Streetwise Professor

February 21, 2016

The first rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:55 pm

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.


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  1. Yes, the republican establishment is quite unseemly and corrupt. On the other hand, there are worse things than corruption: Purifying Caudillism, for one.

    Comment by Krzys — February 21, 2016 @ 7:25 pm

  2. So there are several establishments then, right? To me the concept of an establishment starts eroding when there is more than one such institution.

    Somehow I have a hard time fitting Commentary Magazine into the concept of the putative Republican Establishment.
    You may be right. I just have a hard time fitting that piece into the concept.

    Comment by Margaret Aten — February 22, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

  3. The two party system has been heading for a crash since the early 1990s. More and more people feel the parties – as currently construed – do not represent and do not work. Furthermore, many of their standard talking points represent a world that is now forgotten. In foreign policy, that is the Cold War era consensus on America’s role. In economic politics, it is the post-seventies free market consensus of competition with industrial peers (and not huge developing economies like China). In domestic politics, it’s the politics of 1960s cultural radicalism. All three have little relevance to the situation America finds itself now.

    The coalitions built to debate these issues are now breaking down as the various factions realize they can no longer accommodate each other, but are now competing for control of the organization.

    When this has happened in the past, it has lead to a realignment election. However, when those realignment elections are held, it was obvious at the time what the new parties would be like. Lincoln in 1860, McKinley in 1896, FDR in 1932, and Reagan in 1980 all had clear platforms. In 2016, neither the Dems nor GOP do.

    Both Trump and Sanders might break their own parties, whether in victory or defeat. However, how each party rebuilds a winning coalition is not clear. If Trump wins and picks a strong VP that assuages the GOP power brokers and excites the conservatives, he might prove be such a leader. But it really depends on what policies he actually pushes if elected. If the GOP controls Congress, Trump will need to work with them on a coherent legislative agenda. I’m not sure who would be a good fit for VP though. Perhaps Scott Walker, or a lesser known Senator or Governor that is popular with both sides of the GOP. If Trump is smart, he’d start reaching out to the top people in both the Establishment and Tea Party wings to see how he can unite the party after the convention.

    Sanders would wish he could be a realigning figure, but his belief in outdated 1968 socialism can go nowhere. Everyone except a few millennials knows it can’t work. His popularity is mainly a function of lots of people simply not liking Hillary, which was evident in 2008 as well. He’s a McGovern figure, and his inability to achieve a majority coalition will doom any attempt to remold the party.

    If such leadership is lacking in 2016, then the true realigning election is postponed until 2020 or 2024, which is along time without effective leadership.

    Of course, the worse could happen – American politics becomes moribund in the late Roman Republic sense, and the parties become vehicles for charismatic strongmen as Oswald Spengler predicted. The Age of Caesars might have begun.

    Comment by Chris — February 22, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

  4. @Margaret-Commentary was a prominent tribune for anti-Communism during the Cold War. Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s Commentary essay justifying allying with rightist dictators brought her to Reagan’s attention and led directly to her appointment as UN Ambassador. Commentary also attacked the left on numerous social issues in the 70s and 80s. As a result, it received a very favorable reception among Republicans on both foreign policy and social matters.

    Commentary was–and is–the main intellectual voice of neoconservatism. Although Reagan was skeptical of (and sometimes hostile to) neoconservatives, during the 90s, and especially during the George W. Bush administration, they became the dominant voice in Republican foreign policy circles. Regime change, axis of evil, etc., were all neoconservative ideas that Commentary advocated.

    Currently, the Republican Old Bulls in the Senate (e.g., McCain, Graham) constantly advocate neoconservative positions that could come right out of the pages of Commentary. And Rubio follows right along. Rubio has become the Great White Hope of the establishment, in large part because of his foreign policy positions.

    And, of course, the strained effort on the pages of Commentary by the son of its founder to deny the existence of an establishment is perhaps the best evidence that it is indeed a part of said establishment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 22, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

  5. So Putin will remain unpunished, right?

    Comment by LL — February 22, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

  6. If history can teach us anything, Putin will bring Russia to a collapse, get Nobel Peace Prize, then live happily ever after as a Western media darling, chairing a fund.

    Comment by Ivan — February 23, 2016 @ 1:46 am

  7. Our refusal to enforce the international law sets a very bad precedent and will give ideas to other characters much worse than Putin.

    It is bad enough it has not been done, as Tony Soprano would say, in a timely manner. Okey, we had to be patient to wait for Obama’s terms to expire.

    And now the Republicans are giving us the same crap? WTF?

    Comment by LL — February 23, 2016 @ 5:56 am

  8. I was really supportive of Cruz because he courageously took on and rose above the ethanol lobby, including Iowa Governor Branstad and son, while Rubio is in deep with the sugar lobby. Cruz certainly impresses me with his brains and physical presentation during debates. But it is hard to see a clear road ahead for him now. Certainly Trump does not have clean hands. He seems to have no underlying rationale except his own aggrandizement. Maybe that is the closest we can come to honest government in 2016. I fear for our future with such a prospect.

    Comment by Margaret Aten — February 23, 2016 @ 8:24 am

  9. As a registered and voting Republican I hope the party collapses cerca now!

    Comment by Tom Henderson — February 23, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

  10. However, when those realignment elections are held, it was obvious at the time what the new parties would be like. Lincoln in 1860, McKinley in 1896, FDR in 1932, and Reagan in 1980 all had clear platforms. In 2016, neither the Dems nor GOP do.

    I’d say that this is because the scope of government is so vast, and represents a sprawling monster involved in absolutely every facet of life from the price a smallholder may charge for onions to whether a French bank has an American client, that it is impossible to actually have a “platform” in the sense those you mention did. Everyone involved seems to be in it just for the sake of power and prestige because somebody has to win the election and hold the position.

    Comment by Tim Newman — February 24, 2016 @ 1:49 am

  11. @Tim-Excellent observation. Historial precedents (including precedents related to the death of major parties, 3d party movements, etc.) are of little value because those were from a different time, when the state was much smaller, and much more constrained. The stakes were smaller then. A platform as a fairly compact set of principles and concrete proposals on a limited number of important issues is inconceivable in a world where (as you point out so well) government tentacles extend to the smallest details of every transaction and myriad choices that were once called “personal.” It all comes down to “trust me to wield these vast discretionary powers of government for your benefit.” As if. This is also why personality assumes outsized importance in presidential campaigns in the US in particular.

    Such is the curse of Leviathan.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 24, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

  12. Unfortunately, I think only Cruz would actually gore the Leviathan. And, he probably doesn’t have a chance. Think of it this way: Do you want to see/listen to Hillary with the leering Bill behind her, withering away? Or, President Trump with his wife behind him. At least I would chuckle at Trump.

    Comment by pointsnfigures — February 24, 2016 @ 9:42 pm

  13. The professional political class will get increasingly desperate as Trump gains popularity and followers. This race seems as if it will come down to a vote for or against continued rule by the professional politicians. If Trump gets in, he will be stymied by the professional politicians who run Congress and the government bureaucracy.

    The professional politicians who are taking their shots at Trump bleat about his lack of specifics for his various positions. None of trump’s supporters care about Trump’s specifics. A vote for Trump is a vote against the professional political class. A vote for any other candidate in either party (save an except for Carson, who is unimportant to the election) is a vote by those beholden to the government for their position in life to maintain their place at the government trough.

    Interesting fact I learned recently, Marco Rubio has been packaged as the young, fresh candidate by the Republican wing of the professional political class, but Rubio is only five months younger than Ted Cruz.

    Comment by Charles — February 25, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

  14. > None of trump’s supporters care about Trump’s specifics. A vote for Trump is a vote against the professional political class.

    Speaking purely abstractly, the problem with this approach is that an outsider protest candidate can form a new professional political class around him/her very quickly, at which point such supporters will be back to square one in terms of what they voted against, yet with specifics they never voted for. To prevent this from happening, the legal/institutional drivers of establishment formation need to be identified and reformed. Yet these are the specifics nobody cares about, hence the vicious circle will continue, even if it includes some new faces.

    Comment by Ivan — February 28, 2016 @ 3:20 am

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