It has been amusing to watch as the punditocracy and political establishment have been dumbstruck, not literally of course, at the primary loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to a tea party nobody, podunk econ professor Dave Brat. The leading explanations are:
1) Cantor became a Washington insider and lost touch with the home folks, i.e. the base.
2) He carpetbombed his insignificant opponent with so much smear advertising (by one count 1,600 ads to 60) and outspent him $5 million to $200,000 that it backfired winning, sympathy for the underdog and contempt for the pal of the usual suspects.
3) He posed as a tea party zealot but occasionally tried to govern, compromise with Democrats and avert cataclysmic stupidity like government shutdowns and other self-inflicted wounds.
4) He personally had a hand in gerrymandering his district to make it even more lopsidedly right, but by adding more rural, evangelical and tea party friendly voters he may have also made it even more hostile to anyone with a Washington taint. Himself, in other words. (It probably didn’t help in these environs that Brat flaunts his Christian faith while Cantor is Jewish.)
These are all true but underplay the essential ingredient in almost any political loss of this magnitude – the likeability differential. Canton was a most unpleasant fellow. He has a molasses-thick Southern accent, which in itself may not be deadly in the Virginia 7th, but he didn’t sound folksy, rather like someone central casting would send over to play the role of the plantation owner. His machine-tooled smile was devoid of humor or warmth and would shame a shark. He accompanied it with the curled lip of the sneering patrician looking down on his inferiors. And where many House members dress down in rumpled off-the-rack man-of-the–people style, Cantor was strictly from the country club. Tennis, anyone?
Everything about the man exuded supercilious superiority, arrogance, smugness, contempt. He clearly saw himself not as a defender of everyman but as a loyal spear carrier to the entitled, dedicated to using power to increase their entitlement. In the golden age of film he would have been played by Henry Daniell or Vincent Price before he turned to horror. In times of economic stress and uncertainty, this loftiness hardly inspired confidence in rank and file voters, though it obvious won lots of campaign donations from malefactors of great wealth.
Politicians certainly don’t have to care about regular people in order to have careers spanning decades, favor-seeking donors and gerrymandered districts are usually enough to take care of that, but they have to pretend that they care and persuade voters they are working hard on their behalf. As Sam Goldwyn is purported to have said, “Sincerity is the secret of success. If you can fake that, you’re in.” But Cantor couldn’t fake it. He was transparently self-interested, out for the fat cats and himself, not the little guy. Preening in his beltway puissance, he couldn’t be bothered with the locals. He didn’t have a single Reaganesque “Aw, shucks” in his repertoire.
It is widely expected when he leaves office in January he will not be going back to Podunk but, like water, will seek his own level and a million dollar salary at a lobbying firm. There he will enrich himself cutting the same deals (now with his former colleagues) that he’s been cutting for the last seven terms. Another Washington happy ending.
Meanwhile his vanquisher, the podunk professor, will arrive full of populist fury and evangelical righteousness. On election evening he didn’t attribute his victory to any political factors or stands on the issues but to “a miracle of God.”
Brat’s undergraduate school was Christian Mount Hope and he got a master’s in divinity before his economics Ph.D. He considers himself a Christian economist, a small academic sect that seeks to subject free enterprise to a sort of theological law, think of it as Sharia capitalism. His dissertation was “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth” in which he argued that Calvinist Protestantism was superior to other faiths at producing prosperity. Max Weber, take note. According to Time, his resume lists the following religious affiliations, St. Michael’s Catholic, Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist, yet he is an acolyte of atheist Ayn Rand. In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves in Parenthood, “that is one confused little dude.”
No doubt a few terms in Washington will sort him out. After failing to balance the budget, shrink government, stamp out usury or cleanse the temple of the moneylenders, he will retire to talk radio from his time in Gomorrah having cashed in with speaking fees and books deals.