Brat channels Randolph of Roanoke to trump Cantor

David Brat’s stunning, upset victory displacing powerful House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as Virginia 7th Congressional District Republican congressional nominee revives a tradition of small government, fair play, no crony capitalism politics long associated with Old Dominion Virginia and with John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) in particular. Brat holds professorial appointment at Randolph-Macon College, named for John Randolph and Nathanial Macon.

A staunch advocate of limited government and hero to many modern day conservatives, Randolph represented Virginia’s 5th 7th 15th and 16th Congressional Districts as a Jeffersonian Democrat more or less consecutively from 1799 to 1833 with brief stints as Senator and Ambassador.

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To Jefferson’s and Madison’s everlasting torment, Randolph emerged as a major antagonist articulating themes remarkably close to Brat’s: the party had lost its ideals, cosy elites were monopolizing patronage, the federal government was exceeding its delegated authority, citizens were suffering as a result. Jefferson erred, Randolph claimed, in seeking stability and order by aligning with New York Democrats, who championed greater national powers. These main stream Jeffersonian Democrats were little other than Federalists, with their convictions in a national system of economic development, by another name, Randolph contended. Macon shared these views.

But, the thing that really drove Randolph over the top was the first, consequential federal bail-out, the so-called Yazoo Claims, a land speculation scheme gone badly wrong. The federal government became ensnared when it paid the State of Georgia for and took possession of millions of acres of once State of Georgia, Spanish and Native American lands now comprising Alabama and Mississippi in 1802.  Speculators holding title to the lands sued on grounds that insiders had bribed Georgia governor and legislators for legal authority to offer titles in 1794 and Georgia then violated its contractual obligations when it enacted law in 1795 voiding authorization for the sales. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the Supreme Court sided with the investors, and the federal government had to make good on their speculations.

To say that Randolph went ballistic would be an understatement. The issue of the bailout roiled Congress after Congress, and Randolph incessantly derided any federal obligation on the grounds that speculators knew risks all along. Indeed, the Yazoo speculations were all inside dealing from the start, he claimed, and Yazoo claimants were doing no more than robbing the Treasury with the help of political cronies.

How resonate with Brat’s contentions that Cantor was much more a card carrying member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than a true Republican, Cantor favored corporate elites benefitting from federal regulation over 7th Congressional District constituents, and that Cantor insulated family wealth by watering down financial service industry reforms in the Stock Act during the asset crisis.

In the end, of course, it all turns on wealth. Median income tallies $64,000.00 in Virginia’s 7th district, and residents supporting Brat are averse to federal policies and taxes diluting their wealth.

In this regard, Brat seems more akin to Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Brat contends he’s standing up to Wall Street for Main Street. Like any number of elected officials before him, Brat asserts the interests of local elites trump those of national and international elites.

How far Brat will get with this line of policy is very hard to tell.

Cantor certainly did a fine job as a national leader serving long standing Republican Party ties to national and international industry dating from the Grant Administration.

To the extent Randolph of Roanoke resonates, Brat may be little more than the freshest scold and shiniest antique, and he may end up continuing Republican Party devolution as a parliamentary party, if, in fact, he wins election as Congressman.

Or, national and international industry could well crush Brat as readily as it absorbed Cantor.

Or, Brat may morph, like so many elected officials before him, into a creature of the system.  

And, if Brat applies his marketplace thinking to available technologies, he may well find that Internet, information goods and services and new materials now empower local elites in ways they are losing at this moment in industrial consolidation and oligopoly, and that he’s onto transformative, big things.

Donahue is adjunct professor, Department of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey.