The Economics Professor Versus the Sociology Professor

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

David Brat (L) and Jack Trammell (R), professors and opponents.
National Journal
Emma Roller
June 11, 2014, 9:37 a.m.

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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