The defeat in June of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary by a conservative challenger with little money was one of the most encouraging developments in American politics in a long time. This week’s announcement that Cantor now has a $3.4 million job with a Wall Street investment bank, however, is a vivid reminder of many of the things that are now wrong with American politics.
It used to be that congressmen represented their districts in Washington; now, they represent the interests of Washington and of our moneyed elites to their districts. Indeed, Cantor lost his primary race because the voters believed that he was ready to deliver the amnesty for illegal immigrants that the elite class demands but that most Americans oppose. Congressmen also used to return home once their political careers were over, often resuming the careers they had before they went to Congress. Now, congressmen almost never leave Washington once they arrive. The growing influence of money in politics means that well-financed incumbents almost always get reelected, and those congressmen who do leave office generally do what Cantor did. Politicians who have made it to Washington now live in a bubble, where salaries like Cantor’s are common among those they deal with and no one they regularly encounter is poor. In a sense, the whole Washington metropolitan area has become a bubble, with a 2011 Census survey finding that seven of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties were in the Washington area. No wonder those in Washington care so little about the dismal state of the American economy.
The only hammer that ordinary Americans hold over their elected representatives is the ability to vote them out of office. As Cantor learned in June, that can still happen. But given how golden Cantor’s parachute was, one wonders how long the fear of losing an election will continue to motivate those who claim to represent us in Washington.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.