The big news in politics this month has been the primary upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R.-Va.). To understand how Cantor lost to economics professor David Brat -- not to mention how the Tea Party ethic has captured mainstream Republican politics -- look no further than the loons who've been carrying assault rifles into Texas restaurants.
When the National Rifle Association said it did not support assault-rifle owners brandishing their emasculated energies in front of little kids at Sonic and Applebee's, "open-carry activists" and more extreme (wha!?) gun organizations took the NRA to task. The NRA then apologized and backed down. Now the organization that in 2012 fought off common-sense gun legislation in the wake of 20 little kids being murdered in a Connecticut elementary school has become even more extreme.
What's the lesson here?
Conservatism is a funny little hoax. It claims to be about smaller government while fetching water for the prison- and military-industrial complexes. It claims to be about free markets while doing the bidding of Wall Street banks, fossil fuel companies and big agricultural monopolies. What the movement really has become about is purity and tribalism. It only rewards the most unthinking, regurgitating automaton of talk radio viewpoints.
And if you want to challenge someone as know-nothing as Eric Cantor, just take a step to the right and call him a sellout. The obvious problem is that this plan is a never-ending spiral into purity for purity's sake. As the right continues to stake out more extreme positions it naturally will become further divorced from reality: championing austerity in a time of high unemployment and falling deficits, denying the scientific certainty and extreme danger of climate change and deregulating money in a political system already swamped with the influence of corporate cash.
If there are two forces fueling modern conservatism, one is purist positioning and the other is money. In the Illinois gubernatorial race, billionaire hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin just wrote a check for $2.5 million to Republican candidate Bruce Rauner (himself a global warming-denying plutocrat whose firm, GTCR, has been linked to nursing home deaths and abuse while allegedly bilking employees out of millions in compensation). That donation is an all-time record donation in Illinois, but I bet it won't hold past 2016.
The joke about the Virginia House upset was that Cantor spent more on steaks than Brat spent on his entire campaign. Yet the example is anomalous and misleading. Big Money will flow to whomever's winning elections in the hopes of crafting more policy that benefits millionaires and billionaires. As the Republicans cleanse themselves of any last vestige of moderation, so the money will flow to more extreme positions.
It's the NRA effect. No matter how radical a viewpoint a modern Republican holds, there always will be someone out there who can run further to the right. Even if the challengers don't win, they will force incumbents to lurch toward the darker angels of their natures. This spiral effect already has led Republicans down a dangerous road, and it will continue to wring the courage out of anyone who dissents until there's an assault rifle in every Starbucks and a billionaire in every governor's seat.
Stephen Markley is a RedEye special contributor.