Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, recently wrote an essay for The Nation entitled We Know We Hate the Establishment—but Do We Know What It Is? The article’s tagline tells us, “The vague term obscures where power really lies.”
Professor Kazin seems fixated on the idea that the Establishment undefined in precise terms is therefore non-existent, especially since he dares not attempt a definition himself.
Perhaps he should take it up with the “dictionary Establishment” and not just his fellow writers: Oxforddictionaries.com defines the Establishment as “A group in a society exercising power and influence over matters of policy, opinion, or taste, and seen as resisting change.” Other dictionaries are equally vague.
Why the vagueness? Despite “Establishment” definitions being narrowed down to influential and dominant groups in these conventional (Establishment, one might say) definitions, it cannot be defined more precisely, because, like so many other things in reality, there are no definitive lines of where it begins and ends, nor what it means to be “Establishment”. It is like trying to define “reality” itself.
Oxforddictionaries.com defines “reality” as “The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”.
Wouldn’t it be a cheap to not accept the word “reality” because one cannot define it more definitively? Would it not indicate a misunderstanding of the word to demand a more specific definition?
But the “Establishment” — dictionary or otherwise — be damned! Professor Kazin explains to the masses what they are really feeling when they aim their anger at the Establishment and “vow to ‘take back’ the government”:
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.
Who or what causes this “feeling” of disenfranchisement? Could it be that the Established Order incorporates legal representation and mass organization into what we loosely call representative democracy? Perhaps this hits a little too close to home. Professor Kazin steers us away from such notions:
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.”
Thus, when individuals venture to identify the Establishment, Professor Kazin tell us it is but a mirage. Here are some examples he points to of mistaking something for the Establishment:
- 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.”
Do you detect a pattern here? According to Kazin, aside from “vague” definitions, the Establishment can’t exist (by his apparently implicit definition) because the Establishment, if extant, must be a monolithic structure without internal dissent. This may be true in fairy tales, but it is — how shall we put it? — “a baby-simple analysis of how power works”, especially for such an eminent historian. Did the Roman Establishment not exist because Senators killed the reforming Gracchi Brothers? Did it continue to not exist when civil war broke out among the Established Orders later on? Does the American Civil War mean there is no American Establishment?
Professor Kazin brings up the example of Woodrow Wilson’s election of 1912. This was the election season that saw socialist Eugene Debs garner 6% of the national vote. Who does not know that FDR saved capitalism — the Established Order. It was him or Huey Long who was arguably more popular in polls. Long was thoroughly unacceptable to the Establishment due to his far more “socialist” program. That some “elites” opposed FDR, and even attempted a coup against him, does not negate its existence. Again, his successor Truman faced Henry Wallace, who threatened to carry the New Deal further.
This brings up two fundamental concepts that Kazin seems to not have grasped: a ruling class democracy always devolves into 1) an “election” of the “lesser evil” as an excuse to prevent the election of the “good”, i.e., the undesirable candidate from the ruling class point of view (or at least the representation of one), and 2) “good cop, bad cop”.
The hated ruling class was the “bad cop”, while FDR was the “good cop”. This does not mean that the “good cop” always fights for the masses or is outside the system. Ronald Reagan is a case in point. Kazin informs us that Reagan was opposed by many business leaders. That does not mean he was outside, or even challenging the ruling class. In fact, he fronted the Counter-Revolution against the New Deal and Labor in its most visible phase — all on their behalf. With such understanding, historical fact does not stand in Professor Kazin’s way when he writes
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?
None of these groups are outside the Establishment. Here, Kazin confuses institutions (and individuals) who’s function it is to absorb the anxieties of the masses for groups outside the Establishment. As long as choices are confined to acceptable ones, even if not our preferred choice, even if some of us may froth at the mouth at the prospect of said undesirable choice, we are fine with it. The ruling class certainly did not lose any sleep over the elections of Reagan, Clinton or Obama. Quite the contrary.
What is the good Professor’s object in denying the Establishment (and by implication ruling class)? It might seem, as alluded to above, that he is coming to the defense of the ruling class by pushing the Establishment into the shadows, by pretending it is not there, and thus not the cause of the majority of problems faced by the masses. While the Preservation Society appreciates Professor kazin’s work in this regard, how can the masses fight back and force us to stabilize society when they are taught that we are not the obstacle due to the non-existence of the Establishment? In Kazin’s words, this “makes it hard to have a serious discussion about what it would take to transform American society.”
This still leaves the unfinished business of properly defining the Establishment. We share the Professor’s dissatisfaction in calling the Establishment a small cabal of minions and institutions controlling society. The Establishment would not be so pervasive and powerful were that the case. Authoritarian ruling classes have weaker Establishments than democracies for this reason. They are for more identifiable to the masses in less free societies, and thus require a more prominent police state to compensate.
If anything, the ruling class is only the nucleus of the Establishment. The Establishment proper is much more pervasive than that, which is what makes it so difficult to define. Professor Kazin provides a clue to the answer of the true meaning and breadth of the Establishment when he ends his apologia with the words, “Like that elusive portly feline [the Cheshire Cat], the establishment has taken up residence in our political minds, even while its substance vanishes, leaving nothing behind but a derisive smile.” The Establishment in this context is a state of mind. The unsuspecting individual is the expression of the Establishment:
When the unprivileged Roman citizen “fights for the glory of Rome”, they are the Establishment.
When the religionist accepts that people are born sinful, or accepts “the will of god”, they are the Establishment.
When the capitalist accepts that people are born greedy, they are the Establishment.
When the house slave expresses disgust at the field slave they are the Establishment.
When the field slave accepts their lot they are are the Establishment.
When the parent admonishes their child to forget their dreams and to focus on a “practical” career, they are the Establishment.
When the bigot hates others, they are the Establishment.
When oppressed groups are taught to focus on nebulous “injustice” and political correctness and to ignore history, economics, institutional structures and class, they become the Establishment.
When a “citizen” ignores the politics of their society or unquestioningly buys into the “mainstream” view, they are the Establishment.
When professors deflect attention away from the ruling class they are the Establishment.
There are myriad ways in which the Establishment may be identified. It is seemingly everything in society. That is as it should be since the Establishment replaces “reality” itself. Yet note the “when”. One of the strengths of the Establishment lies in its flexibility. It is often context dependent. An individual may be a 9/11 Truther and an unquestioning free market capitalist. Further, it is irrelevant whether one’s view is “moral”, “immoral”, “practical”, “true”, “correct”, “wrong” or the “word of god”, so long at it furthers the ruling class agenda as expressed in its ideology and promoted by its Establishment.
On the other hand, an individual of a “non-ruling class society” may entertain the same thinking as the ruling class subject — at least theoretically. The difference is one in degree of autonomous thinking. In the non-ruling class society one’s understanding of the world or reality is formed closer to the individual as informed by the “natural” Establishment of a community of individuals. In the ruling class society, one’s thinking is shaped by a far more centralized and artificial Establishment.
The ruling class Establishment is reality refashioned to reflect the current ruling class agenda. It is the vehicle by which its hegemonic ideology is brought to society. It is nothing less than the colonization of the mind of both ruling class members and their masses. The Establishment is YOU, and it can easily not be you.
With that, The Preservation Society offers the reader the true definition of Establishment as defined in the Glossary herein:
1. A constructed facade of reality imposed by the ruling class on society which replaces “true” reality itself. The Establishment accommodates the ruling class agenda, as opposed to the uncooperative true reality. It transforms stupidity into acceptable thought reminiscent of Orwell’s doublethink.
2. An individual, institution, idea or thing that conforms to the ruling class agenda is Establishment in character.
ESTABLISHMENT CHARACTERISTICS: mainstream, conventional, conformist, normal, pop, respectable, conventional wisdom, etc….
Pardon the vagueness.