Anti-Establishment Sentiment Wrecked American Politics

Without hierarchy, American politics has become a free-for-all in which purists and insurgents thrive.

United States Capitol Washington
United States Capitol in Washington DC at night, September 18, 2014 (Thomas Hawk)

If you haven’t read Jonathan Rauch’s cover story in The Atlantic yet, you should. He makes some of the points I’ve been making here on and off and I totally agree with the rest of it: The reason American politics has gone, as he puts it, “insane,” is that norms have broken down and “establishment” types (bosses, bundlers, party leaders) have gradually been deprived of ways to exert a moderating influence.

Rauch relates how that was often done with the best of intentions: to prevent corruption, to end backroom deals and porkbarrel spending and to make the whole process more democratic. But it left the door open to purists and insurgents. Without hierarchy, politics becomes a free-for-all.

It’s their fault!

Jonathan Chait argues in New York magazine that Rauch gets it half-right; that everything he describes really applies to Republicans, not so much to Democrats

“Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party,” writes Chait.

Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal dealmaking or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges.

I agree the Republican Party is more at fault. I’ve argued before that this year’s presidential contest, which gave us Donald Trump, marked the culmination of years of Republican surrender to the hard right. As long as millions of conservative voters prize ideological purity over governing, there is going to be a problem.


But it’s a little too easy to blame one side.

Take a look at these survey numbers from the Pew Research Center. They’ve been tracking voters’ attitudes toward the other party for years and found that polarization is now at a peak. 58 percent of Republicans have very unfavorable views of Democrats while 55 percent of Democrats have very unfavorable views of Republicans.

Those numbers were only 21 and 17 percent, respectively, in 1994.

Nearly half of Republicans think Democrats are dishonest, immoral and lazy. 70 percent of Democrats say Republicans are closed-minded. 42 percent think they’re dishonest and a third believe they’re unintelligent. 55 percent of Democrats are afraid of the Republican Party. 49 percent of Republicans are afraid of the Democrats.


It is the case that Republican politicians (and opinionmakers) have responded very differently to this than Democrats. Deliberately or not, they have exploited and fueled the polarization rather than put a lid on it.

That is because they have different incentives, Chait argues.

He cites research by Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins, two political scientists, which shows that the parties are structurally different. I wrote about the same research last year. Click here for a longer version. Their argument in brief: the Republican Party is the vehicle of the conservative movement, hence its constant push for more right-wing policies, while the Democratic Party is a coalition of interest groups, hence its inclination to compromise.

That doesn’t mean, though — and this is what I think Chait gets wrong — that Democrats are necessarily more respectful of norms or necessarily less hostile to “establishment” politics.

It was the left that introduced many of the reforms that weakened the establishment’s grip on party politics and remember how Obamacare was rammed through Congress?

Sure, Republicans have done worse. We don’t need to pretend for the sake of false equivalence that both sides are equally to blame. But it’s not very helpful if left-leaning journalists are going to focus only on what the Republicans have done wrong.

Anti-establishment neurosis

Rauch argues that neurotic hatred of the political class is the root of the problem and this is certainly not confined to the right. Just listen to some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

It’s not just the United States either, we see plenty of this in Europe.

Anti-establishment nihilism deserves no respect or accommodation, according to Rauch. A skeptical attitude toward politics is healthy up to a point. Even populism is. But America has passed that point.

Political professionals and parties have many shortcomings to answer for — including, primarily on the Republican side, their self-mutilating embrace of anti-establishment rhetoric — but relentlessly bashing them is no solution. You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.