain a bill that would legalize undocumented immigrants - "40 million" - who were bound to bring down Americans' wages, he told the tea party. (This overstated the number of the undocumented by a factor of four, confirming the suspicions of many that you can become an economics professor without actually knowing how to count.) Brat's campaign, as the New Republic's John Judis noted, was a classic of right-wing populism, blaming both Wall Street banks and the non-white and immigrant poor for our economic woes.
It's the anti-immigrant theme that has dominated the discourse since Tuesday night. House Republicans, some of whom were flirting with the notion of treating the undocumented as human beings, are now certain to oppose bringing any immigration reform bill to a vote.
This newly reinforced intransigence could not be further from the actual sentiments of the American people. On the same day as Cantor's defeat, the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution released a survey of Americans' attitudes toward immigrants and immigration reform. Fully 62 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) supported legislation enabling the undocumented to become citizens, and 17 percent backed legalization short of citizenship. Just 19 percent favored deporting the undocumented - though 30 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of tea party participants backed that option.
Juxtapose those numbers against Tuesday's Cantor debacle and the result can only be a widening of the parties' differences on an issue of major electoral import. House Republicans, the vast majority of them safely cocooned in neatly gerrymandered, right-wing, lily-white districts, will continue to block efforts at immigration reform. President Obama is likely to respond by extending his do-not-deport policy, currently applicable to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, to a wider range of people - perhaps to the undocumented parents of U.S.-born children.
Latinos will have every reason to go to the polls, particularly in presidential election years, to punish Republicans. (As polling has shown that Latinos favor a bigger government delivering more services, they'd vote heavily Democratic anyway, but the deepening of Republican nativism will only boost their turnout.) The Democrats' hold on the White House will grow stronger. The Senate will eventually tilt more Democratic, too, since states will become more racially diverse and their boundary lines can't be gerrymandered.
However, the rightward movement of the Republican House will continue apace.
Unless the Democrats can wrest control of the House from the GOP - no mean feat, considering the gerrymandering and voter-suppression battlements that Republicans have thrown up around their districts - gridlock will intensify.
The Great Recession has deepened the nation's already profound divisions. Fed a steady diet of bile and bilge from right-wing media, many Republicans blame immigrants and minorities for much of our economic ills, and see in the nation's growing diversity the loss of the "traditional" (that is, white Christian) American republic to a multiracial democracy. For their part, the ever more multiracial Democrats, particularly in cities where polyglot working-class coalitions have come to power, seek to combat growing inequality by raising workers' pay and doing what they can to stop deportations of undocumented residents.
What all this means is that the policy differences between red states and blue will grow relentlessly wider. And that the federal government, unless it somehow comes under one-party control, will do less and less.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. He wrote this for the Washington Post.