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Friday, June 07, 2024

The Missing Ingredient

I would suggest, in response to Gerard's post below, that if we ask why those actions succeeded with Nixon and failed with Trump, the missing ingredient is: an Establishment. A good, old-fashioned Establishment, a dominant elite that is enmeshed, to quote Henry Fairlie, in both "the centres of official power" and "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised." It mattered that the Post, a well-connected newspaper in a well-connected city, opened the door to Watergate reporting and that the Times and other mainline papers and TV networks (remember them?) quickly followed suit. They had influence in large measure because those institutions were part of or important to the Establishment and taken seriously as such. It mattered when someone like Walter Cronkite spoke to a huge chunk of the nation at the same time. It mattered, too, that the other figures and institutions he mentions were part of that Establishment. Although in our popular histories and memories of the event we sometimes dramatize folks like Woodward and Bernstein and the young lawyers working for congressional committees as young rebels or outsiders, they were for the most part consummately inside, or worked for institutions that were taken seriously as Establishment organs: they were inside the barricades, not outside--and stayed there, sometimes pursuing power and sometimes wealth, for decades. It certainly mattered that Mark Felt was a member of the Establishment. It probably even mattered, despite his inexcusable conduct, that Nixon was a member of the Establishment. 

At best, we have two establishments now, but I doubt even that is an accurate description. In any event, once there are multiple establishments, and multiple avenues to success and notoriety outside any establishment, their power to include or exclude or enforce norms is greatly weakened if not wholly evaporated. Both Donald Trump and President Biden, in their ongoing willingness and ability to ignore, bypass, or freeze out the legacy papers, demonstrate that they no longer have the power they once did, however seriously some of their staff may take themselves. Nor does anyone take select committees or federal district court judges seriously anymore--and for good reason, often enough.

There are certainly still elites. I'm fond of observing and writing about them--their dreams, projects, and illusions, their games and their self-image, and their never-ending struggle with cognitive dissonance. And there are certainly still elite institutions; if Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept had been published and de-published by the Podunk Law Review, we would not have spilled so much ink about it. But the Establishment itself is now, for the most part, like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: there is no longer any there there. I would add that it's crucially important that Establishment mingling, in circumstances in which things can be hashed out by all hands on what passed in the Establishment for all sides, is neither possible nor especially welcome. 

An "Establishment" is also exclusionary, cozy and clubby, self-selecting and self-dealing, and so on. There are lots of reasons to oppose or question it and its structure. I certainly have, especially when it comes to what I think of as the Canadian mandarinate but also here. It's more than a little ridiculous that anyone ever treated any single figure like Cronkite as "the most trusted man in the nation." But the value of reposing trust, and having something in which to repose it, is not so absurd. Back when people thought the Internet was a good thing, they (I include myself) would talk, sometimes rhapsodically, about the democratizing power of moving from a "one-to-many" model of communication to a "many-to-many" model. (It's interesting to look back and think about how much that particular vintage of Internet still revolved around a relatively small number of both traditional and new speech institutions that were effectively Establishment publications. That was, in retrospect, really an era of "more-than-one to many" communication. It's long dead. Something like The Atlantic [est. 1857] exists largely vestigially, can be read or ignored quite safely and easily, and farms engagement like everyone else.) But a one-to-many model, and the social structure that undergirds it, has its benefits too, and any change in governing models has its costs.

Absent an Establishment, I am unsurprised that the Watergate model is ineffective. How can you be cast out of, or by, a social and political power elite that doesn't exist anymore? And I'm rather doubtful, for the same reasons, that the prosecution model will be effective either.      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 7, 2024 at 03:31 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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