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.
So one lesson is: expect the unexpected. Politics (like life) is full of what Monty Python taught us to understand as “Spanish Inquisition” moments. The nice thing about them is the spectacle of confusion followed instantly by the expression of fresh certainties they occasion among the punditocracy. What was impossible just yesterday is now presented as inevitable, and they have the charts and rationales to prove it.
Which brings me to the other aspect of the Cantor Conundrum, the Brat Braining: the contention that, in addition to being “staggering,” “stunning,” etc., it is also of vast importance. Is it? In the sense that it (like the European elections of a fortnight ago) bespeaks a profound unease among the electorate with politics (and nota bene, pollsters: politicians) as usual, I’d say, yes, it is important. We’ve been told that the “tea party” is a spent force. The trouble is, the millions of ordinary people who are disgusted with Washington, who fear and loathe the the rise of the imperial state with its vast armory of regulation and surveillance, not to mention its untouchable self-enriching nomenklatura — those millions haven’t gotten the memo. They don’t know that their interests and desires are de trop, even though their masters in Washington have done everything possible to reinforce that idea.
But that’s the problem with the conventional wisdom. When it comes to politics, anyway, it is often merely conventional, rarely wise. Which is why the victory of an obscure economics professor last night is important, even if it should have surprised no one.