I’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.
To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.
We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.
It’s actually been fashionable to be against the establishment for a long time, on both sides of the aisle and beyond. For Conservatives, being against the establishment means dismantling extraneous government, and insisting your candidates be “outsiders,” whatever that means for career politicians. For Liberals, it means demanding social services and human rights and free trade, presuming that those things will undermine the establishment. For Progressives, it means being against corporate involvement in politics, being anti-racist, supporting LGBTQ rights, and having a living wage. In isolation, there’s value in almost everything above (excepting the oxymoronic “outsider politician”). But are any of these really anti-establishment?
Which brings me to the second part of my problem with this, which is that “establishment” is being used as a term of demarcation more than of definition. It is a way of defining the in-group and the out-group and simultaneously marking the out-group as domineering and the in-group as the underdog. Root for us! We’re fighting the man!
Unfortunately, I think the establishment we claim to fight is the establishment of fiction. “Establishment” for us conjures up shadowy figures in smoky back rooms, Machiavellian conspiracies to silence brave insurgents, and the specter of big brother watching and proscribing your every move. But the shadowy figures are incompetent, the conspiracies are just emergent properties of self-interest, and big brother is having a temper tantrum more often than he is watching your every move.
Some prefer to say they fight “the system,” and I think that is more accurate. Yet that label also ignores what I think is its defining component: us.
When we say we are fighting “the establishment” or “the system,” I think we are really just talking about changing the habits of our society. Whatever we call them, they are our collective choices about how we govern ourselves, treat one another, and provide for those among us who need help. What we are fighting for is not to dismantle some conspiracy of others—it is to make a different collective choice. “The establishment” is the sum of those choices, our choices.
Thus, my distaste for the word “establishment” as we are currently using it. Drawing a line between ourselves and everyone else on whatever axis we prefer is how you collect enemies, not supporters. And, like it or not, changing a collective choice needs support more than it needs valiant rebellion. Enemies are personally and emotionally satisfying—but allies are effective.
So, I think its time to stop worrying about fighting the establishment and start owning it instead. You don’t end racism, or sexism, or gender prejudice by identifying everyone else as having the problem and calling yourself a bastion of purity. You end those things by changing minds and changing policies until our collective choices are less horrible.
Changing “the establishment” isn’t us and them—it’s just us.
Image Credit: Fabio Venni