American Underdog

Proof That Principles Matter


By David Brat, PhD

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From David Brat, the college professor who made political headlines when he unseated Majority Leader Eric Cantor, comes his plan for restoring fiscal liberty for America.

Congressman David Brat’s odds-defying win against Eric Cantor — a triumph of a modest $200,000 campaign fund against a $5 million war chest — immediately brought David Brat, heretofore a liberal arts college economics professor, into the political limelight. Now, in his first book, American Underdog, Brat examines how we brought down the status quo by tapping into moral and economic lessons as old as our civilization and discusses how Washington can learn from history instead of ignoring it. A fighter for children, he illuminates how our current fiscal policies are selling their future, and outlines new ways to move forward with a conservative agenda that provides fairer treatment for all.


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My first year in Congress has been tough, but although I came into office as an outsider, I was never really fighting alone. I was just following in the tradition of many people fighting for limited government, free markets, and Judeo-Christian ethics who came before me, and this book is the story of that tradition.

It is also the story of applying the principles of that tradition to a congressional campaign that led to my election and shook the Washington establishment. I'm grateful to all the people who helped out on that campaign and to my family—my wife, Laura, and children, Jonathan and Sophia—for sticking by me through all the hard work. I think they were even having fun, at least sometimes. I'm also thankful to Todd Seavey, Kate Hartson, Jennifer Cohen, and the others who helped make possible the book you're reading now, so that I can try to put the whole campaign into perspective and explain what I hope to accomplish in Washington now that I'm there.

I want to thank all the people of Virginia's Seventh District, without whom I wouldn't be there. They gave me the opportunity to serve our country. My volunteers and staff did a fantastic job working with this rookie and putting us into a position to make a new voice heard in our national conversation—maybe begin to turn the ship of state around on some of the issues described in this book.

This is a quick overview of a very long-term struggle, so bear with me if some of the details are glossed over quickly or I've misquoted a medieval sage somewhere along the line. If the sense of the deeper Western culture I'm defending comes through, that is the important thing. I'm not attempting to solve all the world's problems in this volume but instead to take twenty years worth of lecture notes, stump speeches, campaign documents, press clippings, blog citations, policy briefs, economic reports, and the wisdom of the ages and show how all of these ideas can fit together in a systematic whole.

I have long admired efforts to fit the disjointed parts of our philosophical inheritance into a larger whole, to make some sense of how we got to this strange point. I was a liberal arts professor—not the same thing as a "liberal professor," let me stress—for twenty years, and I went to seminary before teaching economics. I love economics, but in that field you sometimes find yourself longing for the ability to step back and contemplate the whole universe that comes more naturally to theologians. Economics these days rarely involves stepping back, looking at the big picture, and asking if we've gotten the fundamentals wrong. The most respected, advanced thinkers in economics are usually brilliant people but are focused on very detailed, technical questions. The systematic part has been left behind. But we need it badly right now.

That is why the classics—of literature, philosophy, religion, and economics—are so valuable. Most philosophers of note throughout our history were system builders. The constitutional regime crafted by the United States' Founders was the icing on the cake of a unique blend of Western civilization ingredients. I believe God had a hand in that process, too, putting some very talented men in place here at just the right time. Their wisdom has left us with the tools to survive difficult times and political confusion, to move forward and fix the flaws in our republic. This book is an attempt to show that we depart from their example—abandon the tools they left us—at our peril. We can return to a systematic way of thinking in which they partook so that our politics, economy, civil society, academics, businesses, military, teachers, and public servants all work in an environment of freedom and optimism again.

I hope we've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's in this book, but we put it together in an impressionistic fashion in a few short months, so if not every great author is quoted perfectly, we apologize in advance. But we also recall that the classics did not have too many footnotes. They drew upon common knowledge. The great ideas did not belong solely to any particular individual, but the greats still cited one another. They were aware of most of the Canon in those days, not squirreled away in their own niches of technical expertise—and they knew that no one in particular was the Oracle. They assumed that the greatest insights of all likely came from God and from the tradition itself, made up of the great minds that preceded them. That is the attitude I hope to embody.

This is not an excuse for sloppiness, as our goal is to be particularly mindful of giving credit where it's due, just an anticipation of reality, since we live in the age of "gotcha" politics where every sentence can be scoured for the slightest departure from political correctness or the latest revisionist research. My hope is just that you will come away sharing, even if only for the duration of this book, the big picture.

The reader will note, I also hope, that not a sentence in this book is intended to slight any particular person and that I write with the golden rule in mind. Just as I would expect to have people challenge my ideas boldly and firmly, I will do the same. That is what we are called to do in the realm of ideas, and I still believe we can do that, and learn from our contemporaries as well our forebears, without any of us hating each other because of it. Love is part of the solution to our political problems.


I hope voters will conclude that I was motivated by more than a desire for power or fame when I ran for office. Those forces explain a good deal of what goes on in Washington, DC, but when I ran for Congress, what excited me were battles much bigger than one election cycle, the political establishment I faced, and maybe even the gigantic federal debt so many of my constituents justifiably worry about.

This book explains those larger, longer-term battles. The campaign I fought in 2014 was just the latter-day manifestation of an effort, now centuries old, to fuse individual liberty, market economics, the firm foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics, and the rule of law and constitutional government that renders those other goals and institutions possible.

I began my run for office out of the simple recognition that the establishment and oversized federal government are out of touch with the desires of voters and more responsive legislators are needed immediately. There's nothing like being a member of Congress to make you appreciate what a gargantuan task it is to change things there. It wasn't supposed to work this way when the United States was founded as a commercial society with oversight by a carefully crafted limited government with enumerated powers.

As I go on to explain, though, this seemingly miraculous formula for a flourishing society didn't arise ex nihilo.

Many Americans fail to appreciate it these days, but we are the product of a more than two-thousand-year tradition that has gradually figured out how to protect and celebrate the individual and unleash the creative powers of capitalism. That tradition wasn't always perfect. We had to learn some terrible, harsh lessons, including seeing the French Revolution turn into butchery and tyranny in the late eighteenth century at almost the same time that ours was ushering in liberty and wealth creation the likes of which the common citizen had never before known.

To understand the roots of the Western tradition, we need to look back at its very start, to the philosophy of ancient Athens and the morals of Jerusalem. We will find that both shaped the Roman and post-Roman world, and without Christianity, Rome might well have remained a coldly authoritarian empire. Rome had law but lacked, in a word, love.

The value placed upon every individual soul in Christianity is an ethos that can hold together a far-flung commercial society, not a formula for self-absorption. There are times when collective defense is necessary against external foes or unregulated immigration, but the belief that each person matters is the best, simplest justification for letting everyone live freely. That's not just moral relativism talking, either. As I will recount, Saint Augustine recognized that each soul struggles with earthly temptation, aided by the hope for something above this material plane.1 It doesn't mean we leave each person unguided by the wisdom of past ages and moral traditions. Thank goodness the hippie mantra "If it feels good, do it" was not the logical end point of the Western moral tradition.

However, there was a crude approximation of our real moral arc even in the relativism of the 1960s and the postmodernism of the present-day college campus. Individualism guided by moral traditions, property rights, and the rule of law can bring a more lasting, sustainable happiness than the chaos of relativism ever could.

I'll also show how the Western tradition in recent centuries led to both the triumph of free markets and the terrible intellectual error of socialism. (Socialism might be almost too fancy a word for the irresponsible, debt-ridden mess of our twenty-first-century big government.) I will conclude with a sketch of the "ethics of liberty" that can still save us from fiscal ruin and show how I apply those ethics to legislative battles I fight every day that the voters see fit to let me serve them in Congress.

The goal of this book is to keep the big-picture conversation going, not solve every complex issue under the sun. The beauty of the truth in its full complexity may be beyond our perception, but we all sense it calling to us. It is certainly good to put on paper what we can, test our claims in the public arena, and try to deduce which truths work best for real people within history. You will see that I just barely wade into some of the deep, deep philosophical questions in the Western tradition. I am cautious on purpose. I want the next generation to take up the quest and push us all to do even better.

In this life I have been blessed to teach students for more than twenty years. The biggest blessing is when my former students tell me that I made a difference in their lives. I compelled them to think. (I would not allow them to wear flip-flops to class, either.) So in this spirit, let's take a look at a historic election and the ideas and people that made it happen.

chapter one


My political candidacy was never merely an antiestablishment rebellion, though it was that, too.

My unexpected victory in the 2014 Republican primary for US Representative for Virginia's Seventh District shocked the press and the political establishment. I defeated then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who had been talked about as a possible successor to Ohio's John Boehner as Speaker of the House. We now know that Boehner has acknowledged that Cantor was in line to be Speaker.1 As the press made clear after the victory, no one in US history had ever defeated a sitting majority leader.2 In truth, if I had completely thought through all the implications of this victory, I might have had more than second thoughts, but it all worked out, and there is something to the saying "Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof."

The Associated Press called the victory "stunning."3 The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza tweeted, "This Cantor loss is seismically large. Can't remember when I have been so surprised."4 "Holy crap," said BuzzFeed and many others.5 The Hill reported that "being Cantored" became a term used on Capitol Hill by members and staffers fearful of primary defeats by more conservative candidates.6

The Need for a Political Change

A few months earlier, when I was deciding whether to run, I had been reading books that included Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, both reminders that old, predictable patterns in politics and economics don't always hold. In my stump speeches, I told people that in many ways Gladwell's book illustrated that true power is not always what it appears to be. Some people who appear to have tremendous strength in one area have weaknesses in other areas. In politics, I believe that true power derives from the people, and if you really believe that, other typical power sources such as campaign funding and negative advertising may not mean as much. At least, that was my bet. For most of the campaign, I put a sign on the door of my study that read, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God" (Luke 18:27). Boy, did I see that play out on almost a daily basis. Everyone said I was crazy, it couldn't be done, and there was no possible way on earth I could win.

The comedian Stephen Colbert poked fun at my giving thanks to God for my victory, saying sarcastically, "Yes, Brat's victory was a miracle from God."7 As usual, the media like to read arrogance into expressions of faith, but they're really statements of humility and frank amazement.

People attempted to dissect my statement and give an account of how the miracle could have happened. You can tell some convincing stories, but in the end it was still a miracle. No one quite understood where it came from. In this book I'll try to explain what led up to it all, but it's not a story that starts a few months before the primary election day. It starts more than two thousand years earlier.

In the afternoons, after half a day of working on the campaign, I would usually take a short break to reflect. I would look up into the sky and say something like a little prayer: "This burden's way too big for me to handle. I need some help. Lighten my load." Over the weeks that ensued, the strength I needed seemed to come in a variety of forms while the political forces arrayed against me showed their moral weaknesses. I always remembered God telling others to stand back and watch the mighty arm of God. And then friends from across the district told me they were praying. Many, many prayed. I had never known that this spiritual force existed in such a powerful way. But it was not just ethereal. It took shape in the politics of Virginia.

For instance, I benefited from growing awareness among Virginia voters about an underhanded technical procedure called "slating" that allowed the state political machine to stop conservative voters from choosing their own district and regional party leaders across Virginia.8 We were told that in one instance of slating about 900 people showed up in Virginia Beach to a meeting they considered to be part of the democratic process only, but the party higher-ups sent about 870 folks home. It's a technical rule meant to allow Republicans to send interloper Democrats packing, but no one ever imagined that Republicans would send fellow Republicans home.9 This type of machine politics is one of the main reasons I ran. Powerful elites want to ensure control of business and government contracts, and the surest way to do that is to get their own yes-men into the inner circles of government.

Despite the outrage over slating in Virginia Beach, the machine pressed on, eventually landing in Henrico County. Angry at the political process and how it was manipulated, the grass roots came out in full force, their patriotic fervor energizing the entire region to show up and block the plans to slate candidates in my own county. Due to those citizens' hard work, slating did not occur in my county, Eric Cantor's home county, even though the machine had succeeded in using the tactic elsewhere around the state.10

A few weeks before my win on June 10, there was a Seventh District committee meeting to determine the chairman for the district. The grass roots ran its candidate against Eric Cantor's point man. The room was packed with hundreds of people, which rarely occurs. It showed the fever pitch of the passion for restoring good government in our area. Yet although I was running for office, this was also the meeting in which I was told I was not allowed to speak and the meeting organizers would not give our side a copy of the rules, which they manipulated at every step. Shortly after the meeting began, they invited the Senate candidates to speak but then quickly moved on to the next item on the agenda. Toward the end of the meeting, someone finally tracked down a copy of the rules stating that each candidate was permitted to speak for five minutes.11

During Eric Cantor's speech, the crowd booed, which was a bit embarrassing for our side. The national press left out the entire context of the statewide manipulation of rules and the attempt to steal elections from the American people, not just from me.12 Booing may not be polite, but in my view it was done only in response to those major grievances. In fact, the booing was loudest when Cantor repeated his negative claims, such as calling me a "liberal professor." Ironically, though the press was critical of the booing directed at Cantor, it somehow failed to notice that the very negative five-million-dollar ad campaign13 he directed against me featured a cartoon of a crowd booing me.

The establishment gets away with all sorts of things outsiders do not.

The Political Elite

This is just one of the instances in our story when the usual right/left lines matter less than the division between the establishment and the rest of us.

If you study the budget process in the US Congress, you will find that the left and the right are not represented much in any final deal. Instead, the true action is in the middle. That is where you will find the money. The leadership on both sides arrange for the old Christmas budget surprise. It hijacks the budget out of committee and throws in all the toys it wants, and a $4 trillion budget emerges that blows the caps, increases the deficit by half a trillion dollars, and supports every special interest known to man. The votes lately have been very bipartisan. The press never makes this clear because that story is not so dramatic. It is just true.

The political establishment in both parties has also failed to address voters' worries about illegal immigration, the refugee crisis, and the open southern border. The linkage between these issues and national security/terrorism is by far the number one issue in the presidential election this year as well. The candidates who are listening to "We the People" are winning in the polls. I listened two years back, and immigration was already resonating then. The working person is not happy with the lower wages and constant pressure created by elites' importing more cheap labor from abroad. That wasn't the sole reason for my victory, but the immigration issue is emblematic of the divide between establishment and populace. I think most folks are with me in my position against illegal immigration. Conservative media personalities, including Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and regional radio hosts, weighed in to support me in part because of that issue. The Chamber of Commerce and some of the corporate heavyweights want cheap labor, but they don't want to pay the full cost of inviting millions of newcomers into our country. It's pretty simple: if you have a person who immigrates and makes $20,000 a year and pays very little in taxes but has two kids in the public schools, the cost to the taxpayer is $26,000. Business gets cheap labor, and the rest of us get that $26,000 bill.

Try running that by the voters someday and see how they react. Teaching people about this issue resonated with residents in the Seventh District of Virginia and resulted in a new political awareness that eventually became one of the leading political issues in the presidential campaigns of 2016. There are good reasons voters in both parties felt they needed to turn to "outsider" candidates: the insiders weren't listening.

After I won my election and news stories came out about it, we learned there were a lot of other candidates who had tried to run on similar ideas but had not been met with the same success. The force stopping them was one of the main reasons I ran for office: the major corruption at all levels of government. Major political machines keep people from getting involved even in their county breakfast meetings. You may want to run for school board, but if you're not the right well-connected person, you are told you can't run. Then if you decide to run for state delegate or state senate or higher office, it is hard to get equipped. It becomes even more of a miracle story selecting these folks than getting me elected, though they may be highly qualified, patriotic Americans.

At this point, I want to thank all the folks in the grass roots of Virginia who aided our great win. Many, many wonderful people have spent years sacrificing for such a win. Some gave up wealth, time, and family; others ran for office themselves but did not get the win. But they all laid the foundation for change in Virginia, and many of our ideas are now spreading across the nation at the highest levels. This book is dedicated to the volunteers who worked for me but really worked for the greatest political experiment on earth, the United States of America. Without them, my own piece would count for little. In fact, I had run earlier and smacked into a brick wall.

I ran for office four years prior to winning my seat, so I was not a complete novice. Unfortunately, that race, for the House of Delegates in Virginia, was manipulated in every way possible. I saw there was no way for me to go through the regular political process in my region and expect any kind of fair outcome. I noticed Washington setting the tone for machine politics and cronyism at the state and local levels, so the problem at the top had to be solved. I started thinking about challenging Eric Cantor because his team was orchestrating much of the political nonsense in my region.

The political process is manipulated to achieve certain ends for favored people, the special interests. Instead of focusing on the interests of the American people and the needs of his Seventh District constituents, I think Cantor had grown detached. My campaign highlighted those differences by focusing on the Republican Creed and noting that there is no problem with it; the problem is that the political machine and the political elites don't follow any part of it.

Everyone always liked good old Dave, as long as I was teaching their kids and sticking to economics and ethics. But when I actually started to run on a platform of free markets and holding others accountable in public, I quickly learned that everyone is in favor of free markets in general but not for his own business.

"Are you nuts, Dave? Do you know what would happen to our firm if we lost the special protections we have and the subsidies we get from the taxpayer?"

"Dave, you understand, don't you? I have to do what's right for my firm. In fact, that is the ethical thing to do. I have a fiduciary responsibility to fleece the taxpayer to protect my shareholder."

If this pattern becomes the rule instead of the corrupt exception, our country is gone. Really.

I had never been interested in political power for its own sake. I would have been very happy doing economics at the state level or helping federal candidates behind the scenes because I felt it was my duty to educate people about some of the problems we face. I ran for office only when I saw the corruption of the political machines and felt something had to be done about it.

My decision to run for office later in life was not only practical but tied to deeper political wisdom. Plato, in The Republic, advised that one should enter politics at the age of fifty, likely close to the average age of death in 400 BC. Reason should rule, and younger folks are oftentimes tempted by the passions and what Plato called the "appetites." He and Saint Augustine both felt that going into politics is a serious undertaking, which should take place after the appetites of wine, women, and song have faded. Augustine laid out the normal progression from concern with appearances to money to power to politics and ultimately, hopefully, to faith in God. Aristotle would similarly counsel that the practical wisdom and prudence required for proper politics must come partly from experience. It is by no means a realm for book smarts. A life well lived requires discipline, training, and virtue in pursuit of excellence. True happiness results only if this path is followed. The Catholic vision articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas more than a thousand years later would add the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.

A Grassroots Response

God works in mysterious ways, but in most cases God works through people. I could not have won without the support of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people toiling across all nine counties of my district (Culpeper, Orange, Spotsylvania, Louisa, Goochland, Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico, and New Kent) and the city of Richmond. Many people made signs. Others spread the word through their organizations and e-mail lists. Some called in other regions of the state to knock on doors. I had superheroes in each county who knocked on thousands of doors for me. Thousands. (I found most of this out after our big win.)

I'm also grateful that among those supporters were my wife, Laura, my son, Jonathan (who said the night of my victory that he always thought I'd win—thanks, son), and my daughter, Sophia. My wife deserves the most credit of all. It is one thing for folks to take cheap shots at me. Within a day they fade away. But to have someone take a cheap shot at your spouse is even worse. Naturally, Laura went out of her way to make sure I was portrayed in a fair way. When folks used foul language anywhere near my campaign, she stepped in and clarified that I do not condone hate or negative campaigning. I had always advised my staff that every word we put down on paper and every word from every consultant or writer or blogger should convey who I am: a seminary graduate with a PhD in economics and someone who tries to love everyone I meet. Any messaging should follow those rules.

Others who helped me, though, died long before I arrived on the scene. Our region of the state was home to American Revolution leaders Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others. I'd like to think that the supporters of my campaign were carrying on those revolutionaries' work.

If you want a down-to-earth view of the miracle that was that congressional campaign, look at the way the people of the Seventh District responded to the campaign. In many ways they were ahead of the rest of the country, the first wave of a rediscovery of our founding principles: the importance of the Constitution and equal treatment under the law for all people (not just the special people), as well as the necessity for fiscal restraint and the free-market system.


  • "American Underdog is an effort to redefine American identity from the viewpoint of Republican-Christian right and an interesting read. As the number of non-Christian Americans- other religions and atheists-goes up, Republican-Christian right feels its existence as a major religion is under threat and tries to become - sometimes violently - assertive. Republican politician David Brat has very carefully articulated the arguments of Republican-Christian right. This is a must-read book to understand politics of President Trump."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px Helvetica}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}The Washington Review

On Sale
Jun 28, 2016
Page Count
304 pages
Center Street

David Brat, PhD

About the Author

David Brat is the Republican Congressman for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. He holds a BA in Business Administration from Hope College, a MA in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Economics from American University. Prior to becoming a Congressman, Brat was a professor at Randolph-Macon College. Brat lives in Virginia with his wife, Laura, and their two children.

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