For many decades people—conservatives, especially—have understood the phrase the liberal establishment to mean the social, educational, and economic elite that sits atop the broader community of people who think, act, and vote liberal: the “limousine liberals,” in other words.  “The liberal establishment” meant the liberals at the top of the social hierarchy who dominated their socially and economically liberal inferiors, as well as their conservative ones, and imposed their will on them de haute en bas.  Today, in an age of populism or simply old-fashioned democratic politics—call it what you will—the liberal establishment means something else entirely.  It is only secondarily an establishment of well-heeled and well-placed individuals in society, education, the arts, the media, law, and government.  It is the brave new world imagined, invented, and imposed by liberal ideology on the nonliberal world in the past three quarters of a century—the last of them especially—the dominant overcrust fitted tightly above the undercrust that struggles to be recognized and heard.  The liberal establishment is quite simply modern reality in North America, in Europe, and in much of the rest of the world: a reality that, like every dominant and dogmatic reality, demands to be recognized as the sole reality.  Having been in the driver’s seat since the 1930’s, the liberal establishment is very, very established, meaning that it is also very, very conservative in the contextual sense—at least as conservative as the high bourgeoisie was before World War I, and, for a while, after it.

The liberal establishment has been situationally conservative for many decades now, but the populist parties of Europe and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States were needed to reveal that fact.  Until January 20, “unprecedented,” “unheard of,” “destabilizing,” “disruptive,” “beyond protocol,” “outside the normal channels,” etc., were god terms for liberals, connoting freshness, imagination, innovation, creativity, a healthy rebelliousness, and the ability to “think outside the box.”  No longer, as liberals appalled by Trump and would-be Trumpists abroad have suddenly begun sounding like Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Political Behavior and Etiquette.  Where previously liberals were inspired by the prospect of trying whatever was new and original, making everything new, and upsetting and smashing political and social precedents of every kind in the name of boldness, youthfulness, authenticity, freedom, and creative destruction, in past weeks they have fallen over themselves to point out that sudden changes—really, any changes at all, whether in substance, common practice, form, or thought—are perilous to the future of the American Republic and to bodies politic around the world.  What has happened to the silver sound of liberal horns since 1933, the polite whoop of liberal voices, on behalf of thrusting beyond deadening traditional ideas and assumptions and breaking from all previous norms and habits to go boldly into that brave future the timid and unimaginative bourgeoisie dared not enter?  They have all gone silent now and been replaced by dark natterings and warnings of a political system being unhinged and turned upside down, much as Washington upturned Cornwallis’s world.  Today, liberals speak gravely of the dangers of change and the need for caution and restraint (except against the new President’s person), of a necessary respect for the past and the long established order of things (NATO, the U.N., Open Borders, the Statue of Liberty, Diversity, Free Trade, Entangling Alliances, Human Rights, and the rest of it).  Who knows: Perhaps the New York Times will soon be quoting Burke to the White House; the Washington Post, Santayana to its readers. 

What a difference an election makes!  Somehow, though, one suspects that the lesson liberals act as if they’ve learned will be forgotten by the time November 2018 comes around, and they’ll have recovered their old reality in time to fight the next election with their old revolutionary fervor.


[Image credit: Kevin McCoy [CC BY-SA 2.0]]