What Progressives Should Learn From Dave Brat’s Inspiring Defeat of Eric Cantor

Getting past the gleeful schadenfreude we’re all enjoying this morning, the big takeaway from no-name economics professor Dave Brat’s defeat of House Republican second-in-command Eric Cantor in VA-7 is that the Tea Party has been great at winning strategic victories that increase their own power, at the expense of the Republican Party’s power to actually govern.

Ezra Klein has a subtle warning for progressives who are envious of the Tea Party:

Some on the left are envious of the Tea Party’s success at cowing Republicans. “The Left endorsed Cuomo; the Right successfully primaried the sitting House Majority Leader = how the country keeps moving to the right,” tweeted Max Berger. Others voiced similar sentiments. But this isn’t how the country keeps moving right. This is how the country keeps moving left.

If Republicans hadn’t scared Senator Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party and if Democrats hadn’t kept Senator Joe Lieberman on their side Obamacare would never have passed. If the Tea Party didn’t keep knocking off viable Republicans Mitch McConnell would have been Senate Majority Leader since 2010. If Mitt Romney could have run as the Massachusetts moderate he once was Obama might well have lost in 2012. It’s possible Republicans will now lose in Virginia’s 7th District. The Tea Party is good at policing purity but they’re terrible at winning power.

Klein has a point about the current dynamic in the Republican Party, which is effectively being blocked from expanding their tent by the specific agenda of the Tea Party. Brat’s victory will have a chilling effect on GOP outreach to Latinos, because he ran against Cantor’s not-hardline-enough stance against immigration, and he won. Cantor himself was the only Jewish Republican member of Congress. Tea Party organizing is about maintaining the GOP’s status as a white-only, Christian-only party.

There’s no equivalent on the left. Progressive primaries are typically about pushing the Democratic Party to better represent constituencies who are already in their corner, at least in Presidential elections (African-Americans, Latinos, labor, college students), but who aren’t being served as well as they could be due to the excessive timidity or conservatism of some Democrats near the veto point of the caucus.

Many of the things the left wants out of primaries – expanding Social Security and increasing benefits, increasing the minimum wage, making union organizing easier, creating a path to citizenship for undocumented people – fortify and even enlarge our coalition.

If progressive activists adopt smarter versions of the Tea Party’s tactics – which are quite inspiring, because they’ve shown there are only varying degrees of political safety for members of Congress – we’re not going to experience the same shrinking/whitening spiral the Republican Party is stuck in.