Cantor’s Loss, Populism’s Gain: 8 Insights for the Left

Richard Eskow

Twenty-four hours have now passed since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat. Oceans of pixelated ink have already been spilled interpreting its meaning. Cantor’s defeat has certainly put an end to the conventional wisdom that “establishment Republicans” were beating back the tea party this year (although only in today’s Bizarro World political universe could Eric Cantor have been considered an “establishment Republican”).

There are things we will miss about Eric Cantor: his walk, that funny way he had of tilting his head when he laughed…

We’re kidding, of course. There is nothing we will miss about Eric Cantor. Americans do owe him a debt of gratitude, however, for preventing a ghastly Grand Bargain between President Obama and the more sober-minded (at least in this context) and deal-ready John Boehner. Without Cantor’s intransigence, Americans would’ve gotten a lousy deal — and Democrats would probably have been blamed for Social Security and Medicare cuts that would have haunted them for a generation to come.

So thanks, Mr. Cantor. Now don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The victor in Tuesday’s primary, David Brat, is a professor whose college chair is endowed with libertarian money and who writes papers on topics like “God and Advanced Mammon–Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” He ran a campaign that the left could fairly characterize as extreme and nativist. But, pace Digby, left-populists can take encouragement from Brat’s victory without embracing him as a hero.

Unlike Cantor, who was a party apparatchik first and foremost, Brat is an ideologue. But is that bad? Ideology has gotten a bad name from members of both parties who would rather push a Washington/corporate consensus that have a real debate on the issues. Ideological differences are an part of the political process in a democracy.

That’s why it’s important not to minimize the significance of Cantor’s defeat. That effort is already underway. It’s understandable that Hillary Clinton, for example, would attempt to characterize the outcome as solely the result of Brat’s immigration position. That deflects attention from the populist aspect of his campaign, thereby minimizing a movement which presents a potential threat to Clinton and her allies as well.

But to do that is to miss an important aspect of this story.

To be sure, it’s possible to draw too many inferences from a primary in which less than 50,000 people voted. But there are legitimate conclusions to be drawn from Cantor’s defeat. Some are self-evident — like don’t have incompetent pollsters, don’t be inauthentic, and try not to be personally unlikable. But there are also some useful insights to be gained from David Brat’s upset victory, especially for the left.

Here are eight of them:

1. Don’t let them tell you what’s impossible.

Few races were considered more of a lock than this one. While there are still conflicting reports about the disparity in money between the two campaigns — was it 20 to 1? 40 to 1? — we know that it was big. And yet, despite being massively outspent, the challenger won.

Too many people on the left are too readily given to despair. Why? Is it because liberals read newspapers and conservatives don’t? Too many people on the progressive side of the fence believe what they read in the newspapers or hear on television about the limits of the politically possible. That’s a mistake. The mainstream media is deeply embedded with the Washington political elite. Most mainstream journalists tend to share the highly limited worldview that comes with inside-the-Beltway success.

The D.C. cocktail party circuit is a great place to get a job or make connections. It’s not so good for reading the pulse of the electorate. The only reason the elite’s views prevail in policymaking so often is because they are often the only options voters are given at election time. If voters are given a more populist alternative, there’s a good chance they’ll go for it.

2. Money is not always destiny.

We won’t have a functioning democracy until we get money out of politics. But the closer you get to ground-level politics, the more possibilities there are for working around our corrupted system — and congressional elections are as close to ground level as national politics gets. That’s especially true in primaries, where turnout is often very low and the political “ground game” is especially important.

Brat seems to have defeated Cantor with guerrilla tactics that allowed him to overcome a massive financial deficit. Even in our broken system, money is not always destiny. Like the song says: Don’t give up.

3. Populism wins.

Brat has been characterized as a one-note politician who discussed nothing but immigration. That isn’t true. He made Cantor’s Wall Street ties a key theme of his campaign, tapping into a frustration with corrupt Washington politics that is felt across the political spectrum.

It was only a matter of time before somebody described Brat as “the Elizabeth Warren of the right.” Ryan Lizza wins the prize for being first, using that as the theme for a blog post on the New Yorker website the day after the election. And he’s right.

Brat has said: “I’m an economist. I’m pro-business. I’m pro-big business making profits. But what I’m absolutely against is big business in bed with big government. And that’s the problem.”

“The Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street,” Brat also said, “and not enough attention to Main Street.”

Progressive Democrats have precisely the same claim about their party’s dominant Clinton/Obama wing.

Here’s a Brat quote about Cantor: “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.”

Brat is not a doctrinaire tea party type. That movement has been masterminded by corporate interests, and its candidates rarely if ever have taken an anti-corporate position. Brat uses some genuinely populist rhetoric, and it clearly helped him.

That’s not a surprise to those of us who’ve been tracking polling data on economic issues have known for years that anti-corporate populist reform policies are popular across the political spectrum.

(See PopulistMajority.org for details. Also see Lee Fang’s overview of Brat’s anti-corruption campaign.)

4. Partisan media matter.

Some rather unpleasant far-right media types, like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, lent their voices to the Brat campaign. That gave him a tremendous leg up among conservative-populist true believers, stoking their enthusiasm and fueling both organizational efforts and turnout.

Inside-the-Beltway consensus thinking tends to dismiss voices on both the left and the right as unimportant to the political process. The myth of “truly undecided centrist voter” — that legendary creature who is situated precisely between the Republican and Democratic parties on key issues — has led the political class to ignore the electoral power of ideological voices.

The left has its voices too. Some of them are in radio (ahem!), although print and online outlets have been far more significant in the evolution of the progressive base over the last decade. Insurgent Democratic politicians should not be reluctant to use these voices, just because they’re afraid that the In Crowd in Washington will marginalize them.

As this victory shows, distancing yourself from the In Crowd isn’t always a bad thing.

5. Discipline matters, too.

Cantor faced only one opponent. A Democratic primary in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia was a different story. Don Beyer is a Democratic insider, an auto dealer and former lieutenant governor whose views are arguably well to the right of Democrats in his district. Like Cantor, he spent a lot of money. Unlike Cantor, however, he sailed to an easy victory.

Why? For one thing Beyer faced six opponents, rather than one. Beyer won with 44.8 percent of the vote. A unified populist challenge might have led to a different and more progressive outcome.

That suggests there is a broader niche to be filled by organizations like the Working Families Party, who choose their challenges tactically and then seek to unify around a single progressive challenger.

It also suggests that the left needs more discipline. There may be a lot of people in a district who want to run. They may even be qualified. But dividing the populist/progressive vote is a path to defeat.

6. Politics is still a retail business.

Congressional primaries are won and lost on relatively small numbers of votes. That means that shaking hands is important. Offering rides is important. Connecting emotionally is important. Understanding the geography and demographics of your district is important, too.

There are some brilliant people on the left, but you don’t win elections in your head. You win them on the street.

7. Don’t go “Potomac” on your constituents.

This lesson is the inverse of No. 6, and it may be the most important one of all.

Despite his fiery tea party-like rhetoric, Eric Cantor had clearly “gone native” in Washington. He became part of the Beltway elite. Voters hate that. A lot of Democrats are making the same mistake. They hobnob at Pete Peterson’s “Fiscal Summits” or imbibe the latest corporate-financed “Third Way” pro-wealthy proposals and lose touch with what’s happening back at home.

Politicians who forget their voters and go “Potomac” can find themselves in for a nasty surprise. Democrats lost the house because they forgot the most people outside the Beltway were living in a recession. They thought there was a recovery going on. That’s with the spinmeisters told them, and that’s how they campaigned.

That’s how they lost. If you ignore what people are feeling back in your home district, you may very well pay the price in November.

8. Don’t be afraid to fight populism with populism.

A headline in today’s Wall Street Journal reads, “Eric Cantor’s Loss a Blow to Wall Street.” The lede reads:

“Wall Street has many friends in Washington, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was a well-placed one who understood how the industry worked and was not afraid to help the financial-services sector, even when he had to take on other members of his own party.”

A few headlines like that about Democrats and we could be seeing a real political shift.

The Wall Street Journal goes on to say that “Mr. Cantor’s loss in Tuesday’s Republican primary puts a big hole in Wall Street’s Washington Rolodex.”

Hm. Looks like David Brat was onto something after all.

What will happen if Republicans like Brat face off against Democrats like Elizabeth Warren? We can’t be sure, but it seems likely that we’d finally have a real debate about how to break the corporate stranglehold on politics and the economy.

How would the left fare in a debate between Ayn Randian/nativist populism and the kind that’s based on economic justice? That’s guesswork, of course, but to answer that I’ll paraphrase Harry Truman’s famous aphorism about Republicans: In a race between a populist and a populist, the populist wins every time.

(This post has been updated slightly to reflect commentary which was made after it was first published.)

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