Well, to be more precise, Dave Brat, a colleague who teaches ethics and economics at Randolph Macon College just up the road from Richmond, has stunned the world by toppling the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary.
The vote wasn’t even close, 56-44%, with a large turnout.
Brat ran against Cantor from the political right, aligning himself with the Tea Party and the nativist backlash against immigration. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Brat called the win “a miracle from God,” and said the upcoming campaign with Democrat John “Jack” Trammell — another Randolph-Macon professor — would be about “returning the country to constitutional principles, returning the country to Judeo-Christian principles and returning the country to free-market principles.”
Brat (who has hosted me as speaker on ethics and economics at his college several times) always impressed me by his serious professionalism and unbounded energy and enthusiasm. He is a gifted public speaker with a commanding presence. He always stood out as a natty dresser, ramping up even as other professors, myself included, slipped into grunge.
But public policy is not about wearing the right clothes and sounding good in sound bites. Brat and I part company almost immediately in terms of how to use a more pluralist concept of ethics in economics—going beyond narrow concern for economic efficiency—and including in one’s analysis considerations of deontology and virtue ethics that could be motivated by religious convictions.
Pluralism (as I conceive it) would not seek to use Christian (or any other religious) doctrines to limit the conversation. It is misleading, for example, to imply that Judeo-Christian principles were what motivated the founding fathers of the United States. Reading the biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would quickly dispel the idea that religious doctrines guided their actions. Both believed in God, but thoroughly adopted the Enlightenment view that God gave us minds to use them. Public policies should be secular. Jefferson, remember, drafted the nation’s first Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777.
Adam Smith, whom Brat also reveres, would probably be far more pragmatic about markets than ideological, as illustrated by his desire to strongly regulate financial markets and interest rates.
Brat’s victory appears to turn Virginia sharply to the right. It is not clear if this is a fluke or a trend. What is clear is that many Virginians, including a huge contingent of Tea Partiers, are deeply concerned about the apparently dysfunctional way big government and big business work to perpetuate economic injustice across a range of policies.