I’m a little chagrined to find myself in agreement with Obama-foe Ron Fournier on the subject of our populist moment, but his report on talking to regular folks in Pennsylvania last Tuesday has some great insights. Money quote:
Americans see a grim future for themselves, their children, and their country. They believe their political leaders are selfish, greedy, and short-sighted—unable and/or unwilling to shield most people from wrenching economic and social change. For many, the Republican Party is becoming too extreme, while the Democratic Party—specifically, President Obama—raised and dashed their hopes for true reform. Worse of all, the typical American doesn’t know how to channel his or her anger. Heaven help Washington if they do.
What are the main themes of this discontent? Anger at Wall Street; anger at a rigged capitalist system; anger at K Street and the permanent Washington class; anger at gridlock and Obama’s inability to break out of it; anger at depressed living standards and soaring inequality. Some choice quotes that cannot be summarized in a poll:
“America is for the greedy, for those who’ve made their buck or grabbed their power. It’s not for us.” … “The rich get richer. The poor get benefits. The middle class pays for it all.” … “Do I think there might be some group or some person who might tap into our frustration and, unlike the president, actually change things? Yes. Yes, I do.”
Fournier comes up with a rough list of core populist demands. The first of which is something the foreign policy mavens in DC should hear and hear well:
Molly Redden and David Corn unpack Brat’s ideology:
A quick review of his public statements reveals a fellow who is about as tea party as can be. He appears to endorse slashing Social Security payouts to seniors by two-thirds. He wants to dissolve the IRS. And he has called for drastic cuts to education funding, explaining, “My hero Socrates trained in Plato on a rock. How much did that cost? So the greatest minds in history became the greatest minds in history without spending a lot of money.” An economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in central Virginia, Brat frequently has repeated the conservative canard that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae brought down the housing market by handling the vast majority of subprime mortgages. That is, he absolves Big Finance and the banks of responsibility for the financial crisis that triggered the recession, which hammered middle-class and low-income families across the country. (In fact, as the housing bubble grew, Freddie and Fannie shed their subprime holdings, while banks grabbed more.)
Chris Mooney discovers that Brat is a climate change skeptic:
In a recent campaign event video (which has since been made private), Brat explains his free-marketeer perspective on environmental and energy problems. Naturally, he believes that American ingenuity will lead the way to a cleaner environment. But he also hints at a disbelief in the science of global warming, and alludes to a well-worn myth that has been widely used on the right to undermine trust in climate scientists – the idea that just a few decades ago, in the 1970s, climate experts all thought we were headed into “another Ice Age.”
John Cassidy deems Brat’s lack of a political record a campaign advantage:
The above chart, from Saletan, helps explain Cantor’s loss:
Most respondents in the 2012 national poll volunteered jobs or the economy as their top issue. Only 22 percent of the voters in Cantor’s primary agreed with that priority, even though it was explicitly offered in the questionnaire. Thirty percent of the voters in Virginia’s 7th District named debt and spending, which didn’t even crack double digits in the national polls. And while fewer than 10 percent in the national polls said health care reform was their top issue (pro or con), 25 percent of the voters in Cantor’s district specifically said their top issue was “Stopping Obamacare.” As for immigration, the percentage of people who volunteered it as the most important issue in the 2012 U.S. survey was less than half a percent.
There is no grand ideological lesson to draw out of those results. They don’t say what Americans want, or what Republicans want, or even what Tea Party conservatives want. They don’t reveal the true politics of immigration reform (particularly on a night when Senator Lindsey Graham easily beat back a primary challenge) or whether the Tea Party is a live wire or a spent force in American politics. There are no grand lessons about the schisms in the Republican Party in those results. As Ben Domenech writes in the Transom, “this race was not about the Tea Party — Dave Brat may have been backed by voters sympathetic to the Tea Party, but not by any significant organization, money, or groups.” It’s not even clear the results say much about Cantor’s relationship with his constituents.
If you listen to Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, or other voices of the grass-roots right, the base’s loathing of Cantor and possibly his primary defeat would not have come as a shock. If your sole sampling of Republican opinion is the relatively establishmentarian Fox News, you might have missed it. You certainly would have missed it if you think today’s GOP is represented by the kind of Republicans who swarm around Morning Joe, where Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are touted daily as plausible GOP saviors who might somehow get the nomination.
Ben Domenech believes Cantor lost sight of his constituents:
That’s Ryan Lizza’s take on Brat – and he largely shares my view that this new form of Republican populism is a lot more potent than the Romney campaign’s 47 percent message. Why? Because Brat is targeting the 1 percent. Money quote:
Instead of lecturing the most vulnerable about the moral beauty of the marketplace, Brat targets the most well off. “Free markets!” he declared in Hanover, like a teacher about to reveal the essence of the lesson. “In a nutshell, what does it mean? It means no one is shown favoritism. Everyone is treated equally. Every firm, every business, and you compete fairly. And no one, if you’re big or small, is shown special attention. And we’re losing that.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the kind of rhetoric that Ralph Nader, and even Noam Chomsky, have used for many years to pillory the government for protecting the rich and the well connected from the vagaries of the free market.
And that’s why, in my view, it is not to be under-estimated. The K Street-Wall Street nexus is a scandal; as is our absurdly complex tax code (largely devised for corporate welfare and for those with expensive tax lawyers). Put that together with a left-sounding defense of the American middle-class against millions of undocumented, low-wage immigrants, and you’re beginning to get somewhere.
Given where the country now is, I expected Obama’s likeliest successor to be to his populist left, someone able to corral anger at the one percent and Washington, someone urging radical change on behalf of the little guy. But the Clinton machine has managed to choke off that possibility – while the GOP is fast rushing into the gap.
Brat’s background should make him especially appealing to conservative organizations. He chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College and heads its BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program. The funding for the program came from John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (a financial-services company) who now heads the Cato Institute. The two share an affinity for Ayn Rand: Allison is a major supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Brat co-authored a paper titled “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.” Brat says that while he isn’t a Randian, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.
His academic background isn’t all economics, though. Brat got a business degree from Hope College in Holland, Mich., then went to Princeton seminary. Before deciding to focus on economics, he wanted to be a professor of systematic theology and cites John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr as influences. And he says his religious background informs his views on economics. “I’ve always found it amazing how we have the grand swath of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we lost moral arguments on the major issue of our day,” he says, referring to fiscal-policy issues.
Beauchamp digs into Brat’s unpublished book on economics:
Brat clearly wants to bring to bear is the role of “values” in economics. Brat seems to believe that most economists are motivated by philosophy rather than science: they’re secretly utilitarians who believe that the goal of public policy is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. He thinks this leads them to wrongly assert that their preferred policies are “scientifically” the best policies, when in reality they’re just the policies that a utilitarian would say are the best. “Economists from the beginning to the end, have engaged in normative, ethical and moral arguments which diverge greatly from the work of the ‘true’ science which they espouse,” Brat writes.
Timothy B. Lee focuses on Brat’s views of the security state:
That’s my underlying take on what just happened in American politics. We live in a potentially powerfully populist moment. The economy is failing to help middle- and working-class people make headway, while the wealthiest are living higher on the hog than since the days of robber barons. Wall Street’s masters of the universe nearly wiped out the US and global economy – and there has been scarcely any accountability for their recklessness and greed and hubris. Big business favors mass, cheap immigration – which adds marginally to the woes of the working poor. All of this is grist to someone like Elizabeth Warren, but also to someone like Dave Brat or Ted Cruz.
But the main difference between a Warren and a Brat is that Warren is never going to be able to rally the Southern or Midwestern white working poor to her professorial, Massachusetts profile. A dorky populist like Brat? Much more imaginable. A gifted demagogue like Ted Cruz? I think many liberals would be surprised. And the ace card for the populist right, rather than the populist left, is immigration. If you can weld together a loathing and resentment of elites with a loathing and resentment of foreigners “invading” the country and “taking our jobs,” then you have a potent combination.
Brat also targeted K Street as well as Wall Street. So you have this dynamic, noted by John Judis:
Speaking last month before the Mechanicsville Tea Party, Brat tied Cantor to Wall Street and big business, whom he blamed partly for the financial crisis. “All the investment banks in the New York and D.C.—those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric’s Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks,” he said. Brat echoed these charges in a radio interview. “The crooks up on Wall Street and some of the big banks—I’m pro business, I’m just talking about the crooks—they didn’t go to jail they are on Eric’s Rolodex,” he said.
Brat and local Tea Party leaders also criticized Cantor for attempting to water down the Stock Act, which banned members of Congress from profiting from insider trading. “One congressman changed the act so spouses could benefit from insider trading,” Brat charged, referring to Cantor. (Cantor drew equal fire from Democrats for attempting to undermine the bill.)
This theme also taps into a deep dissatisfaction with a gridlocked government.
I watched Fox News a little compulsively last night. Where else? If you’re really going to understand the groundswell in Virginia, it’s essential viewing. I gleaned a few things. The first is that we shouldn’t under-estimate a story that hasn’t gotten widespread MSM attention, but which was a big event in the conservative media in the last few days. The story was – and is – about a large influx of illegal immigrants under the age of 17 – from Latin American countries other than Mexico – just showing up at the border and seeking refuge. For a non-wingnut version of the story, here’s CNN:
“We are seeing hundreds turning themselves in daily. And I mean hundreds at a time,” said Chris Cabrera, a leader of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing U.S. Border Patrol agents. Many of the immigrants use rafts to cross the Rio Grande, equipped with instructions to follow the river until reaching the Border Patrol site to surrender. “They know that once they get to the station, we are going to give them paperwork and we are going to set them free into the United States,” Cabrera says.
U.S. law prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from immediately deporting the children if they are not from Canada or Mexico. Instead, the children are turned over to Department Health and Human Services supervision “within 72 hours of DHS taking them into custody,” an official said … The numbers are staggering. He estimates that more than 60,000 unaccompanied juveniles will cross in 2014 and that the numbers will rise from there. “You’re talking kids from 17 years old, on down to some that are 5 or 6 years old, traveling by themselves,” Cabrera says.
The number of these undocumented minors has overwhelmed the resources of border states, leading the president to declare an “urgent humanitarian situation”. And the influx seems related to the Obama policy of easing up on the immigration of minors – which Cantor had expressed some sympathy for. Put all that together and you have a news event almost tailor-made to both expose the chaos at the border with respect to immigrant kids and to create a sense of emergency that would boost turnout and intensity in the last few days of the Brat campaign.
And look: this isn’t irrational. It’s perfectly understandable that an immigration loophole that would mean tens of thousands of undocumented children simply walking into the US would galvanize people who believe the border is insecure.
But the story would never have had traction without the relentless focus from the Brat Pack media complex. And who would be members of that Brat Pack? Step forward, as they say, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, and Matt Drudge (with a somewhat more niche version in Mickey Kaus). In ways I really cannot but admire, these anti-amnesty enthusiasts latched onto the Brat campaign, pumped up the hysteria and rhetoric day after day, turned the illegal children crossings into a mini-media firestorm, and, against all those odds, never let go. Mickey has a bit of a slightly stunned post this morning on the great adventure he has just completed:
I would have settled for his challenger, Dave Brat, getting more than 40%. I was all ready to (legitimately) spin that as a warning shot across Cantor’s bow.
But Mickey is a minor media figure here. The key figures behind this upset are Ingraham, Levin, Drudge and Coulter. Their constant championing of Brat, their genius at always backing the upstarts and the rebels, their swagger against the Republican Establishment and their dominance of the Republican base debate were all indispensable to Brat’s victory. And that’s why I think the amazement at the money imbalance in the race misses something important. The kind of media exposure Brat got for free was almost certainly worth far more than the brutal ads Cantor flooded his district with. Brat got endorsements from the men and women who truly have credibility with the Tea Party base. And that media universe has much more power with the grassroots than anything the establishment could hope for.
[D]on’t give the TeaVangelist team too much credit for strategic genius. The key factor in this upset is a 12% voter turnout—meaning that 6.1% of the local electorate could make a majority. This is a paradise for activists and ideologues—Main Street voters, not so much.
No one seriously doubts whether Cantor could have won a general election in his Virginia district. This is purely a numbers game. An unrepresentative turnout makes for an unrepresentative result. And for Republicans, it is perhaps the most pointed reminder of the dangerous game they’ve been playing by stoking the fires of furious conservative populism. Golem ultimately turns on its creator.
Sure. But Cantor won massively in previous primaries where the turnout was actually lower. Morrissey rightly calls Avlon’s logic absurd:
First, Cantor himself got elected through the same supposedly unrepresentative process of the primary system. … Also, it should be noted that turnout in this primary was actually higher than those earlier primaries that nominated Cantor (almost 20,000 more than in 2012) and were supposedly more representative — and that Cantor got fewer votes this time than in his last primary.
Morrissey also declares that, “that immigration wasn’t the only reason Cantor lost, but it’s absurd to think it didn’t play any role.” I’m with Morrissey. Why? Because immigration was easily the hottest issue as the race came down to the wire. Look at that tweet above. But Jamie Weinstein thinks the emphasis on immigration is misguided:
[T]he truth is that most polls show that a majority of Republicans support a type of legalization proposal similar to what Graham helped write and pass through the Senate and, to a much more limited extent, Cantor supported in the House. There is even a poll of self-identified tea party sympathizers that shows that 70 percent support an immigration bill that would provide some type of pathway to legalization for illegal aliens in the country if certain conditions are met.
Perhaps these polls are all wrong. Perhaps the political class has overlooked the potency of the immigration issue for voters. But it is also possible that we are exaggerating the importance of one House primary, however shocking its result. What if all Cantor’s supporters stayed home because they thought their man was safe and everyone who opposed immigration reform showed up? Maybe Cantor was tossed out because voters thought he cared more about rising the House leadership ranks than representing them?
Maybe. PPP’s polling (pdf) backs that analysis up:
Using DW-NOMINATE Common Space scores (which measure the ideological positions of Members of Congress based on the entirety of their roll call voting records), we find that Cantor is more conservative than 61% of Republicans in the (current) 113th House and more conservative than 76% of Republicans in the 113th Senate. Though already a sound conservative in the current Congress, Rep. Cantor would have been among the most conservative Republicans (more conservative than 83% of Republicans) 20 years ago in the 104th House.
But Derek Willis adds that, as “a member of leadership, Mr. Cantor has had to take votes that angered conservatives”: