From self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders to the outspoken, impulsive Donald Trump and right-wing Ted Cruz, it seems nearly everybody wants to be anti-establishment these days.
I have my doubts. Based on our recent experiences here in Kansas, I would rather take my chances with the establishment.
Like the Rorschach blot in therapy, an interesting cloud formation, or burnt toast, people can project what they want to see onto the term “the establishment.” If you are “Feeling the Bern,” it represents a too-cozy relationship between the nation’s largest banks, Congress, and regulators. For Trump backers, it means corrupt political, bureaucratic, judicial, and education leaders, who, as they see it, impose political correctness by decree and fail to enforce the country’s immigration laws. I suspect that Cruz and his staunchly conservative followers see an evil establishment made up of pro-choice advocates, judges who rule in favor of same-sex marriage, and teachers of tolerance, among others. Conservative Republicans in general think that their own party’s establishment has cooperated too much with Democrats. They would rather shut down the federal government than allow Barack Obama even a partial victory.
The one point of agreement: the establishment is bad, and its members must go.
Sanders and his enthusiastic supporters are angry because Congress is blocking regulators from taking aggressive action against malfeasance among huge, powerful banks. A clearer term for this cozy business-Congress-regulator relationship is iron triangle, and Sanders has a laudable goal to break it. Yet he faces a remarkably adaptive foe: long before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, numerous campaign finance overhauls and other reforms were enacted to break the triangle, yet it proved remarkably resilient each time.
On the other hand, Kansas’s recent experiment is an attack on the establishment hated by Trump and Cruz, which includes independent judges, school teachers, moderate legislators, and budget/policy analysts. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback may not use the term “the establishment,” but he certainly knows whom to target. In 2012, he and his political consultants swept out moderate Republican leadership in the Senate. These were mostly experienced senators, centrists who had a pragmatic dedication to good government. They saw government as having a role but wanted to keep it limited, doubting extremes on both left and right. Moderate Republicans perfectly embody stereotypes about the establishment: mostly middle-aged or older, skeptical of change, with long tenure in office. With these fuddy-duddies gone, our new, conservative legislators cleared the way for extreme changes , creating perpetual budget crises, downgrading bond ratings, draining the highway trust fund, making the state a laughingstock, failing to deliver promised economic growth, and landing the Legislature itself in court over school funding.
Now comes the latest anti-establishment move: Why should these establishment judges, never directly elected and having served for years on the bench, be able to tell the less experienced, more ideological legislators that the laws they pass are unconstitutional? Down with the judicial establishment! This seems to be the message of a bill moving through the Legislature that would provide that judges be impeached for, among other things, “usurping the power of other branches.” Conservatives also are preparing a major push to turn several Kansas supreme court justices out of office later this year, when they are on the ballot for retention by the voters.
The claim is that the establishment stands in the way of change, so it must go.
Compared to this mess, careful change led by experienced public servants, wary of extreme changes, is looking pretty good. It is time to put competent, effective governance ahead of ideological experiments. Kansans should consider voting pro-establishment this year.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor in the political science department at Emporia State University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.