A Dispatch From Dave Brat's College: Teaching Politics at the Center of a Political Storm | Commentary

Thanks to Eric Cantor, at least one part of my job should be much easier this year: getting my students to pay attention to local political races.

I teach politics at Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts institution just north of Richmond, Va. Our school has a sterling local reputation, but not much of a national profile.

Of course, all of that changed when one of my colleagues, economics professor Dave Brat, toppled the House majority leader in his Republican primary. Blindsided by Dave’s win, the national media were even more flabbergasted when they found out his Democratic opponent in the general election would be another colleague, Jack Trammell.

The resulting media firestorm briefly turned our sleepy college town of Ashland upside down. We’re not country rubes; we recruit students from across the country and internationally, and our faculty is engaged in public life and prominent scholarship. But we have never had a member of our community run for Congress, let alone against a colleague. Seeing these men featured in top stories on CNN and Fox News has lent a surreal air to the campus.

A few of my summer students are taking a study skills course with Jack Trammell. They could not believe it when I told them he could be their next congressman. “Wait, that guy? He’s running for Congress? You’d never know it!”

Current students are more aware. But rather than take sides in the race, they’re just happy to have attention focused on the college. Summer’s student diaspora has dampened excitement on campus; instead the clamor is online. Facebook blew up in the week after the primary, with students excitedly forwarding links and criticizing any perceived slight in media coverage. (A frequent complaint: “It’s Randolph-Macon COLLEGE, not University, bro.”) More than a few used the #Brammell hashtag, suggesting that the outcome is unimportant.

Yet each candidate has his supporters. Our active Young Democrats group is mostly a Facebook presence right now, but Jack will be able to mobilize them for volunteer work in the fall if he chooses. Still, they are a dozen students against a more grown-up “Brat Pack,” as Dave is calling his tea party-ish followers. Dave is well-respected on campus as well, with a cadre of fiercely loyal students. A neighbor of mine, an alum, took Dave’s classes more than 15 years ago. In the days before the primary, she was desperately trying to find out if she was in his district so she could cast a vote for him.

Faculty also have been chattering online and off, but most of those who live in the Congressional district are not exactly excited. Our student body runs conservative, but my colleagues reflect the political makeup of a typical liberal arts faculty. Dave has always run against the grain in that way, with some minor tensions surfacing in previous years over the grant money he received from a conservative foundation.

One of our colleagues, who has sparred with Dave over the faculty email Listserv in the past, even wrote a critical op-ed in the Richmond paper. Still, he didn’t complain about policy choices so much as Dave’s underlying understandings of Christianity and capitalism. “The pursuit of such selfish interests in the unfettered marketplace is, for Professor Brat, the very definition of freedom,” wrote history professor Mark Malvasi. “Brat’s vision is, on the contrary, a formula for continuing inequality and injustice.” This is not your typical political hit job.

And while Dave and Jack are polar opposites in personality and ideology, they are typical academics in that they live and breathe in the world of ideas. Jack is a polymath, interested in history, service learning, disability accommodation, even vampires. He was described by one of his students as a “gentleman farmer,” with the allusions to Jefferson intended; in his first major speech, Jack talked about how he “rejects the inevitability of inequality.” Dave is also high-minded, although his ideas fit more neatly into an ideological mold. Like many of my colleagues, I have sat across from him at lunch and volleyed his arguments about government, ethics, and economics. I have always left on cordial terms.

Can these two colleagues from a literally collegial workplace turn the race into a broad expansion of these lunchtime discussions? Or are they doomed to fall into the typical patterns of political attack? One thing is for certain: At least my students will be paying attention.

Rich Meagher is assistant professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about politics in Virginia at rvapol.com.

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