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The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann

On October 20, 2016 I happened upon Nicholas Lemann’s essay The Long Decline of the Republican Establishment and felt obliged to pen an answer both because of the author’s prominence and because his essay carries the imprimatur of The New Yorker.

In his piece Mr. Lemann explains the origin of the term “the establishment”: Richard Rovere The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent back during the “mid-twentieth century” introduced the term to US readers in 1961 after picking it up from British Journalist Henry Fairlie.  Lemann writes:

. . . Rovere’s take on the establishment holds up amazingly well.  He insisted that the establishment shouldn’t be confused with what he called “the Organization,” meaning business interests that “would like to overthrow the Establishment.”  The establishment was, and is, universities, foundations, the mainstream media, Wall Street, and those parts of government that deal with law, money, and diplomacy.  It controls “respectable opinion.”

Lemann further explains that Rovere had correctly identified The New York Times as ““the official Establshment daily,” and still is” and how Rovere perceived “that democratic politics was a problem for the establishment, because elected politicians are usually too tightly moored to the public’s passions to be truly reliable members.”

Lemann writes that: “Nobody could have foreseen Donald Trump” (the opposite is true, and the real issue is why so many in the news media failed to foresee him), and analyzes contemporary politics as though reporting on the situation as it was forty or fifty years ago.  The result is an intriguing, slightly through-the-looking-glass experience, a brief glimpse under the hood of the inside-the-beltway mindset that in this instance is even further removed from wider popular experience and perception (not to mention reality) by a certain cultural aloofness.  Lemann’s overarching point, that the locus of the establishment has shifted from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, is a study in anachronistic reasoning—such as applying the rules of the late Republic to the rule of the Caesars.

Lemann writes:

Hillary Clinton is without a doubt either a member or an ally of the establishment—probably the former—and there was powerful anti-establishment sentiment at both Conventions.  In the Democrats’ case it was contained; in the Republicans’, it was controlling.  What has changed since Rovere was writing is that the establishment has moved from being bipartisan but mainly Republican to being overwhelmingly Democratic.  Ronald Reagan moved the Republican Party to the right in ways that alienated the establishment, especially on social issues like abortion; Bill Clinton moved the Democratic Party to the center in ways that attracted the establishment, especially on economic issues like trade and deregulation.

In our present social/political construct—a system Sheldon Wolin has dubbed “inverted totalitarianism”—a small group of narrow interests control the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government, own media empires from which they broadcast an uninterrupted stream of pro-corporatist and pro-zionist propaganda and otherwise assert considerable influence over news outlets while simultaneously controlling the flow of information into the country; they own vast munitions plants and the patents on countless death machines and reap unbelievable profits from war—any war—regardless who wins or loses; they own oil wells all over the planet and now have leases to probe for fossil fuels in newly opened regions—such as the ice-free Arctic—and control the banking interests necessary to raise sufficient capital so that all of the above can be financed, and also have significant pull when it comes to international monetary policy and relations with the other major powers.  At no point does Mr. Lemann touch upon the real power structure that governs this country.

Further, Mr. Lemann’s antiquated analysis fails to address the changing demography of the United States and why the Republican Party has become demographically doomed—because white people are dwindling to a minority.  Reagan—the angry white man’s president—identified government as the problem but offered no remedy, and in the post-Reagan world Republicans went beyond mere bad government or indifferent government to embrace the notion of no government at all—their ideal was a government so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.  Reagan presided over the ascension of Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” culture and the monetization of anything and everything that can be touched, heard, seen or smelled, and the emergence of bribery as the principal method for moving legislation through a Congress where legalized corruption is today a venerated institution.  These are not separate phenomena.  For generations Republican voters elected individuals who had no interest in the process of governing, which resulted in several consecutive Congresses accurately described as the least productive in history.  Republicans now favor a system of government so nihilistic that doing nothing at all is actually considered an accomplishment (in a world where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed).

Rather than addressing these obvious issues, Lemann instead focuses on the two major political parties, even though Republicans and Democrats no longer present coherent or competing political agendas.  The two major parties ceased speaking for those they claim as constituents generations ago and now only represent major inside-the-beltway powers: the fossil fuel industry, the insurance industry, the financial services industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the farm and farm products industry, the Israel Lobby, and that juggernaut of juggernauts—the untouchable Defense Budget and the countless arms manufacturers operating beneath the Pentagon’s broad umbrella.  The two political parties now serve only as conduits between seller/producer/controller and consumer/debtor/victim of the criminal justice system.  In society today there exists no noncommercial form of human interaction, and political candidates no longer run on policy positions and theories of governance, or for the common good.

Mr. Lemann would have us believe that despite the vast societal/political changes accruing since Reagan’s election there remains an establishment that through its mouthpiece, The New York Times, still governs respectable opinion, but with newsprint fading as a viable medium and its reputation as newspaper of record an increasingly distant memory, I don’t believe the Times still commands the lofty position it once held.  My view is that news media generally have become so fragmented, with each audience seeking out its particular mix of what shall be considered news or newsworthy, that great caution must be employed when assessing the veracity of reports filtering through any mainstream media outlet.  With its endless pro-Israel and anti-Putin propaganda, The New York Times can no longer be considered the mouthpiece of the establishment so much as the transmitter of a certain brand of corporate spin.

In his concluding paragraph, Mr. Lemann writes:

The Republican establishment is by no means dead, but whatever comeback it stages in the 2020 election will depend less on tweaking the nomination process, as some have suggested, and more on finding a way to make what’s still, in terms of its organization and funding sources, the party of business a lot more appealing to the employee class.

Right.  When pigs fly.  Auberon Waugh—son of Evelyn—is credited with coining the term “the chattering classes”, a social strata where Mr. Lemann should feel especially comfortable.

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Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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