In this ferociously partisan and ideologically divided country, there is at least one big thing on which most Americans who care about politics agree: We have an establishment, and we ought to disestablish it. Bernie Sanders claims he is running against the Democratic version; Hillary Clinton counters that Sanders is the established one, since he has served in Congress for a quarter-century. Conservatives, whomever they back for president, rail against a Washington establishment that supposedly conspires in some suite on K Street or in a backroom of the Capitol to anoint Republican nominees for president and scuttle laws to shrink the federal government. In March, a reporter for McClatchy traveled across “middle America” and made what he deemed to be a momentous discovery: “the deepest divide,” wrote David Lightman, is not between the two parties or their most committed followers. “It’s between Us and Them—the people versus The Establishment.”
One should respect the appeal of this populist idiom. Attacks on “the Establishment,” like those on its malevolent cousins—“the special interests,” “the big people,” and “the Washington insiders”—can inspire campaigns and movements that vow to “take back” the government from officials who betray the interests and values of their constituents. Most Americans who join such insurgencies are not legally unrepresented; they have the right to vote and organize against the powers that be. Still, the feeling of disenfranchisement is genuine, and it helps spur them to take action.
But liberals and leftists should not confuse a ubiquitous trope for a social and political reality. To train one’s ire on “the Establishment” is to embrace, implicitly, a baby-simple analysis of how power works in the public sphere, one that makes it hard to have a serious discussion about what it would take to transform American society. A left focused on our growing economic inequality more than at any time since the Great Depression needs a better understanding of the massive obstacles that stand in its way.
The history of the term itself is fraught with vagueness, grandiosity, and a bit of purposeful misdirection. In 1955, the British journalist Henry Fairlie, writing in The Spectator, used it to describe “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.” In his country, where most high bureaucrats sported an Oxbridge degree and the House of Lords still had veto power over some legislation, the locution quickly caught on. The centuries-long existence of an established church—the Church of England—no doubt smoothed its path.
It didn’t take long for one of Fairlie’s counterparts on this side of the Atlantic to repeat his performance—albeit with a deftly satirical twist. In 1962, Richard Rovere, a prominent political journalist, wrote a lengthy piece for Esquire titled “The American Establishment” that pronounced judgment on who belonged and who did not. Rovere’s earnest, research-heavy analysis fooled many readers into taking him seriously. They must have skated over references to “a leading member of the Dutchess County school of sociologists” and to an unofficial “Executive Committee” whose membership could be determined by how often “a man’s name” appeared “in paid advertisements in, or collective letters to, The New York Times.”
Rovere turned the very imprecision of the concept into an alleged virtue. “The Establishment,” he wrote, “can be thought of in many different ways, all of them empirically valid in one or another frame of reference.” As if to confirm that nondefinition, his fellow Americans rushed into the fray. Soon, one heard about a “straight” establishment that enforced antidrug laws, a “male” establishment hostile to feminism, and a dizzying variety of political establishments that kept various groups down. In 1964, Phyllis Schlafly’s book-length attack on the “kingmakers” of the “Eastern Establishment” of the Republican Party sold over 3 million copies and helped win the GOP nomination for Barry Goldwater. In 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States claimed that “the Establishment” had hoodwinked and brutalized the vast majority of Americans “throughout the history of the country” and yet “has been unable to keep itself secure from revolt.” Zinn’s book, which has sold over 2 million copies, defined this elite no more specifically than did Rovere’s essay. Yet few in the radical scholar-activist’s legion of admirers seem to care.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Schlafly, Zinn, and their ilk did not try to define the source of evil too closely. The history of modern presidential politics has debunked the notion of a shadowy and well-financed establishment that has the ability to get its way. Most industrialists and big investors opposed Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912 and 1916, all four of FDR’s victorious campaigns, and Harry Truman’s come-from-behind triumph in 1948. The moderate Republicans who came to power with Dwight Eisenhower tried to prevent Goldwater from winning the party’s nomination in 1964 and then failed to stop Ronald Reagan’s bid for it in 1980. “Many in the business world,” notes the historian Kim Phillips-Fein, “thought Reagan’s ideas overly simplistic and his promises of tax cuts dangerously inflationary.” In 1992, Bill Clinton was the darling of the Democratic Leadership Council, financed by several big firms. But during the primaries, most of organized labor—then the backbone of the party—supported other candidates. And in 2008, Barack Obama snatched the nomination away from Hillary Clinton, the supposed darling of “DC insiders.”
If there’s a crafty, pro-corporate Democratic establishment at work in the 2016 campaign, it’s been quite ineffective. Why else would Bernie Sanders have been able to raise as much money as Hillary Clinton and win a slew of caucuses, where operatives who know how to work the system are essential? And if endorsing Clinton makes an organization part of a Wall Street–coddling establishment, then why did the Congressional Black Caucus, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Service Employees International Union all come out for her? Those groups would be the core of the kind of fighting, culturally diverse social-democratic party that Sanders wants the Democrats to become. On the other hand, the notion that the only avowed socialist to serve in Congress for almost a century belongs to a clique of Washington insiders is utterly absurd.
Something like a party establishment does hold sway in a few states. In Nevada, for example, it is difficult to snag a Democratic nomination for Congress if Senator Harry Reid opposes you. But in most states, a candidate who can raise enough money and hire talented consultants can make a competitive run for nearly any office.
The Citizens United ruling freed the rich to donate as much as they desire to super PACs that support the politicians of their choice. During the current campaign, it also prevented any putative Republican establishment from uniting behind a single presidential candidate. As Chris Christie and Jeb Bush demonstrated, if you have one or more super PACs behind you, you can keep running for months, winning nowhere—until the money runs out. And superwealthy individuals like Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and Meg Whitman can fund their own campaigns, further undermining the ability of a party elite to narrow the field. Trump’s ascension has exposed the myth of a potent Republican establishment as much as the Sanders surge did for the opposing party.
The sole area of national politics in which, arguably, an establishment once existed was foreign policy. Except during major wars, most Americans have neither the time nor the means to follow what’s happening in other nations, and they feel no urgency to do so. During the middle decades of the 20th century, this gave the Council on Foreign Relations and its well-connected members extraordinary influence. Such prominent figures in the CFR as Henry Stimson, Harvey Bundy, and Allen and John Foster Dulles did much to promote intervention on Britain’s side in World War II. Then CFR members like McGeorge Bundy (Harvey’s son), Dean Acheson, and Henry Kissinger played key roles in formulating US strategy during the first two decades of the Cold War. Anyone who read Foreign Affairs, the CFR’S journal, would have gotten a pretty good sense of the main ideas guiding the actions of the US government and its allies.
But the bloody debacle in Indochina brought this tidy arrangement to a ragged end. As the journalist-historian Godfrey Hodgson has written, “the prolonged agony of Vietnam…divided and discredited the foreign policy Establishment and, by robbing it of its reputation for wisdom, destroyed its influence.” Many elite Democrats soured on military intervention, while neoconservatives in groups like the Committee on the Present Danger demanded a belligerent posture toward the Soviet Union and in defense of Israel. “The Establishment’s greatest failure,” Hodgson observed, “resulted from its indifference to and its lack of understanding of the spirit of a leveling age.”
While it no longer wields much clout, the CFR still appears to view current politics more with disdain than comprehension. Last fall, I was invited to speak about populism, both past and present, at the CFR’s annual dinner. I argued strongly that, whatever their flaws, angry protests by ordinary people are valid expressions of mass discontent that call for an empathetic response from those in power. The reception to my remarks from the audience of 300 or so well-heeled members was mostly hostile or amused. Former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who is currently cochair of the CFR, challenged the very notion that “populism” might be anything other than a synonym for ignorance and demagoguery.
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Any substitute for the vapid critique of “the Establishment” will have to reckon with both the structures and the ideology that keep an unjust system going. This is a key insight of every major theorist of power in capitalist societies from Karl Marx to Max Weber to C. Wright Mills. In his 1956 book The Power Elite, Mills occasionally used the term to describe the “higher circles”—military, economic, and political—which, he argued, ran the major institutions in America. But most people, he emphasized, accepted the status quo. In contrast, contemporary attacks on the establishment mainly express fear and resentment toward insiders. Status is an element of power, to be sure, but only a partial one.
On the one hand, each major party is a coalition of interest groups and constituencies that jostle for influence. As both Sanders and Trump charge, corporate lobbyists and individual billionaires play an outsize role in the whole process. Yet if they routinely got their way, Social Security would be a private program, and Mitt Romney would be campaigning for his second term in the White House.
In fact, the most critical decisions of state are influenced by an economic dynamic more powerful than the acts of a group as well financed as the US Chamber of Commerce or the preferences of individuals as wealthy as the Koch brothers. Those who run businesses covet politicians and policies that give them the confidence to borrow and invest with the expectation of making profits and fueling growth. As the political theorist Fred Block wrote back in 1977, “Business confidence is based on an evaluation of the market that considers political events only as they might impinge on the market.” That tunnel vision is a big reason why same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, while labor unions in the private sector struggle to survive.
Railing against the establishment also ignores the mass resistance to ways of thinking that would have to undergird a truly democratic and egalitarian society. The hope that we can bring about fundamental change by exposing an immoral cabal and crushing its power fails to confront the deeply held belief in the essential fairness of capitalist society. The tenacity of this conviction helps explain why Americans keep electing politicians who promise a good job to anyone willing to work hard and blame the breaking of promises on a mere failure of political will. There’s a feedback loop between the political and economic institutions that sustain inequality and an ideology that forecloses alternatives like the social democracy that exists, albeit under stress, in much of Western and Central Europe.
Republicans who prattle on about “the Establishment” will never attempt to untangle the web of structures and ideas that sustain what they proudly, if inaccurately, call the “free enterprise” system. Nor does Bernie Sanders’s bashing of wealthy insiders get at the real obstacles to advancing toward a society that would ensure a decent life to every American.
Until we are able to speak more realistically about those obstacles and why they persist, protesting the establishment will obsess and frustrate us the way the Cheshire Cat did Alice when she asked him to help her find her way through Wonderland:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
Like that elusive portly feline, the establishment has taken up residence in our political minds, even while its substance vanishes, leaving nothing behind but a derisive smile.