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In political discourse, the term “establishment” refers to the traditional, institutionalized power structures and key players within a political system, which can include party leaders, high-ranking elected officials, influential donors, and mainstream media outlets.

These entities often wield considerable influence in shaping policy, political narratives, and electoral outcomes, and they generally favor maintaining the status quo or making incremental changes rather than radical shifts.

While the term can be used neutrally, it is often employed pejoratively to criticize those who are seen as out of touch with grassroots movements or the needs of the general populace.

More on the “Establishment”

The term for the traditional groups and organizations that oversee things, it’s the standard epithet hurled by candidates who run on a mantra of shaking things up. It enables a politician to assign blame without pointing fingers at any one individual.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders dismissed his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as “the candidate of the Democratic establishment,” adding that voters want someone “to take on the establishment.” On the Republican side, New Jersey governor Chris Christie said in an Iowa speech in June 2015: “We need a president who will fight for parents and their children—to put them in control of their education and not the unions and the education establishment.”

“Christie often tries to portray himself as not a member of the establishment, a rebel outsider, so he’s likely to use that discourse of being anti-establishment,” said Annelise Watt, an English professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, who teaches a course on presidential election rhetoric. “We’re seeing that with all of the [2016] candidates—especially Republicans, because they want to be the change candidates.”

British journalist Henry Fairlie is credited with popularizing the term “the establishment” in the 1950s to refer to the centers of official power as well as the interlocking mix of official and social groups that exercise power. It became especially widespread among the political left in the United States during the 1960s as opposition rose to the Vietnam War, prompting the magazine National Observer to note in 1967: “If someone wishes to complain about something but hasn’t a very clear idea of what, all he needs do is blame the problem on ‘the establishment’ and people will sagely wag their heads.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Establishment” in a sentence

  • The rise of populist candidates in recent elections has been interpreted as a challenge to the political establishment, forcing party leaders to reevaluate their platforms and outreach strategies.
  • Critics argue that the establishment’s influence in primary elections often marginalizes more radical candidates, perpetuating a system that favors moderate, centrist policies.
  • Some members of the Democratic establishment have expressed concern about the party’s leftward shift, fearing it could alienate moderate voters in swing states during the general election.