The Anti-Establishment Moment

As we rapidly approach the Iowa Caucuses, and the New Hampshire and South Carolina Primaries, I cannot help but think about one of my first encounters with American electoral history that occurred when I was in grade school.

I was reading through pages of maps of state by state presidential election results, and I came across the map for the 1984 presidential election.  I was impressed, even then, by its striking uniformity, with every state filled in “red” for Reagan with the one exception of “blue” Minnesota; someone had to vote for Walter Mondale, after all, and why not his home state?

We’ve been on a steady slide into electoral fragmentation ever since the ’84 election and there appear to be no signs of the trend reversing anytime soon. The sweeping victory by Ronald Reagan in 1984 was a stunning display of unified institutional confidence by the American people only ten short years after the shock of Watergate, which came on top of the gradual erosion in institutional loyalty caused by the Vietnam War, a war we had entered into with unparalleled post World War II (Korea’s difficulties notwithstanding) self confidence.   This is the rise and fall, pendulum movement of our politics.

A low point for institutions

It seems safe to say we are once again at a low point in our trust of institutions and “the establishment.”  How else does one explain the persistent appeal of a bunch of outsiders in this very long primary season?  Within days of the first primaries, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz are leading the Republican pack, both running as the outsiders, although it is a label that might belong more properly to Mr. Trump.  On the Democratic side, Mr. Sanders is not exactly an outsider, but he certainly strikes the populace as having a safer distance from the establishment than Mrs. Clinton.

Americans have always mixed together a paradoxical blend of nationalism and institutional loyalty, together with a persistent, libertarian suspicion of government power.  That is nothing new.

But what might be different about this latest wave of discontentment with career politicians and Washington malaise is that it has arisen in what is arguably the most individualistic society in history.

The rise and triumph of the self

Not only are we convinced that no one from the government can effectively govern (figure that one out, by the way), but we have also bought into the power trip of self-governance.  And by that I mean each of us these days is our own highest authority, and only with great reluctance do we cede that authority to any external system or entity.

It’s not just that we are a bunch of relativists.  Unfortunately that has been the case for awhile. No, more than that now, we have no tolerance for the effort that it takes to live in community with anyone else, or to set our preferences aside.

Consider the simple example of television sets.  Once upon a time, there was one TV in a house and everyone had to watch the same show together, in the same room, whether you liked it or not.  That meant that people developed a degree of tolerance for their lack of ability to exercise a personal preference or act on a personal taste.  Life is not fair- so be it.

And then TV’s got cheaper, and soon there were several in a house, allowing more opportunities for each family member to get their choice of channel and show, etc.  From there we moved to iPods, and iPads, and iPhones, (with earbuds) and laptops so that now every person occupying the same living space can have whatever form of sensory gratification they desire, all of the time, and at a moment’s notice.  The living room is now the place where each individual stares at their own, personal screen, rather than visiting with each other.

That is only one manifestation of the central social movement of our time, namely, the triumph of the self.  Multiply that dynamic by every product, organization, manner of expression, and behavioral pattern in the human condition, and you have a completely ungovernable group of people who have no capacity to tolerate whatever does not go their way, or that cannot be instantaneously changed or dismissed.

This is why fraternal and service organizations, religious congregations, political parties, families, and marriages are all disintegrating at an alarming rate.  Because, simply put, they all require effort, and they all stifle the limitless pursuit of options that we are all bred to crave these days.

In search of a post-institutional world

Back to Election 2016.  Since we all have no patience for process anymore, is it any surprise that we want to put people in charge who we think are just going to sweep aside any tedious political bureaucracy with a cavalier wave of the hand?  The allure of Mr. Trump is the tantalizing image of him striding into Washington and saying: “you’re fired!”  Never mind that no politician who has ever ran, and been elected, on that worn out platform has ever succeeded.

It is not reform that we want but rather liberation from anything we don’t happen to like.  We think of elections like we think of swiping a photo off the screen of our phones- “next!”  We are really in search of a post-institutional world so that we can be our own king.

The anti-establishment mindset is lurking behind the gay marriage and transgendered activist movements.  It is at work in the power plays going on now in our inner cities against the police, masked under the misleading title of “racial equality.”  It is also a powerful current in the environmentalist lobby and Green movement.

It is even at work in the current popularity of Pope Francis.  He is a man of the Church to be sure, but, his rhetoric, intentionally or not, comes across frequently in a markedly anti institutional way.  And he is most popular among the circles of people, Catholics and non, who find the traditional structures, processes, and doctrines of Catholicism to be too cumbersome.

In a culture such as ours, the Year of Mercy becomes an excuse to become our own pardoners, rather than a collective people who reaffirm our conviction that mercy is only authentically mediated through the community, most especially in the sacraments, and at the hands of a priest. Pope Francis is so popular precisely because he is seen as counter-institutional; he has been made into the champion of individualistic Catholicism, a post-Church catholicism, if there is such a thing.

So when even the pope has become anti-establishment, then Ted Cruz is the least of our worries. It seems there are no institutions anymore to bind us together, beyond the little island and monad of ourselves.  We have all the means at our fingertips to continue the steady retreat into our own little electronically fabricated, personalized, individual caves.

Christians should be leading the pro-institutional revival

We can elect an outsider, but the instant they are elected they become, by default, part of the establishment and we are confronted with the choice to support the regime, or to jump ship and start looking for the next regime, a.k.a., the next election.  Recent history suggests that the next election will begin the day after this one takes place, so low is our tolerance for outcomes that we do not like.

The hard reality is that to be anti-establishment, or anti-instutional, is to be at war with ourselves, culturally and personally.  God made us for society and for community.  We are only fulfilled in relationships that are other-centered, sacrificial, and life-giving.  The lure of liberation from the inconvenience of people is an illusion of the first order.

Which means that this day and age, like with every other day and age, is a golden opportunity for authentic Christians to stand out by living differently, celebrating the beauty of structures and, dare I say it, the establishment.  Christians are pro-structures because structures are a manifestation of, and facilitator of, community.

This would be a good time for us all to pledge to take our communal faith more seriously than ever, because America is in serious need of a communal example to look to as a model. Otherwise, the next step in our inevitable cultural evolution is not to vote for the outsider, but simply to vote for ourselves, and that would really be a disaster.

May the best insider win.


About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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