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The Economics Professor Versus the Sociology Professor

David Brat's win Tuesday night offers a modern fable of American politics.

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David Brat (left) and Jack Trammell(Randolph-Macon College)

David Brat's academic website is bordered with portraits of four economists and one theologian: Adam Smith, John Calvin, John Maynard Keynes, and Friedrich Hayek.

Brat, who chairs the economics and business department at Randolph-Macon College, can add a new line to his CV: defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocking upset Tuesday night.

 

But to assume Cantor's seat representing Virginia's 7th District, Brat first has to defeat his Democratic opponent—and fellow professor. Jack Trammell, a sociology professor and the director of disability services, has taught at Randolph-Macon College—a 1,300-student Methodist college outside Richmond—for more than a decade. Four other Randolph-Macon professors have gone on to serve in Congress, including Randy Forbes, who currently represents Virginia's 4th District.

In sociology, education is often championed as the best path to a vibrant society—an idea Trammell clearly subscribes to. He is running on a platform of college access, student-loan forgiveness, and special-education reform. In 2012, Trammell published a book, The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. (More recently, he has planned to write a vampire novel.) Trammell's ancestor, Thomas Trammell, was an indentured servant when he arrived in Fairfax in 1671.

Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1996 after receiving his Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since then, he's taught classes on micro- and macroeconomics, public finance, and business ethics. And he coauthored a paper titled, "An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand". Back in January, Brat told the National Review that while he doesn't consider himself a Randian, "he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand's case for human freedom and free markets."

 

Brat's academic background is somewhat unusual for a tea-party candidate—the Cantor campaign even tried to paint Brat as a liberal egghead in one television ad. And, speaking to Chuck Todd on Tuesday night, Brat defended not raising the minimum wage as only a scholar of the Austrian School of economics would (although he was caught a bit off-guard by Todd's policy questions):

"Minimum wage, no, I'm a free-market guy," Brat responded. "Our labor markets right now are already distorted from too many regulations. I think Cato estimates there's $2 trillion of regulatory problems and then throw Obamacare on top of that, the work hours is 30 hours a week. You can only hire 50 people. There's just distortion after distortion after distortion, and we wonder why our labor markets are broken."

The idea of a Republican economics professor facing off against a Democratic sociology professor presents a near-perfect microcosm of American political thought. What matters most in governance—the good of the market or the good of society? Should government serve to keep the free market as uninhibited as possible, or to impose checks on the market to protect citizens? Is education or entrepreneurship a more important path to individual and collective success? These are questions ripe for a Poli-Sci 101 discussion.

Considering how solidly Republican the district is, Brat is likely to win. But even if he loses in November, Trammell can still hold his RateMyProfessor score over Brat.

 

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