Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Adversary Politics and the Invisible Establishment

We should refuse to play along when the rich, influential, or well-connected pose as outsiders.

Earlier this week, Damon Linker diagnosed an odd phenomenon. No matter how much influence or popularity they enjoy, grandees of the conservative movement including the editor of National Review and Rush Limbaugh deny being part of the “establishment”. Linker questions their grasp of reality rather than their judgment:

I don’t doubt that Lowry and his ideological compatriots really believe this. But it’s nonsense, and the nonsense isn’t benign. It obscures the reality of who exercises power on the right — and allows those who wield it to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their reckless rhetoric and foolish mistakes.

This is an important point that helps explain conservatives’ refusal to take responsibility for a series of political disasters over the last few decades. But the cognitive dissonance isn’t limited to the right. Planned Parenthood threw a fit when Bernie Sanders described it as “part of the establishment”. According to the executive vice president of an organization that possesses assets worth close to two billion dollars and is supported by virtually every Democratic politician,

It’s regrettable and surprising to hear Sen. Sanders describe the very groups that fight on behalf of millions of often marginalized Americans — people who still have to fight for their most basic rights — as representing the “establishment”[.]

So there’s more going on than conservative illusions. The denialism that characterizes our politics is a consequence of the fact that both wings of today’s elite have roots in adversary politics.

As Linker points out, the Goldwater movement was the seminal moment for conservatives. For progressives, it was the personal liberation and anti-war campaigns that emerged just a few years later. Members of today’s establishment can’t be honest with themselves because they either came of political age as opponents of the status quo or nostalgically identify with those who did.

It’s impossible to talk people out of their basic self-understanding. What we can do is refuse to play along when the rich, influential, or well-connected pose as outsiders. That goes for Ivy League professors, national media figures, and presidential candidates on the right and the left. And…maybe even Donald Trump.