Magazine | November 25, 2013, Issue

The E-Word

Thoughts on the use and abuse of ‘establishment’

When we were schoolkids, we were taught that the longest word was “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Lately, I’ve been thinking that the most common word is “establishment” — as in “establishment Republican.” I read it every day, especially in the conservative press. I read it in virtually every article about politics, certainly in articles about the Republican party. And I find it nearly as empty and cheap as it is common.

At the end of October, a reporter for the Associated Press wrote, “The GOP is struggling to control tensions between its tea party and establishment wings and watching approval ratings sink to record lows.” Further on in his article, he reached for different language, to describe the same division. He spoke of “business-oriented Republicans and the GOP’s more ideological wing.” None of these words will quite do.

“Establishment” really got going in the 1950s, when Henry Fairlie, the famed British journalist, employed it. He used it to mean “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.” There have always been people eager to join the establishment (and if you want to make it seem really powerful and fixed, you use a capital E). They want to go to the right school, or work for the right firm, or belong to the right club. Dreaming on a grand scale, they may aspire to the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group.

On the flip side, there have always been people eager to oppose the establishment, or to give the impression of doing so — to stand up to the Man. “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” asks the girl in The Wild One. “Whaddaya got?” answers Marlon Brando.

I’m not entirely sure what an establishment Republican is. Someone elected to office? Someone who has a position of serious responsibility? Someone who has been around for a while? Who doesn’t huff and puff? Speaking of puffing, there used to be smoke-filled rooms, in which party bosses selected candidates. Now we have primaries — and voters, to a considerable degree, are the bosses.

The definition of “establishment Republican,” I think, is partly emotional. The term is almost always used vituperatively. I don’t think anyone has ever called himself an “establishment Republican.” The term means something like, “I disagree with you, I think I’m to the right of you, I resent you, get out of the way.” It is the latest form of derogation. A friend of mine said the other day — not in a light vein, but with genuine concern — “‘Establishment’ is the new ‘neocon.’”

In December 2011, as the presidential primaries loomed, we at National Review published an editorial about those primaries. We counseled against nominating Newt Gingrich, among others. Shortly after, a colleague poked his head into my office and said, “They’re calling us the E-word.” Who was “they”? Certain conservative activists. What was the E-word? “Establishment.” When I myself wrote critically of Gingrich, or Michele Bachmann, or Herman Cain, I too was called “establishment” (by angry e-mailers). That was kind of amusing. I held essentially the same views I’d held when I was working at a golf course for minimum wage.

I am in the position of many conservatives: blasted from the left for being Attila the Hun; blasted from the right for not being Attila the Hun. (Just to be clear: I am, indeed, Attila the Hun.)

The current poster boy for establishment Republicanism is Mitch McConnell — one of the smartest, ablest, most valuable conservatives in America. He has performed any number of services (such as standing athwart unconstitutional, or unwise, limits on campaign finance). We’re lucky to have him in politics. But now he wears a scarlet E.

#page#Probably, it’s the position — McConnell is the Republican leader in the Senate. I have had occasion to recall something with my NR colleague Michael Potemra, who worked in the Senate for twelve years: When Howard Baker was Republican leader, a lot of us said, “We need to get rid of that moderate old compromiser and replace him with a real conservative, like Bob Dole.” When Dole was leader, we said, “We need to get rid of that moderate old compromiser and replace him with a real conservative, like Trent Lott.” When Lott was leader . . .

Baker went on to serve as chief of staff to that marshmallow President Reagan. And I find Dole a particularly interesting case: He was always known as a right-winger, a true-believing junkyard dog. President Ford had included him on the 1976 ticket, dumping the incumbent vice president, Nelson Rockefeller. In his debate against Walter Mondale that year, Dole inveighed against the “Democrat wars” of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. (A sign of proper wingery is the use of “Democrat” as an adjective.) These days, some conservatives think of him as not much different from Rocky.

I was a Dole intern in 1984, the year he became Republican leader in the Senate. There was a mixture of Republicans in that body. We had true-blue, foursquare conservatives, such as the Idahoans, Jim McClure and Steve Symms. (McClure, in fact, ran for the leadership position that year, to the right of Dole. I think my feelings were slightly torn.) The Idahoans were the most conservative pairing — unless you count the North Carolinians, Jesse Helms and John East. (The wheelchair-bound East was known, usually affectionately, as Helms on Wheels.)

But there were also moderates and liberals: the Oregonians, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood; the Pennsylvanians, John Heinz and Arlen Specter. We also had Chuck Percy of Illinois, Mac Mathias of Maryland, John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Bill Cohen of Maine, among others. (Cohen ended up in a Clinton cabinet, as defense secretary.)

The most liberal Republican of all, probably, was Lowell Weicker. Plenty of us wanted him to up and leave the party. But “I’ll always be the turd in the punchbowl,” he said. Like other politicians, he broke his promise: He left the GOP in 1990, becoming governor of Connecticut under a third-party banner.

Today, there are no liberal Republicans in the Senate, and scarcely a moderate — maybe Susan Collins of Maine? There are no Rockefeller Republicans anywhere, so far as I’m aware. But, strangely enough, that term has come back into vogue: I know people who revere Ronald Reagan, and who worked for him, who have been tagged as “Rockefeller Republicans” — because they want to oppose Obamacare in ways other than their critics want.

Reagan, too, was attacked from the right: He raised taxes, amnestied illegals, pursued arms control, racked up debt. Conservatives liked to quip, with a sigh, “None of this would be happening if Ronald Reagan were still alive.”

Over in the House, though, there was genuine revolutionary, anti-establishment action: Newt and the boys were forming the Conservative Opportunity Society. This was after the 1982 elections, in which Republicans took a hit. They wanted to offer the public a positive agenda (rather than merely a blocking or temporizing one). And they wanted to reverse the minority mentality represented by our House leader, Bob Michel — a moderate and a swell guy. He played golf with Tip O’Neill, which, reasonably or not, bothered the hell out of us righties. Anyway, the Republicans triumphed at the polls in 1994, and Newt became speaker.

There is such a thing, no doubt, as a go-along, get-along mentality: a contentment with the status quo, a disinclination to fight. But there is not much of that in the Republican party today. Republicans have developed a healthy appetite for success. So, what is our division now? At the end of 1964, after the “Goldwater debacle,” as it was called, Robert Novak published a book called “The Agony of the G.O.P.” It told of the warfare between the Goldwater wing and the Rockefeller wing (roughly speaking). That was a real division. And today?

Much of the turbulence, or “agony,” I think, has to do with style. I repeatedly hear Mitt Romney described as a “moderate.” Why? He is a free-marketeer, a traditionalist, and a hawk. But his manner is moderate — he’s too polite or polished for some. I have noticed something curious over the years: If you espouse conservative positions in a moderate way, you may well be called a moderate. If you espouse moderate positions in an immoderate way, you may well be designated a “real conservative.”

Obviously, governing is not for the pure, although we expect our officeholders to remember principle. Almost everyone who gets into a significant governing position is viewed by someone as a sell-out. Reagan certainly found this out (although he is now a conservative saint). By much of the Right, George W. Bush is seen as a moderate, an “establishment” type. But he was also the one who grabbed the “third rail,” trying to reform Social Security, a national sacred cow. And he ran up against an immense force, which might be called “the establishment.”

As of now, my friend Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, is the darling of the antiestablishmentarians. But if he becomes president, or even the GOP nominee, he’ll disappoint many of them. And he will be the same sterling conservative, the same Reaganite, he was years ago, when he and I jawed and schemed at Earl Campbell’s barbecue place in Austin.

No one who writes, no one who talks, can live without labels. We need our shorthands, generalizations, and crutches. In 2010, some people formed a group called “No Labels” (motto: “Stop fighting, start fixing”). But without labels, you’re practically mute. I have often used “establishment media,” instead of “mainstream media,” to describe the New York Times, 60 Minutes, the Today show — you know. But labels can also be lazy and misleading.

In early 2003, a bunch of us were sitting around, figuring out where we stood on the impending Iraq War. A colleague said, “I know what the neoconservative position is, but what’s the conservative position?” In reality, there was no cupboard from which you could pluck conservative positions (or neoconservative ones). You had to think: “What’s the right thing to do, or the least wrong thing to do? What is the wisest or most palatable of the options?”

It may be convenient to label something “tea party” or “establishment,” “conservative” or “moderate,” “hard-core” or “squishy.” But it may be better to ask whether that thing is right or wrong, smart or dumb, promising or unpromising. I, for one, have had it with “establishment,” which has been used with gross promiscuity. I have an E-word of my own: Enough.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Christie Challenge

Chris Christie’s victory has predictably ignited talk of his seeking the presidency. Before his backers start reserving the moving van, though, it’s worth stepping back and calmly surveying what he’s ...
Politics & Policy

The $5 Problem

An examination of Americans’ household balance sheets uncovers something to discourage everyone: For those with preferences for minimalistic government and a maximally free economy, the disastrous state of our private ...
Politics & Policy

The E-Word

When we were schoolkids, we were taught that the longest word was “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Lately, I’ve been thinking that the most common word is “establishment” — as in “establishment Republican.” I ...

Features

Politics & Policy

A New Agenda

What do we do next, not only in the fight to stop Obamacare but, more generally, to advance a larger, positive vision of America and craft a practical plan to ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Camelot Revisited

On Sunday, November 22, 1964, some 40,000 Americans — a crowd greater than the capacity at Boston’s Fenway Park — visited Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects on the ...
Politics & Policy

The Right JFK

After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his supporters portrayed him as a liberal hero and a martyr for liberal causes. Kennedy loyalists Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. soon published ...
Politics & Policy

The Road to Roe

Roe v. Wade was a “reasoned statement, elaborated with great care.” So the Supreme Court claimed in 1992, when it reaffirmed its 1973 ruling that all states had to allow ...
Politics & Policy

Into the Inferno

Twelve Years a Slave, the first non-Tarantino major motion picture in years to offer a slave’s-eye view of the antebellum South, would probably have been guaranteed admiring reviews and a ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Health-Care Hell I am writing to you regarding the November 11 cover of National Review.  The allusion to Canto Three of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno of the Divine Comedy featured on the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We can’t keep insurance policies we like, and we have to keep a president we don’t. Can’t win. ‐ New Jersey is the country’s bluest state with a Republican governor, ...
Athwart

Killer Elite

Double Down, an insider view of the 2012 campaign, reportedly quotes President Obama saying he’s “really good at killing people” when it comes to picking targets for drone strikes. So ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

BOCA RATON In the rat’s mouth of wealth one learns to accept opulence as a perk of life dazed by the depth and breadth of it spread on the hyaline sea sparkle & sky cluttered with yachts cutting cream swaths in a ...
Happy Warrior

Those Who Can’t, Govern

For much of last year, a standard trope of President Obama’s speechwriters was that there were certain things only government could do. “That’s how we built this country — together,” ...

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Religion

Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some and there are many "miracles around us today, including television and airplanes." Graham was no theologian. Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More