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.”