Bucking the establishment?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Political Reporters Can Learn to Love Complexity

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

I’m increasingly cranky about two shorthand terms that are being applied to Republicans.

Let’s start with “establishment.” I don't know what this means, but as best I can tell it's a kind of grandnephew of the old phrase “Eastern Establishment,” which 50 or 60 or more years ago designated something real in the Republican Party. But just “establishment?” The idea of Republicans as a conservative party, the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, is well-established, whether we’re talking about groups of voters or institutionalized factions.

The problem is that the term is either too broad or too narrow. If talking about an “establishment” is simply a way of saying that crank candidates (Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in the 2012 nomination fight) and candidates outside the Republican mainstream (Ron Paul) aren’t going to win, the definition is too broad, encompassing interests and factions that don’t necessarily agree with one another. And if the “establishment” is only a small subset of mainstream conservatives, then we really need a more specific term.

My other pet peeve is “donor class.” It’s often used as a synonym for establishment,  so my complaints above apply. But it also bothers me because it seems to be a way of saying that big money dominates the nomination process, and that the people who really matter are those who have (or have access to) money. Although it doesn’t seem to include a lot of the people who fund insurgent candidates.

Parties decide their nominations, and the process involves thousands of  party actors: the politicians, campaigning and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and donors, party-aligned interest groups and the partisan media. And they’re not equally important: The governor of a big state probably has a larger say in a presidential nomination than someone who works for a small-state polling outfit, and Sheldon Adelson has more clout than a precinct committee chairman.

The job of political reporters should be to sort this out. Are there regional alliances among politicians? Which interest groups appear to have veto power over candidates who dissent on their issues? Are some Republican-aligned news outlets affiliated with particular factions? Are others influential because of their reputation or reach among party actors? And are donors manifesting the will of underlying interest groups or factions, or do they stand apart as a faction of their own?

“Establishment” and “donor class” often seem a shorthand way of waving off that complexity. Good reporting gives us more. Take, for example, Marc Ambinder’s discussion of Jeb Bush as a candidate of the “business wing of the party.” Reporters need to simplify, but they’re not telling us anything useful when they use vague terminology. They can do better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net