The old WASP elite is long gone—but not the populist hostility it provoked
Dean Acheson, Secretary of State and Lewis Douglas, U.S. Ambassador to Britain in 1950
Why do we introduce an article on the political establishment into a blog about economic inequality? Because the original East Coast establishment of the ‘50s and ‘60s was so closely associated with that post-World War II period when inequality was at its lowest.
The establishment: It is a name to conjure with and curse in American politics. Donald Trump has denounced the GOP establishment at every turn in his march to the Republican nomination, though he has lately made a few peace offerings. And on the Democratic side, the left is still energized by Bernie Sanders ’s candidly antiestablishment campaign even as Hillary Clinton looks ahead to the general election.
But what is this establishment anyway? Why is it so often discussed but never defined? Does it even exist?
In 19th-century Britain, “establishment” meant the state church, but historians such as Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle reinterpreted it to refer more generally to the society’s dominant leaders and institutions. In the U.S., the term became a synonym for the immense authority once exercised by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper class, in an era when the influence of big Eastern corporations, investment banks and law firms pervaded politics and national development.
The establishment was the closest thing the U.S. had to an aristocracy, and unsurprisingly, it provoked powerful populist resentments. In the 19th century, populists raged against everything they associated with the East: banks, railroads, cities, immigrants, cosmopolitanism and privilege. In the 1950s, the populist, red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy condemned the establishment—represented by Harvard, the Episcopal Church, the Army’s top brass and posh diplomats like Dean Acheson —as a traitorous elite.
When the journalist Richard Rovere popularized the idea of the establishment in the early 1960s, he had in mind not so much the entire WASP upper class as a small number of talented men who circulated among high positions in government, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the national media and philanthropic foundations. They adhered to a gentlemanly code of loyalty, pragmatism and noblesse oblige and saw public service as both an honor and an obligation. Like the Founding Fathers, they believed that the national interest was more important than partisanship. Henry Stimson, the quintessential establishment “Wise Man,” served as secretary of war under both Republican President William Howard Taft and Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To the conspiracy-minded, this bipartisan establishment was the country’s invisible government. Phyllis Schlafly, in her best-selling1964 tract “A Choice Not an Echo,” asserted that America’s so called democracy was controlled by “secret kingmakers,”a shadowy group made up mostly of New York internationalist bankers. This establishment supposedly selected the presidential nominees of both parties, dictated the outcome of elections through “brainwashing and propaganda blitzes,” and“work[ed] toward ‘convergence’ between the Republican and Democratic parties.”
Only the paranoiacs of the John Birch Society took Ms. Schlafly’s claims seriously, but establishment grandees did exercise considerable influence on politics, particularly on the Republican side. In 1952, pressure from the establishment played a critical role when the Republican national convention picked Dwight Eisenhower as its presidential nominee over conservative favorite Robert Taft.
By the 1960s, however, the establishment’s authority waned as the East lost the preponderance of economic and cultural power that had undergirded its political influence. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, the population of the South and West almost doubled while that of the North and East shrank. At the same time, the Northeast lost its dominant role in manufacturing, banking and other key sectors.
The establishment’s diminished hold over the GOP was evident in its failure to prevent Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater from becoming the party’s nominee in 1964. Eastern establishment Republicans typically were moderates in the mold of Eisenhower, and they recoiled from Goldwater’s radical antigovernment views and courtship of Southern segregationists. But there was little they could do to prevent his grass-roots movement from gaining a majority of delegates at the Republican national convention.
As for the left, it had a critique of its own. The journalist David Halberstam blamed the debacle of the Vietnam War on “the best and brightest,” while New Left activists saw the establishment as the repressive driver of U.S. imperialism, racism and inequality.
Even as the establishment slowly vanished from political life, however, it retained its hold on the popular imagination. The term still conjures up malign associations for both the right and the left, which is why it has been invoked so much lately.
Mr. Trump knows that Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is no one’s idea of an aristocrat. The RNC, for that matter, no longer exercises significant influence over the GOP, since its centralized authority has been eclipsed by the conservative media and a diffuse array of PACs, super PACs, outside organizations and billionaire donors.
Still, by branding the party leadership as “the establishment,” Mr. Trump has put the RNC on the defensive and tapped into deep-seated populist animosities. Mr. Sanders has done the same on the Democratic side.
If this election season has proven anything, it is that traditional sources of authority don’t carry much weight anymore. Americans don’t trust any of their major institutions, with the possible exception of the armed forces. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t care that the pundits think that he is unpresidential, just as Mr. Sanders’s supporters don’t care that the “experts” consider his proposals unrealistic.
Polls suggest that Americans, more than ever before, feel oppressed by forces beyond their control. Much of the appeal of outsider candidates like Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders stems from the widespread belief that neither political party is interested in ordinary people and that the American dream is no longer in reach for those who work hard and play by the rules. “Establishment” has become shorthand for a corrupt power structure and a rigged system.
The late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell didn’t think the establishment’s disappearance would lead to a freer and happier democracy. On the contrary, he predicted that it would be replaced by “naked power veiled in manipulation and deceit,” the unchecked influence of money and propaganda, an antipathy to all institutions and widespread belief in conspiracy theories.
The problem with present-day politics isn’t the invisible domination of an oppressive establishment—those days are long gone—but rather the absence of any authority that Americans still trust and respect.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, who wrote this article for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of, among other books, “The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment.”