The Ayn Rand Factor: Who is David Brat?

David Brat scored an astonishing win over Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, in this week’s Republican primary in Virginia. Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond. There’s a lot to say about Brat’s victory, the reaction to it, and what that says about the right and the left today, but it’s the Ayn Rand factor that leapt out. Brat’s academic credentials include an article on Ayn Rand’s ideas, and he teaches a course that features her views on the moral foundations of capitalism. A few quick thoughts on that tie to Rand:

Teaching Rand’s ideas in academia? More of that is needed. Publishing scholarly work on her thought? Ditto. Rand’s ideas influencing policymakers and politicians? Ditto. Is it accurate to portray Brat as aligned with Rand’s philosophic ideas? Hardly. And though acknowledging some influence, he has distanced himself from her philosophy. One telling illustration: Brat is religious, having earned a master’s degree in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. Objectivism is a secular, atheistic worldview.

Zooming out from Brat’s win, it’s fascinating to watch how Rand is now a growing factor in American culture. Consider: Senators Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz have acknowledged that Ayn Rand’s ideas have had an impact on them. Last fall, Cruz quoted Atlas Shrugged in his Obamacare filibuster on the floor of the Senate. Representative Paul Ryan, who was on the Romney ticket in 2012, has praised Rand, but like Brat he explicitly distanced himself from Objectivism. Moreover, it’s remarkable that Rand is someone that politicians feel they have to disavow. Think of the speech Senator Mike Lee gave at the Heritage Foundation about poverty (which Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson wrote about here), or this recent speech by Mitch McConnell. Barack Obama in 2012 took the trouble to criticize Rand’s ideas in a Rolling Stone interview — the only philosopher he was asked about.

Rand’s influence is broad — a hugely positive development — even if it has yet to penetrate deeply enough.