The straw man argument is one of the oldest–and lamest–rhetorical tricks. Obama is a master. But he’s by no means alone. Alleged intellectuals (and yet another 5 time Jeopardy champion!) like John Podhoretz play this cheap trick, as in this Podhoretz article denying the existence of a Republican Establishment.
Here’s Podhoretz’s straw man definition:
The Republican Establishment was a subset of the American Establishment. These were not formal entities; they were not entities at all. Indeed, the term for them only came into common currency in England in the 1950s, when the British journalist Henry Fairlie used it to describe a group of people who went to the same schools, ate lunch in the same clubs, and so from childhood came to share the same set of attitudes that permeated the way they exercised power and transmitted cultural messages through the system. It is meaningful that Fairlie described it so pointedly just as it was crumbling away in England; perhaps it was only as it was melting away that its skeletal structure could be seen and its genus and species identified.
an Establishment is a set of people in the elite who share the kinds of cultural and social commonalities that truly define a kind of social and political caste, and for which important matters are transmitted invisibly through family and educational and social ties so that they end up operating almost unconsciously from the same base of experience.
How’s that for crypto-academic argle-bargle?
It’s also completely at odds with the way that the term is hurled as an insult in the ongoing 2016 presidential contest in the Republican Party. In the current political discourse, the term is not used as it would be in a sociology seminar. In fact, those using the term today are referring precisely to people who sound like they are giving a sociology lecture.
Instead, it is used by normal people to refer to a particular group of individuals concentrated in Washington, DC. This group consists of senior elected officials (especially in the Senate), Republican Party functionaries, and assorted courtiers in journalism (notably the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary), think tanks, and lobbying firms. The extended establishment includes businesses who are dependent on regulation and government expenditure (e.g., defense contractors).
This is a self-perpetuating group whose primary purpose is not ideological or principled, but is instead dedicated to maintaining power, access to power, and the sinecures attendant to power. These are people who speak of the nation, but whose real obsession is much more parochial: their horizons do not truly stretch beyond the confines of the 202 area code. These are people who are mainly interested in being players. Winning the game is actually secondary.
Indeed, the thought of a game that can actually be won or lost is rather terrifying to them, because losing would mean that they could be unceremoniously ejected from their comfortable perches. An unending, static contest is much more to their interest, and their liking.
This group has many mechanisms of social control to keep its members in line. Withholding funding, social ostracization, or providing plum jobs or committee assignments are all used to coerce or seduce loyalty.
This is why Trump and Cruz are so terrifying to the establishment. Trump is not dependent on it in any way. Indeed, he has gained traction precisely because he insults it at every turn, and they can do nothing about it: their levers of social control do not work on him. The establishment recoiled in horror at his remarks about Iraq and 911, but this did not dent his popularity, and likely increased it: the fact that he was willing to say such outrageous things about the establishment signaled that he is the kind of guy that many Americans are thirsting for, because it shows he does not play by the establishment’s rules.
For his part, Cruz has shown that he will not play by establishment rules either, even though as a Senator he is ostensibly an insider. He has fought against the Republican Senate hierarchy (the heart of the Republican establishment) in a very public way from day one, and has expressed his disdain for it while doing so. This has earned him the hatred of the 202 in-crowd: witness the intense anti-Cruz fury of establishmentarian emeritus Bob Dole. But again, this is a feature, not a bug for many Americans.
Establishment political culture is not new. Americans have long been inured to the existence of a governing class consisting of different partisan elements that is more engaged in advancing its interests as a class than national or popular interests. What is different about 2016 is that many Americans believe, with good reason, that the governing establishment is utterly indifferent to their concerns: once upon a time, the establishmentarians were able to fake sincerity, but now they don’t seem to try to do even that. Further, the fact that the establishment has done pretty well for itself in the past decade, while many Americans can’t say the same, feeds anger. Washington seems like pre-Revolutionary Versailles to many Americans.
On the Republican side, immigration has proved to be the issue that has alienated the establishment from those outside of DC. Trump realized this early, and seized on it. It is the issue that will make it difficult indeed for the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate-Rubio-to win. Too many people who vote in Republican primaries identify with Trump on this salient issue, rather than Rubio.
It must be noted that the disdain for the governing establishment is not limited to the Republicans. Hillary’s inability to shake a dotty socialist demonstrates that many Democratic voters are also deeply alienated. Hillary is rightly perceived as the insiders’ insider, and her risible attempt to sound militant comes off as dishonest and phony.
Podhoretz’s attempt to deny the existence of a Republican establishment has a comic element to it. It reminds me of the rules of Fight Club: The first rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment. The second rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment. Podhoretz’s attempt to deny its existence betrays a deep fear. He is very much a part of that establishment, and his access, influence, and income are threatened by the barbarians at the gates. He is not alone, and as a result the desperation is palpable: witness the frenzied attempts to pump up Rubio.
What Podhoretz and his ilk aren’t getting, however, is their efforts are completely counterproductive. Since they are the problem in the minds of many Americans, their attempts to promote one candidate and tear down others hurts the former and helps the latter: their endorsements are an insult, and their insults are endorsements.
They don’t have a positive agenda to offer, and preservation of their class is hardly a selling point in the current political environment. And an establishmentarian’s denial of the existence of an establishment will do nothing to convince anti-establishmentarians that their anger is misdirected. To the contrary, it will come off as another act of condescension-“the establishment doesn’t exist: who are you gonna believe, me, or your lying eyes?”-that will just feed the anger.
I think it is fairly clear that the Republican side of the establishment is doomed, which is precisely why people like Podhoretz are so intent on denying its existence. I sometimes wonder whether the party is in the throes of a collapse comparable to the Whigs in the 19th century. Its passing will not be lamented. What remains to be seen is whether what replaces it will be an improvement.