Higher Ed, the Tea Party’s Unlikely Farm Team

Steve Helber, AP Images

David Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College, won an upset victory this week over the majority leader of the U.S. House. And just last month, the president of Midland U. won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska.
June 12, 2014

College campuses may seem to be unlikely laboratories for producing viable Tea Party candidates, but this election season the record is surprisingly good.

A Randolph-Macon College professor’s unexpected primary-election victory over Rep. Eric I. Cantor, a Republican and majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, this week came less than a month after Midland University’s president won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Nebraska. Both David A. Brat, an economist at Randolph-Macon, and Benjamin E. Sasse, the departing president of Midland, ran anti-establishment campaigns that found favor with Tea Party voters.

Neil L. Gross, a co-editor of Professors and Their Politics, said there may be some good reasons that the Tea Party has gotten cozy with men from academe. The movement’s members risk having their ideas dismissed as irrational or unfounded, Mr. Gross said, so having a professor carry the torch lends "a veneer of academic respectability."

"It’s not surprising there would be support for Tea Party candidates that have higher-education credentials, that can make claims of having intellectual heft behind them," said Mr. Gross, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.

This is not to say, however, that every college campus is equally likely to produce a Tea Party favorite. Randolph-Macon is a small liberal-arts institution nestled in a conservative-leaning part of Virginia, and Midland is a college in Fremont, Neb., affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Mr. Brat’s general-election campaign will pull higher education, and his campus, into the political sphere in rare fashion, because his Democratic opponent happens to be one of his colleagues at Randolph-Macon. Jack Trammell, an associate professor of sociology and the college’s director of disability support services, is the Democratic nominee in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District.

A ‘Culture of Ideas’

There are some notable differences between Mr. Brat, a faculty member of nearly two decades, and Mr. Sasse, who has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University but spent most of his career in government and finance. But the ascent of the two calls into question the widely perceived anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party movement.

A 2013 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said that 34 percent of Tea Party supporters have a college degree, compared with 26 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.

Theda Skocpol, a co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, said that supporters of the movement respond to a "culture of ideas." In that sense, a professor fits into the mix, as long as he shares their views, Ms. Skocpol said.

"They are very suspicious of liberal professors and believe most of academia is dominated by liberal professors," said Ms. Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. "But they would know the difference in their district, and they wouldn’t disrespect somebody just because they were a professor, if they had the appropriate ideas."

Ruth L. Braunstein, who is writing an ethnography of a Tea Party group in the Northeast, said her fieldwork indicated that supporters of the movement are not overtly antagonistic toward academe.

"It’s not so much an animosity toward higher education per se, and more toward a cultural elitism among liberals and concerns about liberal biases on campuses," said Ms. Braunstein, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.

Within Tea Party groups, Ms. Braunstein added, there is often a "resident philosopher or economist" who takes on a professorial role in meetings that cover issues such as tax policy.

Mr. Brat counts Ayn Rand, a favorite economic philosopher for conservatives, among his influences.

"He has been working in areas that would probably resonate with members of this community," Ms. Braunstein said.

Closeted Conservatives

Recent research suggests that the left-wing radicalism of the professoriate is overstated, but academe can still be an isolating place for conservatives like Mr. Brat.

Jon A. Shields, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is a co-author of a forthcoming book about conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities. A good number of those people whom Mr. Shields has interviewed said they kept their heads down because they felt they held minority views.

"There are a lot of conservatives who are closeted before tenure," he said. "That’s very common."

But the rise of two Tea Party candidates from higher education puzzles Mr. Shields a bit. In 150 interviews with conservative professors, he has found that most are skeptical of the common Tea Party refrain that outsiders are needed to shake things up.

"They tend to like candidates with lots of political experience," Mr. Shields said, "not the kind of amateurs who promise to go to Washington and clean it up and go home."

The conservative professors he talked to "would say, Look, this is the dark side to all populist movements," he added. "They tend to be brash. They tend to be excessively confident in their righteousness."

Meanwhile, political observers of all stripes have suddenly turned their attention to Randolph-Macon College, which overnight became the unlikeliest of center stages for the midterm elections.

"I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on that campus," said Mr. Gross of the University of British Columbia. "What an interesting time to be there."