Among conservatives today, there’s a phrase that has become an all-purpose term of derision: “the establishment.” The purpose of the charge is to call into question the bona fides of self-proclaimed conservatives and Republicans. The choice is supposed to be between “true” conservatives and “establishment” ones.
I wonder, though, how many conservatives who rail against the establishment these days realize they are appropriating language from the 1960s, when the New Left attacked the authority structures in society and presented themselves as “anti-establishment.” Back in those days, it was conservatism which saw its role to protect society from the radical tendencies of those on the left and defend the beneficial social effects of an establishment. Yet today, even so quintessential an establishment figure as Newt Gingrich explains opposition to his candidacy chiefly in terms of opposition by the “Washington establishment” rising up to block “bold change.”
But that’s where this critique begins to break down. Many members of the conservative establishment, after all, were hoping Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan would run for president because Daniels and Ryan are arguably the most committed and best informed when it comes to the most urgent and difficult domestic issue of our time, which is reforming the entitlement state, and Medicare in particular.
To complicate things even more: polls tell us that many members of the Tea Party, which embodies anti-establishment feelings, are lukewarm when it comes to reforming programs like Medicare. And many of the loudest voices against the establishment have spent relatively little time laying out the case for structurally reforming Medicare. In fact, some of these conservatives have criticized President Obama for cutting Medicare (albeit to pay for the Affordable Care Act rather than as part of a broader reform agenda).
I wouldn’t deny for a moment that criticisms of the current establishment and political class have some merit. I’d simply suggest that the picture is incomplete. There’s an important role for the establishment in American politics. For one thing, it’s comprised of people who have substantive mastery over issues. Think of the difference between, say, Christine O’Donnell and Herman Cain, who embodied an anti-establishment style but who were not fluent on policy, and Representative Paul Ryan, who qualifies as part of the establishment under any meaningful definition of the term. (Ryan worked at a Washington, D.C. think tank and as a staffer on Capitol Hill in the 1990s, he was elected to Congress in 1998, he’s now chairman of an important committee and is undeniably a part of the governing elite.) The establishment, at its best, provides experience and guidance, a stabilizing presence and a practical (rather than a rigidly ideological) outlook, all of which should appeal to conservatives.
As in so many areas, we can learn something from the wisdom of the founders. In her book “Miracle at Philadelphia,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote this:
Most members of the ) Philadelphia Convention … were old hands, politicians to the bone. That some of them happened also to be men of vision, educated in law and the science of government, did not distract them from the matters impending. There was a minimum of oratory or showing off. Each time a member seemed about to soar into the empyrean of social theory — the eighteenth century called it “reason” – somebody brought him round, and shortly. “Experience must be our only guide,” said John Dickinson of Delaware. “Reason may mislead us.”
Many of the most impressive individuals in political history were “establishment” figures, including Burke and Madison. They knew a great deal about government. And very few, if any, of the founders would have would argued that less government experience would make people better fit to govern. It requires a different skill set to comment on politics than it does to govern, including (among other things) the ability to make wise compromises.
Speaking of which: among some conservatives these days “compromise” is considered an offense almost equal to being a member of The Establishment. So it’s once again worth recalling the elegant words of Bowen, who wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”
To be clear: members of the Washington establishment can be knaves and fools. Compromise can be just another word for capitulation. And there are reasons to be frustrated with the way things are done. At the same time, reflexive attacks on both “the establishment” and compromise are unwise. We were fortunate at the founding of America to have a political class consisting of individuals with governing experience, scholarly insights, and strong convictions. The best among them took the long view. They were conversant in both theory and practice. They were also undeniably members of the establishment of their era. And their compromises – including between those who favored adding a Bill of Rights and those who did not, between big states and small ones, and between northern and southern states – led to the greatest governing charter in history. These things are worth bearing in mind even, and maybe especially, for conservatives.