There are two words that recur like a drumbeat in the news stories about David Brat’s defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primary last night. One is “historic.” The second is some variant of “stunning” (“staggering,” “shocking,” etc.). John Fund does us the courtesy of deploying both: “Eric Cantor’s loss is historic,” he writes at National Review. “No sitting House majority leader has lost an election since the office was created in 1899. While Cantor’s loss was a stunning surprise, the warning signals were around for a while.” He then supplies a list of explanations that seemed obvious only after David Brat won. Yesterday afternoon, the wise men of the commentariat would have dismissed them with a self-assured thoroughness and consistency that is truly marvelous to behold.
“Historic” and “stunning.” That is, the triumph of the tea-party-backed economics professor was both 1) important and 2) unexpected.
It was unexpected because (for example) Cantor outraised Brat by $5.7 million to $231,000. Cantor was the establishment candidate. He has (how long before that “s” becomes a “d”?) a national profile. Brat is . . . (pause for Wikipedia check) an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, an obscure institution in Ashland, Virginia.
Frankly, though, what surprises me about such events as David Brat’s victory is the surprise they occasion. Nigel Farage and the other anti-EU politicians weren’t supposed to trounce the established parties in the European elections a couple of weeks ago. Members of the established parties and the human remora that attend them told us so. But Farage, Le Pen, and the rest trounced them across Europe. This, said Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, was “a shock, an earthquake that all responsible leaders must respond to.”
Right. And how’s that working out? From where I sit, the response of “responsible leaders,” i.e., representatives of the conventional wisdom, has been mostly confined to what they used to call in the Wild West a circling of the wagons. Demonize the bastards. Ostracize ’em. Talk incessantly about “fringe candidates” and “extremists” who cannot win (except they just did), who will upset the status quo, which by an extraordinary coincidence just happens to benefit those registering their “shock,” their having been “stunned,” “staggered,” not to say “utterly dismayed.”
Both parties have been assiduous in demonizing the tea party. And they’ve been quite effective in convincing themselves that it was yesterday’s news, that the upsets of 2010 were an anomaly, that business-as-usual (represented by us mature politicians who are already in office) had once again achieved the upper hand. Order, in short, had been restored.
Except that unexpected things like David Brat’s victory, like UKIP’s victory in the European election, keep happening.