The unexpected defeat of House leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primaries shows that the Republican leadership has lost its grip on the populist forces encouraged by the party’s shift to the right. The pundits are characterizing Cantor’s unseating by tea-party challenger David Brat as the result of hardline opposition to immigration reform. More importantly, however, Brat leveraged a tectonic shift in the hostility of the Republican base to the ties of the Congressional leadership to big business and Wall Street.
Rightwing Brat supporter and radio commentator Laura Ingraham summed up this shift: “The American people are sitting by, seeing their wealth deteriorate, their prospects go under, their future dismal. Meanwhile politicians either throw up their hands or outright lie to them about the situation.” Conservative Bill Kristol called Brat’s campaign “a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families.”
Talking Points Memo notes that Cantor himself was chiefly responsible for “the loud, showy, total-war nature of Republican opposition — summoning up the forces that defeated him last night. From day one — literally, the night of President Obama’s first inauguration — Cantor was leading the charge to not just oppose Obama, but to delegitimize him … It was a deeply cynical maneuver, but a successful one. Cantor helped unite the Republican caucus around this scorched-earth strategy, and played a major role in the 2010 campaign that leveraged the grim results of that strategy into a new majority.”
Brat mobilized Republican activists not just by his intransigent opposition to immigration reform but also by connecting it with Cantor’s close alliances with corporate interests, channeling grassroots resentment of the Republican elite. During his campaign, he stated: “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”
His rhetoric merged xenophobia with hostility to corporate control of Congress. John Nichols comments in The Nation: “Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. ‘Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,’ the challenger argued.”
The New York Times reports that the impact of Cantor’s downfall was felt most strongly on the New York Stock Exchange. “The share price of Boeing tumbled, wiping out all the gains it had made this year, a drop analysts attributed to the startling defeat. … Mr. Cantor’s loss is much more than just symbolism. He has been one of Wall Street’s most reliable benefactors in Congress. And Mr. Brat used that fact to deride the majority leader as someone who had rigged the financial system. In one recent speech, he accused lawmakers like Mr. Cantor of favoring ‘special tax credits to billionaires instead of taking care of us, the normal folks’.”
But Brat’s demagogy frames the economic crisis in national terms. This rhetoric is a dangerous diversion from real opposition to corporate oligarchy. As an extreme libertarian, he opposes an increase in the minimum wage; in fact, he opposes any kind of legislated minimum wage at all. While Brat appealed to the anxiety of his Republican base over their loss of prospects, low-paid workers are responding to the same erosion of living standards by striking for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Reportedly Walmart and McDonald’s, unlike Republican ideologists, are in favor of a move that would increase the buying power of the poor and also their corporate bottom line, but even with a higher hourly wage, employees are often scheduled to work fewer hours than will give them enough to live on.
“Walmart Moms” supported by Our Walmart held strikes in a number of major cities the first week of June, including Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Taking a leaf from the Occupy movement, they also demonstrated outside the home of Walmart board chairman Rob Walton in Paradise Valley, Arizona, demanding annual wages of at least $25,000, more full-time openings and an end to retaliation against workers who speak out against their conditions.
According to the Guardian, mother of three Linda Haluska said she was striking in solidarity with others who earn less, and what she described as worsening conditions at the company. “I’ve seen things change: the erratic scheduling, the lack of flexibility. It’s hard to get a day off when you want. They make it very clear that Walmart comes first. Your job is always on the line.” Haluska said that some of her co-workers on the night shift who can’t afford cars have to wait outside for up to an hour for the bus to arrive – a situation some staff said was potentially dangerous.
Erratic scheduling means that incomes fluctuate from week to week, making it difficult if not impossible to budget for a family. Sarah Jaffe writes “Gail Todd, who works at the Walmart in Landover Hills, Maryland, knows this struggle all too well. A mother of three, she used to have an ‘open schedule’ – meaning she had to be available to work anytime, day or night – so childcare was a constant problem. But when Todd limited her work available to care for her children, her hours got cut back, sometimes to as few as 12 per seven days.”
The Real News reported: “The Demos report [on low-wage industries] found that women who make an average hourly wage of $10.58 are disproportionately represented in low-wage retail positions and face unstable and inconsistent work hours, even with full-time positions. The study found that a wage floor of $25,000 per year at major retailers would amount to a 27 percent pay raise and, quote, ‘would lift hundreds of thousands of women and their family members out of poverty, and hundreds of thousands more would emerge from near-poverty’.”
The stark disparity between the subsistence standard of living between Walmart’s workers and the Waltons, who next to the Koch brothers are Americas most prominent oligarchs is an obscene scandal in a society which holds as its core values fairness and equal opportunity. But when government actively abets the growing inequality, it opens the doors to demagogues like David Brat.
Walmart managed to obtain $104 million in federal subsidies over six years because of tax deductions for “performance-based” executive compensation. Eight top executives were given more than $298 million in “performance pay” that was fully tax-deductible, despite Walmart’s poor economic performance over this period. CEOs and billionaire company owners have every incentive to use their wealth to distort the democratic process and cement their control over Congress. But in doing so, they have destabilized the democratic process and unleashed a dangerous political backlash. This can be countered by the men and women who across the country are fighting for a living wage that is fair for all.