The Anti-Establishment Establishment

by Drew 3 Comments


The leading candidates for both parties in the 2016 Presidential contest are all trying to paint their opponents as “establishment.”

Post-Obama America, when the platitudes of “hope” and “change” failed to hold up under the weight of reality, voters are in many ways more cynical than ever.  The only broad agreement is that politicians in general are the problem; the more insider they are, the more a particular politician represents the ways of that mysterious phantasm known as “the establishment,” the less interested we are in electing them to the most powerful office in the land.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of “the establishment” is ephemeral.  It’s a construct with little purchase on reality.  It’s an idea with rhetorical power but very little content.  Defending National Review‘s whole issue devoted to slamming The Donald, editor Jonah Goldberg argues,

“Anti-establishment” is almost entirely devoid of any ideological content whatsoever. An ideological category that can include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, the tea parties, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Carson is not a particularly meaningful one.

Some reply, oh no, it shows that the people are angry! I hear this all the time. And I agree. And I’m angry too. But you know what? Being angry is not a frick’n argument. I’m angry that Washington has drowned the country in debt. I’m angry that Obama has been a failure. I’m also angry that broccoli doesn’t taste like chicken and that Fox canceled Firefly. Being angry is probably a necessary condition for fixing a lot of problems, but it isn’t sufficient to the task. And it isn’t a particularly powerful defense of Donald Trump.

So why do we collectively demand outsider candidates to be the Chief Executive?

The flight from “establishment” candidates is just another example of our modern disdain for institutions.  Whereas my grandparents’ generation loved and supported institutions – denominations, political parties, Masonic lodges, women’s circles – Western culture today eschews them.  We now have a bias against “established” anything – that is, anything with a significant past – in part, perhaps, because new media and consumerism have effectively made all of us neophiliacs.  We are conditioned to look out for what is new and what is next.  Anything written in stone – hell, anything not Snapchatted or Instagrammed from the latest Apple product – is already antique.

Bias against the establishment has become our baseline, a shared cultural assumption.  Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, anti-establishment zeal is simply the air we breathe.  In 21st century America, it is the norm.

Did you catch the irony?

Welcome to the anti-establishment establishment.

Comments ( 3 )

  1. ReplyDennis
    Drew, I think the only difference in the 21st Century is that beginning with the Tea Party, the ideology is less defined and the perhaps the anti-establishment effort is somewhat less united. Thinking back to an earlier time with which most of your readers will be unfamiliar, the same "anti-establishment" terminology was used by the Flower Children of the Vietnam War era. Although their movement was destined to run out of steam, they did have a better defined ideology and had a definite impact on government and politics at least for the short term. Once there was no war to contest and once Joan Baez considered retirement, they had to go to work to support themselves and became part of the "big business" establishment they had fought so hard against. I believe there has always been an undercurrent of ant-establishment thinking; it just needs a catalyst to inflame it from time to time. Thanks for your comments; love reading them.
    • ReplyDrew
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Dennis. That's a good way of conceiving it - an undercurrent that just needs a spark.
  2. Replybthomas
    "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, 1/30/1787. From the looks of things, a storm is about to hit. Probably for the best. Deficits as far as the eye can see, persistent unemployment, rising food prices, vanishing production, a rising dependent class and corporate welfare... these are the work of institutionalists. Jefferson had it right. Let the storm come.

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