Immediately following President Obama’s reelection, news sources proclaimed ‘The Establishment GOP is Dead’. It was almost like they were a bit nostalgic for it, every week a more outlandishly offensive scandal than the last. But while Republican candidates kept sliding more to the right to appease a supposedly conservative base, the rest of us have been witnessing and actively abetting the collapse of the Establishment.
But whom do we really mean when we say ‘The Establishment’? And what do our conceptions of the ‘old guard’ still have to show us? The image I keep returning to is that of the Old White Man, unsurprisingly Mitt Romney’s primary demographic–fiscally responsible, socially conservative, church patronizing, patriarchal in the crudest sense of the word. Now that the GOP itself is acknowledging a shifting political makeup, we can perform a post-mortem on the Old White Man demographic, understand it as a symptom of more insidious power distribution in this country, and a straw man for outdated expectations and beliefs.
To be clear, when I say Old White Men I see a precise canon of men, men who’ve actually interviewed me before, men in suits or loafers, and always of a certain economic class. These are men I stereotype and rally against in my own imagination–key-bearers, bankers, philanthropists, CEOs, The Deciders. In many cases they are charitable men, some say ‘family men’, regular churchgoers but without a showy sign of the cross. Perhaps they don an American flag pin or a red-and-blue tie. In upper tiers I imagine these OWM in VIP booths, drinking something like scotch or whiskey. They smoke cigars, or even pipes. They go about their business cracking antiquated wife jokes, something about the kitchen or nagging or shoes. Those who fancy themselves a kind of prehistoric politician may find themselves in the public eye, having proffered the latest sound-bite on rape or abortion. They disclose their ignorance with a vintage shamelessness that younger generations have learned to cringe at. It’s like the American trope of catching your father wearing bellbottoms past his prime or trying to listen to music inappropriate for his age. For many OWM, unfortunately, it’s as though progressive thinking rings like 2 Chainz. Just mention gay marriage and watch the brows knit. They won’t get it but they’ll make a big to-do about trying. After all, theirs is the greatest generation at self-martyring, embalmed in ‘walking barefoot through the snow’ jokes and drawn-out Brokaw legends. OWM believe they had to struggle to make it in this country and so can you. OWM want to see how you’ve struggled, how you’ve adopted their customs and forms, and how you remind them of themselves when they were fine young men with aspirations.
For most of us grouped under the headline ‘The Changing Face of Voters’ that’s harder to do. It’s harder to prove yourself as a woman or queer or non-white before an OWM because his worldview is already established. The OWM before you has an idea about your kind and anecdotes to prove it. He’s met people from your country, some of his closest colleagues are you, or you remind him of his daughters. When you buck against the trends in his head the OWM gets frustrated. His matrix is glitching, he twitches and frowns under his glasses. He is annoyed at your new kind, you kids with your all-acceptance and sense of entitlement. When you ask, at a town hall you’re chosen to go to, about the state of unemployment in this country and the real-world value of your very expensive degree, the OWM snickers and reminds you that he did not ask for a job out of college, he did not expect a president to give one to him, he would not have even dreamed of asking for one. Instead, he pulled up his bootstraps and trekked through snow.
How dare we, says the OWM, expect entitlements?
What do they really mean when they say ‘entitlements’?
Do they mean an individual’s right to the care and scientific innovation that living in a 1st world country affords? Do they mean a family’s right to affordable housing while working day and night shifts to support itself? Perhaps they mean a chance for children to learn English and win awards despite having been born into a poor school district. Or maybe the OWM had been fortunate enough to be born right into a boot to strap, or it came pre-strapped, or his father gave him a boot on his birthday that his father once gave him. Maybe the OWM in question managed to buy his own laces later.
The real pitfall with the OWM is that he does not see his own leg up. In many ways he cannot. Because the OWM has been raised to martyr and provide, he sees his singular story as one of victimhood and perseverance. He sees his role in establishing order as a blessing and a curse. His Bible titled him the head of his household so he offers you a gift, his merciful recourse to tradition, some stability. Marriage is between a man and a woman, he says. All pregnancies are God’s plan, he says. That’s the way it’s always been, he says, that’s good enough for me. As the head of the house, the burden of responsibility falls squarely on his shoulders, the OWM burden of balancing budgets, protecting his loved ones from strangers, protecting his power from foes. He sees his work as a gesture for everyone else, but he cannot see the contours of the system that keeps it in place.
Of course I’m not suggesting that all old white men are OWM, or that all OWM look alike. It should go without saying that many are charitable and well-meaning, empathetic and in-touch. Many old white men are even more progressive than their children. But the OWM is the embodiment of who still holds the strings in this country, and Mitt Romney was their poster child. In congress, on TV, images of OWM suggest a troubling power imbalance. In yearbook shots of national awards and honors and Forbes 400 richest Americans, the list is still mostly older white men. Even if they weren’t all born into their bootstraps, even if some of them actually had to trek through snow to get on that list, it helps to know what face you can or can’t relate to, what narrative you feel comfortable with, what party looks like it could represent you. It helps to know why you can’t afford a warm pair of boots, what you’re struggling for and where you’re going, whose face still haunts you there. It helps to see the straw man and know he is a straw man, and not be afraid of him anymore, even if he’s calling you entitled and lazy and dismissing your basic inalienable rights as his ‘gifts.’
It helps to remember that the face of our nation is changing, has been changing this whole time, and remind him that if this generation is entitled then somebody must have entitled us. Somebody, or a whole gentlemen’s club of somebodies, once promised us things, advertised them, won our support with them. These somebodies told my friends that law school graduates make a starting salary of $90,000. They suggested that we go to college for a better life. They told us we could have more opportunities than our parents. They showed us poetry and art history and the humanities, even bestowed upon us grants and fellowships to study them. They gave us diplomas and letters then titled us spoiled or privileged or overindulged.
The OWM have been capitalizing on our trust for too long, charging us interest then hiding behind loopholes while we grumble about welfare fraud. They throw around numbers like 3 trillion and 7 billion then demand their GradPlus loans back on an adjunct’s income. They have developed, with the service of bright young ivy leaguers whose allegiance they solicited with promises of wealth, an entire lexicon of fraud, a whole industry of greed and gambling that bastardizes words like ‘futures’ and keeps its get-rich tricks for a privileged few. These somebodies walk around the city like they own everything, then title us nobodies when we occupy our own space.
If our nation’s changing demographics offer anything, I hope it’s the sure demise of an already crumbling establishment, and with it a shift in perspective. I hope these OWM can start to see ‘these kids these days’ making our own decisions, helping each other build more boots for everyone. We are grateful for their private grants and years of service, but it’s time they all retire to their summer homes. We are taking control of their dwindling ethics, their myopia, our own choices and bodies. To empower the next generation, the OWM must divorce themselves from their beloved corporations and start seeing us as people instead, not just consumers or credit scores or whiny progressives. The Republican Party, if it wishes to remain relevant and viable, must do more than manufacture new rhetoric and Hispanic ancestry. It must speak different languages than those of the OWM, speak to a wider understanding of the American people, speak with conviction about more than war and money. Perhaps it’s time to start boning up on feminist discourse, theories of the ‘other’ and immigrant narratives. Perhaps it’s time to start considering the threat of climate change. Perhaps now is the time to start shrugging off the old burdens of patriarchy, which incarcerate as many men as women, whether they know it or not. Perhaps with openness, with empathy and humility, the OWM will finally be able to see themselves, their privileges, and our collective stake in this country. Perhaps this could begin the work of the new century, with new priorities and new demands, a new deal for my generation and new creative ways to put our skills to work. I hope this past election represents a new order, with the appointment of a record number of women into congress, our first Hindu congresswoman, our first openly gay senator, and hopefully a more progressive 2nd term for Obama. I say good riddance to The Establishment, and welcome the same melting pot to power that America has always been. I’m looking forward to trekking through snow with everyone else, and hope this means we can all help each other with our bootstraps along the way.