Somewhere in DC, there’s a smoky back room where a shadowy coterie of elites calls all of the shots in the 2016 presidential election. At least, that’s what the phrase “the establishment” evokes when bantered about by the Republican candidates like a hot potato no one wants to hold.
If America were Europe with a parliamentary system where the party powerfuls selected a leader from within their own ranks, I could understand. But looking at this election where a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican billionaire leads the polls, where a senator reviled by his own conservative colleagues sweeps to victory, where the world asks if Americans have gone insane, I begin to wonder: just who is the establishment, anyway?
Neither the intellectual grandparents of the Republican Party nor the grassroots crusaders can stomach, much less support, Donald Trump. Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigration grandstanding drives anyone in party leadership to distraction. But they can’t stop him from running. They can’t prevent him from wooing votes with populist rhetoric. “They,” whoever they are, are an establishment without teeth.
Ted Cruz is no darling of the legendary establishment, either. Scorned by his own party, he thrives on fighting against “the establishment.” He exults in his outsider brand and the enmity he’s accrued inside the Beltway. He pitches almost libertarian sound bites on national security and foreign policy to an eager electorate. He and Trump are no establishment dream team of presidential contenders. As Lindsey Graham, former presidential hopeful, quipped of the choice between the two, “It’s like being shot or poisoned. What does it really matter?”
The Establishment Is Just a Political Scapegoat
So what exactly has the establishment been up to lately? Twiddling its thumbs, taking a vacation, while candidates like Cruz and Trump line up to vie for the hearts and minds of the party faithful?
In popular conception, the establishment functions like the mythic Chairman in the 2011 film “The Adjustment Bureau.” Shadowy agents execute The Plan put forth by The Chairman of The Adjustment Bureau, disrupting people’s lives and upsetting their desires and dreams. Adjustments here, adjustments there, so the Plan can unfold just as the establishment—The Adjustment Bureau—wishes. But as the protagonists discover at the end, sometimes the Chairman lets, even wants, us to make our own decisions, to write our own Plan. In fact, that might just be the point of The Plan after all.
The United States has no Adjustment Bureau. It is both the wonder and the worry of the American political system that, should we all go crazy, there are no shadowy establishment saboteurs to thwart our moment of insanity. Even if the establishment thinks we have lost our collective mind, we still control the nomination.
The candidates appear in our states, hosting town halls, meeting voters, and seeking to persuade. But we, at the grassroots level, make the final decision. If we find Trump compelling, as Florida did, or Cruz convincing, as Wisconsin did, we award them our delegates, while “the establishment” wrings its fretful hands. The same with the “establishment” in Congress. Someone keeps electing these people. Many someones, in fact. It’s tempting to believe they’re part of some mysterious cabal, but in the end they still have to get elected—and they do. We have ourselves, and our fellow voters, only to blame for that.
We Are the Man
Truly, the voters are, if anything, the establishment. So maybe we should worry a bit less about “sticking it to the man.” We are the man. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face, as the saying goes. As in “The Adjustment Bureau,” focusing too much on the supposed Plan detracts from the freedom that we have to make choices.
I humbly submit, that, if anything, we don’t have an “establishment” problem. The existence of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz establishes that fact. Rather than obsessing over a shadowy illusion of powerful men manipulating political puppets, let’s focus on the substantive issues at hand and the very real choices we need to make regarding our country’s future. Pay attention rather to the policies our potential presidents propose.
Who is the establishment, anyway? You, me, your next-door neighbor—the same “We the People” our Constitution so proudly empowers. We the People, we are the establishment.