A recent cover story by Michael Kazin for The Nation magazine offers a strong critique of populism. The essay is titled, “We Know We Hate the Establishment—but Do We Know What It Is? The vague term obscures where power really lies.”
To train one’s ire at the establishment is to embrace a baby-simple analysis of how power works…. Any substitute for the vapid critique of “the establishment” must reckon with the structures and ideology that sustain an unjust system….
Railing against the establishment also ignores the mass resistance to ways of thinking that would have to undergird a truly democratic and egalitarian society. The hope that we can bring about fundamental change by exposing an immoral cabal and crushing its power fails to confront the deeply held belief in the essential fairness of capitalist society. The tenacity of this conviction helps explain why Americans keep [voting the way they vote]. There’s a feedback loop between the political and economic institutions that sustain inequality and an ideology that forecloses alternatives…..
Nor does Bernie Sanders’s bashing of wealthy insiders get at the real obstacles to advancing toward a society that would ensure a decent life to every American….
Until we are able to speak more realistically about those obstacles and why they persist, protesting the establishment will obsess and frustrate us….
Unfortunately, Kazin only addresses “political and economic institutions,” and one deeply held belief concerning our current economic system.
But all of our major institutions are woven into our dominant social system. Many other beliefs are critical. And many personal behaviors reinforce the system.
Those omissions discount the value of comprehensive, simultaneous personal, social, cultural, and institutional reform throughout society.
Nevertheless, his essay points us in the direction of a deep systemic analysis.