'Establishment' as a dirty word in politics

 Stephen Carter

By Stephen Carter

Published Feb. 2, 2016

Is Planned Parenthood part of the Establishment with a capital E? It's a signal of the upside-down nature of the current political campaign that Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a dust-up over exactly that question. Their dispute carries a lesson about how desperately we long to believe that we're all outsiders.

The whole thing began last month when Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Clinton for president. In response, Sanders huffed, "Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment." The Clinton campaign hastened to assure Democrats that the groups were nothing of the kind: "If an organization like Planned Parenthood really were part of the establishment, Democrats wouldn't have to work so hard to defend it against Republican attacks." Sanders responded by insisting that his reference to the Establishment was only to the groups' leaders responsible for the endorsement.

My first response to the contretemps was to shake my head in wonder, remembering my undergraduate days in the 1970s, when we armchair radicals used to sit around our secret headquarters (i.e., the Stanford coffeehouse), moaning about the many reforms the Establishment would never allow us to carry out. We operated according to a hazy and simplistic model. We were the people of good will, and those who opposed our efforts were people of ill will. "Power to the people" was a useful chant precisely because the Establishment clasped in a fearsome grip all the levers of power. We wanted that power out of their hands.

The trouble was, we had no clear idea who "they" were. In those halcyon days we were all disciples of C. Wright Mills and Ralph Miliband, from whose sometimes conflicting work we cobbled together a loose definition of the enemy. The Establishment held both public and private power. They were able to influence policy to protect the interests of what we called their class. And one thing more -- here Mills was our particular muse, although without knowing it we were also anticipating the later Christopher Lasch -- members of the Establishment all knew one another.

That last part was key. The Establishment was no accident. They attended the same elite schools, they sat together at the same exclusive dinner parties in the same Georgetown salons. They vacationed together in places we plebeians could never afford. They married one another. They read the same books and magazines and in other ways reinforced their shared opinions of the world they controlled. Their interlocking relationships fortified their power.

And we would have turned the hot rhetorical flames of our radical fury on anyone who suggested that we ourselves were the Establishment in training. We were as naive as the Stanford student who recently expressed dismay that the high-end dating service The League was created there. Why? Because the site was "elitist" -- as though Stanford itself isn't.

Sanders was right. Of course Planned Parenthood is part of the Establishment. I mean that as a compliment. The Establishment, we are told by the Oxford English Dictionary, uses "tacit understandings" to pursue its interest in "the maintenance of the status quo." Part of today's status quo is the wide availability of abortion and contraceptive services. That's a battle Planned Parenthood is winning.

The fact that the group has to defend itself is beside the point. What counts is its ability to survive the attacks. Planned Parenthood isn't a small helpless band of do-gooders. It's a large, well-funded institution, with strong supporters in the news media and among celebrities and the corporate elite.

In short, it's part of the Establishment.

If this argument has your hackles up, it may be that your instincts tell you that being part of the Establishment is bad. But this isn't so. Unless we take the vulgar view that "Establishment" is simply an insult to hurl at those who we happen to disagree with, the term should be seen as simply a description.

Black Lives Matter can fairly lay claim to outsider status. So can groups as varied as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the followers of Ammon Bundy, and, at least in its early incarnation, the Occupy movement. Despite their sharply differing perspectives, they all represent voices that rarely carry much weight. But Planned Parenthood is every bit as firmly established inside the charmed circle as the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way.

True, there are still many observers who use the term Establishment in its traditional British sense to describe those who control the forces of capital, but this definition is nowadays far too narrow. We should be realistic about the degree of authority exercised by many who claim the mantle of the outsider.

Today's political left easily fits the Establishment definitions we came up with in college. It exercises a plentitude of public and private power, relies on common sources of information, and has plenty of those interlocking relationships that so concerned both Mills and the armchair radicals. When you're running the White House, Hollywood and the academy, it takes a considerable act of cognitive dissonance to continue to believe you're an outsider. Sometimes it's important to be able to take yes for an answer.

I said above that we who styled ourselves radicals back in the day wanted the power out of the hands of the Establishment. The unspoken corollary is that we wanted it in ours. We were angry, but what we hid from ourselves is that we were envious too. We chose not to face the truth: If we won the battle, we would become the Establishment.

That's the truth in politics too. Clinton and Sanders, like Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and many others, like to say that they are running against the Establishment. But the claim is not entirely true. They're running to become the Establishment, with all the power and authority that the term implies. Let's be grownups and admit it.

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Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. His most recent book is The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama (2011). He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.