Whatever happened to the American establishment? It was supposed to be the unassailable wall, the enemy of the populist candidates that tried to take their parties’ nominations during the 2016 election cycle. This great demon of American politics manifested in Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, who were supposed to be effectively unstoppable. Yet, today, the most reviled of the populist opposition is in the White House with a Republican party on the verge of civil war and a Democratic party only unified by “resistance.” So it was with high hopes to understand just what is going on that I attended an IOP debate last week to determine whether “the political establishment has failed America.” Despite a strong foursome of three professors and a journalist, most of the debate was filled with semantics and devoid of argument. Only Georgetown’s professor Michael Eric Dyson actually and aptly dealt with the question, though his condemnation of the establishment left much to be desired.
Dyson argued that the job of the political establishment is to ensure that all Americans can enjoy their fundamental rights. While this is a part of their mission, I disagree with any position that says this is the primary task and, subsequently, that failing in it is “failing America.” Rather, the fundamental purpose of the political establishment is to ensure the continuation of the United States of America as a democratic republic. Trump himself will not destroy the American republic—some members of his own party have already shown opposition to some of his more disquieting proposals such as his travel ban and his outreach to Russia. And, so long as the filibuster is in place, the Democrats can block what the Republicans will not. This is the establishment working! The issue is that our democratic principles are eroding and action needs to be taken to preserve them—but the election of one populist does not kill a democracy.
In fact, the establishment did an excellent job in opposing Trump during the primaries—the GOP’s attempt to defeat him only failed because of the sheer number of well-qualified establishment candidates in the ring, any of whom would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head fight. It is important to remember that Trump is the first Republican nominee to fail to get a majority of primary votes. If anything, the primary election was a certification of the establishment’s success rather than a revolution against it. But plurality winner-take-all state primaries hamstrung the GOP. It is unimaginable that Trump would have won had he been playing under a superdelegate system. Meanwhile, the Democrats held off a major populist challenger and chose a candidate that, for all her ethical and rhetorical problems, was the most qualified in a generation and went on to win the popular vote. In both cases, the establishment failed because the systems in place failed, not from any fault of their own.
Trump seems to be a singular event in American politics that will not leave a substantial legacy. His “alt-right” base certainly has political influence, but no congressmen or senators have been primary-ed out of office by “alt-right” candidates—in fact, down-ballot Republicans usually ran well ahead of their party’s nominee and those running against them were from the Tea Party rather than from white nationalists or the “alt-right.” Unlike an Erdogan or Orbán, Trump is not leading a movement with serious power to remake law; his own party supports him for now, but has already shown opposition to his and Bannon’s ideology. The party of Reaganism has yet to cede ideological ground to Trumpism—making the Republican establishment the strongest bulwark against potential tyranny. Ryan and McConnell have an established distaste for Trump; they will oppose him where they can, moderate him where they will, and support him where they must.
While the establishment has yet to fail America, it is in danger of doing so in the future. The lessons of this election need to be learned. Whatever the mildly anti-democratic nature of the superdelegate system, it has deep value in blocking populist hijackers like Trump. The Democrats should retain the system and the Republicans adopt it as a necessary way of protecting democracy. While the Electoral College is unlikely to be eliminated in the near term, states could restore part of its original purpose—to block potential dictators from the presidency—by allowing them to vote their conscience. But the efforts to maintain democracy must go further; we cannot rely on laws alone. We must establish new norms that protect our democracy from future would-be tyrants; the establishment is our best hope for the future—to call it a failure is to invite the end of our democracy.
Case Nieboer is a second-year in the College majoring in philosophy.