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Toward Real Populism

Can Progressives Learn from Eric Cantor’s Defeat?

by RALPH NADER

The stunning upset defeat of House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) by Professor David Brat, an economist from Randolph-Macon College, in Tuesday’s Republican Primary has several takeaways for progressives besides envy and shame over why they do not directly take on the corporate Democrats.

First, among all the reasons for Cantor’s fall, there were the ones encapsulated in the Nation’s John Nichols’ description of Brat as an “anti-corporate conservative.” Repeatedly, Brat said he was for “free enterprise” but against “crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” David Brat pointed out that Cantor and the Republican establishment have “been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.”

Brat supported “the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA” and other government agencies on constitutional grounds.

Professor Brat attacked the Wall Street investment bankers who nearly “broke the financial system,” adding the applause line: “these guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, where did they go? They went to Eric Cantor’s Rolodex.”

An advocate of ethical capitalism, with religious-Christian overtones, Mr. Brat went after the deal-making in Washington, such as Cantor’s close relationships with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. He especially berated Cantor for weakening the proposed bill to ban insider trading by members of Congress by exempting their family members and spouses.

He chastised Cantor on immigration, taking advantage of the latter’s wavering appeal to voters who believe that large corporations, represented by Cantor, want a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor to hold wages down. On the other hand, Brat opposes a minimum wage on libertarian grounds.

In addition, David Brat, described as a “commanding orator who mixes fiery rhetoric with academic references and self-depreciating humor,” wants a balanced-budget amendment, a “fair or flat tax,” and is opposed to federal educational programs such as “No Child Left Behind.”

Brat is a mixed bag for progressives. But in that mix is a clear populist challenge by Main Street against Wall Street and by ordinary people against the corporate government with subsidies and bailouts that the Left calls corporate welfare and the Right calls crony capitalism. Therein lies the potential for a winning majority alliance between Left and Right as my new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, relates in realistic detail.

Second, Professor Brat spent about $230,000 to Eric Cantor’s $5.7 million. However, David Brat more than made up for the money deficit with energy, focused barbs and the shoe-leather of his committed followers. On election night, Brat made the point that progressives would do well to heed, as they obsess over big money in politics; “Dollars don’t vote,” he said, “people do.” Interestingly, Tea Party forces and donors claim they thought Cantor was so unbeatable that they didn’t even fund David Brat even though he had two national radio talk show hosts speaking well of him.

Can’t progressives find that kind of energy with their many broader issues and larger support base? Can’t they find capable so-called “nobodies” with hidden talent to become publically heralded champions? There are fresh voices everywhere who can take on the corporate Democrats, like the Clintons, who work with Wall Streeters and espouse crony capitalism and with neocons to advance militarism abroad, along with corporate-managed, job destroying trade agreements and off-shore tax havens?

Unfortunately the driving energy of progressives, including the dissipating Occupy Wall Street effort, is not showing up in the electoral arena. The political energy, the policy disputes and the competitive contests are among the Republicans, not the Democrats, observed the astute political commentator and former Clinton White House aide, Bill Curry.

The third lesson from the decisive Cantor upset is not to embrace the political attitude that calls for settling, from the outset, for the least-of-the-worst choices. Progressives have expressed and harbored strong criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment and their adoption of corporatist policies, but election cycle after election cycle, fearful of the Republican bad guys, they signal to the Democrat incumbents that the least-of-the-worst is acceptable. Like the liberals they often consort with, progressives do not ask: “Why not the best?” with the plan that they will either win or at least pull their Party away from the relentless 24/7 grip of big-time corporatism.

The final takeaway from this fascinating Virginian contest in the 7th Congressional District near Richmond was that Cantor’s tactics backfired. The more Cantor spent on TV, radio, billboard ads and mailings, the more David Brat became known and the more people were reminded that Washington and Wall Street really do not care about people on Main Street.

That is truly the nub of a Left-Right alliance. In recent decades, pollsters would sometimes pose a variation of the question: “Do you believe that X candidate or Y party or Z in Washington cares about people like you?” The responses revealed a sizable majority of people, regardless of their ideological or political labels, said “no.”

With the interest of the public, the community and the country in the forefront, those “nos” can become “yeses” for a long-overdue rejuvenated and just society driven by reality and edified by its ideals.

Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.