By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
The battle over why Eric Cantor became the first House Majority Leader to ever relinquish his seat in a primary campaign has been about a hundred times more intensive than the campaign itself. It was a sleepy local race with 12.8% turnout. Virginia has no partisan registration, so any of the district’s 504,895 registered voters could have participated; only 65,022 did.
Cantor’s loss probably had many fathers. It may be as simple as this: polls always show that voters hate Congress but love their Congressmember, and Cantor, who had a whole mess of new, more conservative voters in his district after the 2010 gerrymander, symbolized the former rather than the latter. To the engaged sliver of voters participating, Cantor was the city slicker (even the Jewish city slicker, some suggest) who strove for institutional power and lost touch with the people he represented. The fact that Cantor won the areas closest to D.C. and lost the ones furthest away fits that theory.
But there’s no question that conservative economics professor David Brat succeeded in channeling a strain of right-wing populism to target Cantor, and plausibly so, as a corporate stooge and progenitor of crony capitalism. Lee Fang at Republic Report did the most thorough work on this:
“All of the investment banks, up in New York and D.C., they should have gone to jail.”
That isn’t a quote from an Occupy Wall Street protester or Senator Elizabeth Warren. That’s a common campaign slogan repeated by Dave Brat, the Virginia college professor who scored one of the biggest political upsets in over a century by defeating Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary last night […]
Brat told Internet radio host Flint Engelman that the “number one plank” in his campaign is “free markets.” Brat went on to explain, “Eric Cantor and the Republican leadership do not know what a free market is at all, and the clearest evidence of that is the financial crisis … When I say free markets, I mean no favoritism to K Street lobbyists.” Banks like Goldman Sachs were not fined for their role in the financial crisis — rather, they were rewarded with bailouts, Brat has said.
Brat, who has identified with maverick GOP lawmakers like Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, spent much of the campaign slamming both parties for being in the pocket of “Wall Street crooks” and D.C. insiders. The folks who caused the financial crisis, Brat says, “went onto Obama’s rolodex, the Republican leadership, Eric’s rolodex.”
In particular, Brat took aim at Cantor’s work on the STOCK Act, which was prompted by a conservative economist who found major stock gains from members of Congress and staffers in industries where they had inside knowledge. Cantor openly watered down the STOCK Act before passage. If you’re trying to paint your opponent as a corporatist who looks out for himself and his buddies over his constituents, this would top the list.
The oft-repeated claim that Brat won by framing Cantor as somehow pro-immigration (which comes from a couple off-hand remarks and not any real actions) actually goes together with this. Brat made an economic argument on immigration about how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to import cheap labor to take away “your” jobs. This has a nativist element to it, and it was certainly used as a rallying cry by right-wing radio talk show hosts. But even when Brat says that immigration won the race for him, he says it in terms of Cantor “supporting the U.S. Chamber agenda.” The key ad on this showed Cantor in a picture with Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg. It’s all coherent with the idea of Cantor as handing corporate America whatever they want.
And this picture of Cantor has a pretty solid basis, just as you could frame it for anyone in the Congressional leadership of either party. Over a million dollars in contributions came to Cantor this cycle from the FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate), and two of the top five contributors were Blackstone and Goldman Sachs. Lloyd Blankfein openly lamented Cantor’s loss. Lobbyists all over K Street are literally expecting to lose money in Cantor’s absence, because the source of their influence has been ousted. In fact, the only individual who’ll make money out of this is Cantor himself, once K Street comes running to throw millions at him to work at their lobby shop.
I hope we can agree that Brat’s campaign strategy of playing on the resentments of a handful of voters who aren’t getting by in this economy means nothing for the policies he’ll actually pursue. Given Brat’s ideological leanings, he will probably react to regulatory capture and Wall Street corruption by arguing that financial institutions need to be freed from burdensome government oversight and have the market discipline any untoward behavior.
But the success of the campaign strategy is notable, as John Judis and others have pointed out. Rightwing populism, which has been around for close to 200 years, operates like a funhouse-mirror inversion of what is today considered a progressive argument against corporate dominance of government. This historical argument has a lot of merit:
Richard Hofstadter famously wrote that both populism and early progressivism were heavily fueled by nativism and there is a lot of merit in what he says. Take, for instance, prohibition (one of William Jennigs Bryant’s Bryan’s major campaign issues). Most people assume that when it was enacted in 1920, it was the result of do-gooderism, stemming from the tireless work by progressives who saw drink as a scourge for the family, and women in particular. But the truth is that Prohibition was mostly supported by rural southerners and midwesterners who were persuaded that alcohol was the province of immigrants in the big cities who were polluting the culture with their foreign ways. And progressives did nothing to dispell that myth — indeed they perpetuated it. This was an issue, in its day, that was as important as gay marriage is today. The country divided itself into “wets” and “drys” and many a political alliance was made or broken by taking one side of the issue or another. Bryan, the populist Democrat, deftly exploited this issue to gain his rural coalition — and later became the poster boy for creationism, as well. (Not that he wasn’t a true believer, he was; but his views on evolution were influenced by his horror at the eugenics movement. He was a complicated guy.) And prohibition turned out to be one of the most costly and silly diversions in American history […]
Bashing immigrants and elites at the same time has a long pedigree and it is the most efficient way to bag some of those pick-up truck guys who are voting against their economic self-interest. There seems to be little evidence that bashing elites alone actually works. And that’s because what you are really doing is playing to their prejudices and validating their tribal instinct that the reason for their economic problems is really the same reason for the cultural problems they already believe they have — Aliens taking over Real America — whether liberals, immigrants, blacks, commies, Wall Street, whomever.
It’s positive that Wall Street couldn’t buy the Majority Leader’s seat for him (Brat was outspent as much as 25 to 1). And it’s positive, if predictable, that a message of being on the side of ordinary people over corporate muckety-mucks still can resonate. And a rump of right-wing populists in Congress offers the potential for trans-partisan support on discrete issues, like the NSA (which Brat has denounced). Perhaps a few Democrats could take note of the effectiveness of calling out corporate corruption among the leadership class.
But populism has many sides, and history has many examples of it being exploited to ends that its supporters may not endorse. So there’s ground to tread here, but one should tread wisely.