I’m not going to nitpick Matt Bai’s long piece on the Republican Party in the NYT Magazine over the weekend; for that matter, as Bai goes, it mostly avoided the kinds of horrible factual whoppers and conceptual garbage that I’ve often been on his case for. And it features plenty of the good Bai: substantive interviews with people who are in fact important to hear from. As I’ve said before, Bai (at least as far as I can tell) is pretty good at reporting; it’s when he moves beyond to analysis that he gets into trouble. So any of his pieces that contains lots of reporting is going to be well worth reading, as this one is.

There is one thing in it that I think he gets wrong, but lots of people get this wrong, so I don’t really mean to single him out. Here’s what Bai says about the old GOP establishment and the new:

George Will recently said there is no such thing as the Republican establishment […] [T]he real establishment, the league of Protestant lawyers and bankers from the Northeast and Midwest who once exercised enormous influence, was smashed in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, acting as the advance guard for a new breed of ideological conservatives from the West and South, wrested the nomination from Nelson Rockefeller. (Among Goldwater’s most vocal G.O.P. opponents at that time was a liberal Midwestern governor named George Romney.) Since then, this argument goes, the idea of any singular establishment has been little more than a convenient media conceit.

It’s a fair point, but it may be just as accurate to say that the establishment has simply evolved over the years to accommodate more regional and cultural diversity, making it less monolithic but still ideologically cohesive. The pragmatic “white shoe” lawyers of the Nixon-Rockefeller era were largely stamped out over the ensuing decades by more conservative Reaganites from the West Coast and Bush backers from Texas, by movement conservatives whose constituents included evangelicals and libertarians and neoconservative defense hawks. They don’t all belong to the same country clubs, but they have retained a remarkable ability to mobilize around a series of candidates and legislative objectives.

OK, let me try to sort through this a bit.

The “establishment” that George Will and others say is gone? That establishment, more often called the “Eastern establishment” — that really is gone. Not evolved, but dead. Or at least crippled enough that it’s irrelevant to current Republican politics. Steve Kornacki has a really nice piece about that Republican establishment today; the point is that they weren’t anything like the people who are important in today’s Republican party. They were moderate-to-liberal on lots of issues, and in some cases all issues. They fully accepted the New Deal, and would rapidly accept important pieces of the Great Society, too.

And yet the “Eastern establishment” was never the only establishment of the Republican Party; even when they were able to win presidential nominations in the 1940s and 1950s, on the Congressional side it was conservatives who mostly dominated the party, although to be sure there were quite a few moderates and liberals, too. And most grass-roots Republicans in traditional GOP states in the Midwest and Plains states tended to support those conservatives; that’s why Ike had to take Richard Nixon on his ticket in 1952 and then keep him there.

So when Bai says that the folks he’s talking to and thinking about — what he calls the Republican establishment — evolved from an earlier establishment, what I’d say is that he’s got it wrong. What they’ve evolved from is the Taft/Goldwater wing of the party, not the Eastern establishment. And while it’s true that the Goldwater folks in 1964 did think of themselves as insurgents, that wasn’t really the case; it’s better to think of them as underdogs with respect to presidential nominations.

Does that mean there’s no real split within the Republican Party? I think for the most part that’s probably true in general philosophy. What divides a Vin Weber from the Tea Partiers is, more than anything, strategy and a sense of what’s possible, not what would be the case in an ideal world. Of course, there are real differences on policy and even philosophy within the Republican Party, but you’re just as likely to find those differences within the “establishment” as you are to find that them separating Washingtonians from the grass roots. After all, the Tea Party-supporting Freedom Works and the Club for Growth are part of the GOP establishment just as much as K Street lobbyists are, if not more so.

Which is why I try to avoid the term “establishment.” It conjures up, to me at least, a monolithic group of insiders who either control or fail to control everyone else. But that’s just not the case in either political party. There certainly are highly influential groups and organizations and even people, but which ones exactly have more influence depends on context and circumstance and changes all the time, as far as I can tell. Dividing off a set of those people as an “establishment” just doesn’t help us understand what’s going on.

[Cross-posted atA plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.