This week political pundits have been analyzing the surprising primary election loss of Eric Cantor, second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, to an unknown economics professor named Dave Brat. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this is that Cantor had raised millions of dollars (5 million plus) on his election campaign to about 200,000 for the prof. We thought money trumped everything else in politics, so what gives?
What a lot of people are still trying to figure this one out, a key is said to be the support (publicity) Mr. Brat got from hosts of politically conservative radio shows like Laura Ingraham. This makes some sense, and gets to the point of this essay- people want to ‘belong’ to certain social groups - in this case a political movement- and that urge, however it is directed, can trump even dollars. Lots of dollars.
So this “belonging” power is a big deal you say. How so? What does belonging have to do with an election that is being called ‘shocking’ by not-easily-impressed Washington insiders? Whether through internet blogs, radio shows, or other contrivances, people want to identify with some, important to them, social groups - and in this case it appears, through listening to conservative radio shows, they identify with the conservative (Tea Party) movement. To put a finer point on it, this urge to feel part of the movement was enough to motivate 36,000 people in a Virginia congressional district to vote for Brat in a primary election. But hold on, this isn’t new--politicians have known about identify-driven politics for as long as there have been elections, and in some ways this is just another example. Voters’ felt part of a group - they belonged to the Tea Party and shared its philosophy as espoused by right wing radio shows, and acted on that by voting for an essentially unknown candidate.
This drive to identify and belong to a group beyond your own self is also interesting from a groups perspective. Interpreting the Cantor/Brat election from a group identity perspective also says something about technology and how that has changed what we even think constitutes a group of people. In the past, the most important groups people identified with likely included people on their neighborhood block, and perhaps extended family, at least much more so than they do today (sociologists tell us as much). But patterns of social interaction change, and so do the type of groups people spend their time in, and hence, identify with. Today, many people might strongly identify with groups that were not even technologically possible even a few years ago, like social networking groups, online support groups, and so forth- virtual groups if you will. As another case of a big (‘macro’) virtual group, the one that forms the audience for those political radio shows is also made possible by technology as well (OK, radio is older technology but still technology). In fact, emerging groups research has started to explore ‘macro groups’ and divisions within large-scale groups that might tell us a lot more than we now know about political behaviors. And if you don’t think this constitutes a ‘real’ group or it is too abstract to have much effect, you might ask Congressman Cantor about that.
So we need to continually rethink what it means to be in a group- however constructed- and not underestimate its potential. While groups in their various forms have undoubtedly changed due to technology, it’s also important to remember that things like social media (and 'old' media like radio) are simply tools that allow different formats of groups to exist. What has not changed, however, is the drive to identify with something- that urge to ‘belong” that likely played a role in Eric Cantors’ political demise (despite all that money!)
Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova