The fault line in American politics is no longer Republican vs. Democrat nor conservative vs. liberal but establishment vs. anti-establishment. This is an inevitable result of serial failure in establishment policies. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the establishment’s repeated military interventions abroad in wars against non-state opponents. When such interventions fail in one place—first Somalia, then Iraq, then Afghanistan, then Libya, now Syria—it does the same thing again somewhere else, with the same result.

Why has the establishment allowed itself to be trapped in serial failure? Once we understand how it works, the answer is plain: it cannot do otherwise. On Capitol Hill, the legalization of bribery—“campaign contributions”—means money rules. That puts business as usual in the driver’s seat because that is where the money is. If a member of Congress backs, say, the F-35 fighter/bomber, he can count on campaign contributions from its manufacturers and jobs for his state or district. (The Pentagon calls that “strategic contracting.”) If instead he calls for reforming our military so it can perform better in Fourth Generation wars, where fighter/bombers are useless, there’s no money.

My long-time colleague Paul Weyrich and I both began our Washington careers as Senate staff, Paul in the late 1960s and me in 1973. Shortly before his death in 2008, I said to him, “When we arrived on the Hill, at least half the members of the Senate thought their job had something to do with governing the country. Now that figure is at most 10 percent. All the rest think about is having a successful career as a professional politician and retiring very, very rich.” Paul agreed.

thisarticleappears janfeb16Just as money locks in current policy, so does ideology. To be a member of the establishment you must spout the ideology of “democratic capitalism,” the notion that America can and should remake the rest of the world in its own image. Other peoples see this, rightly, as an attempt to ram the Brave New World down their throats. Many are willing to fight to prevent it. But if a member of the Washington establishment dares question the ideology and suggests a policy based on realism, he immediately loses his establishment membership.

Over breakfast in Denver several years ago I said to my old boss, Sen. Gary Hart, “If you are a member of the establishment and you suggest more than five degrees rudder change in anything, you cease to be a member of the establishment.” He replied, “I’m exhibit A.”

Below these factors lies the establishment’s bedrock. It is composed overwhelmingly of people who want to be something, not people who want to do something. They have devoted their lives to becoming members of the establishment and enjoying the many privileges thereof. They are not likely to endanger club membership by breaking its rules. Beyond following money and adhering to its ideology, the rules are three.

The first is, don’t worry about serial failure. Within the Beltway, the failure of national policies is not important. Career success depends on serving interests and pleasing courtiers above you, not making things work in flyover land. As in 17th-century Spain, the court is dominated by interests that prosper by feeding off the country’s decay.

Second, rely on the establishment’s wealth and power to insulate its members from the consequences of policy failure. The public schools are wretched, but the establishment’s children go to private schools. We lose wars, but the generals who lose them get promoted. The F-35 is a horrible fighter, but no member of the establishment will have to fly it. So long as the money keeps flowing, all is well.

Third and most important, the only thing that really matters is remaining a member of the establishment. This completes the loop in what is a classic closed system, where the outside world does not matter and is not allowed to intrude. Col. John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, said that all closed systems collapse. The Washington establishment cannot adjust, it cannot adapt, it cannot learn. It cannot escape serial failure.

The public is catching on to all this and, on both sides of the political spectrum, turning to anti-establishment candidates. If we are fortunate, some will win. If the establishment manipulates the rules to hold on to power indefinitely, when it collapses it may take the state with it. 

William S. Lind is the author, as “Thomas Hobbes,” of Victoria: a Novel of Fourth Generation War.