Antiestablishment political rhetoric is a cornerstone of American democracy. The United States was founded on principles of antiestablishment based on the experiences of American colonists with European monarchies. In fact, some may argue that democracy itself is the manifestation of antiestablishment principles. This is due, in part, to having free and open public elections on a regular basis. Elections provide opportunities for the public to not only select their choices for who will represent them, but also to outline positions on a variety of economic, environmental, and social issues. In comparison to having no voice in any of these matters, the formation of a government that permits public input maintains the antiestablishment mentality. This is a healthy aspect of democratic government.
At the founding of American democracy, antiestablishment was revolutionary in the purest sense. One dictionary definition of revolutionary is the “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.” I think many of us living in the United States can agree that this definition captures the spirit with which we think of revolutionary, despite its methods having changed drastically since the founding of our government. With that in mind, what does revolutionary mean today and how is it related to the emerging antiestablishment political rhetoric in the United States?
In one of my Native American Studies classes that I taught at Fort Lewis College, I asked students to develop a list of characteristics that might be used to better define revolutionary in a more modern context. The most common characteristic cited was “resistance,” which you may expect coming out of a class predominantly attended by Native students. Other characteristics included “courageous,” “motivated,” “self-sacrificing,” “enduring,” “persistent,” “vengeful,” and “influential.” The revolutionary concept likely consists of many of these characteristics, better defining the word in contrast to the dictionary definition provided above. In fact while our democracy is inherently antiestablishment, it is not revolutionary in the same sense it was at the beginning. Our policy system is an example of how this has changed, favoring more incremental adjustments over abrupt and drastic changes.
Since 2000, antiestablishment political rhetoric appears to have escalated in response to changing demographics, the increasing prominence of social media, and globalization. Some political candidates have coupled antiestablishment with revolution in the original spirit and intent of the word, but this is misleading (and meant to be so). A revolution is more about ideas and concepts, and less about composing or giving a voice to hate. As referenced in a previous essay, Donald Trump is genius in his use of antiestablishment rhetoric because it harnessed this anger and this hate that has been growing in the United States. This rhetoric was effective in forming an electoral base strong enough in certain states to usher Mr. Trump to victory.
Has American democracy devolved to the point where promulgating hate is acceptable? Has it really ever been different? To what extent will we allow any of our candidates and politicians to continually divide us and conquer the American democratic process? It is our responsibility as free, private citizens of this country to arm ourselves with the knowledge and understanding necessary to identify weaknesses in our democratic fabric. If we do not ask questions and think critically about the responses, then we will lose what does make this nation so great: our democratic liberties.
Regardless of your political affiliation, we should work together to maintain the spirit of revolution and antiestablishment in ways that promote American democracy. What we saw happen during the 2016 election season will not do that; we have look inward as a country to better understand why.