Bernie Sanders took some flak recently for calling Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign part of the establishment. Here’s what he said in response to a question from Rachel Maddow about the fact that those two organizations have endorsed Hillary Clinton.

“What we are doing in this campaign — and it just blows my mind every day, because I see it clearly, we’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said.

“And so I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund [sic], in Planned Parenthood,” Sanders continued. “But you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time and some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”

He later walked that back a bit by saying that what he meant was that the leaders of those organizations and their endorsement process are part of the establishment. I have to disagree with Steve Benen (something that rarely happens) when he suggested that clarification “should effectively wrap up the controversy.” Sanders’ subsequent remarks simply made the statement less general and more personal.

A lot of the talk about all of this has focused on whether or not Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are actually establishment. I don’t think we can honestly address that until we answer the question of what the word means. Let’s be honest. Sometimes people accuse others of being part of the establishment simply because they disagree with them politically. The automatic assumption is that it is a bad thing. So let’s step back for a moment and explore what we’re talking about when we make that accusation.

I can’t pretend to know what Sanders himself means by establishment. But when he made the initial statement to Maddow, he seemed to suggest that it has some relationship to history by pointing out that Clinton “has been around there for a very, very long time.” If that were our definition for what it means to be establishment, Sanders himself would qualify. After all, he’s been in elected office for 35 years. The whole insider/outsider thing doesn’t work either because other than being POTUS (a job Sanders is currently seeking), there is nothing more “inside” when it comes to politics than the United States Senate.

There often seems to be an assumption on the left that any person or group that has power is part of the establishment. Perhaps that is a more accurate definition. But if it is the aim of liberals to fight the establishment, such an endeavor is doomed to failure when power is automatically assumed to be the enemy. Any movement for change requires power to accomplish its goals. What Sanders is attempting to do by mobilizing the voices of millions of Americans for change is to harness power. As I have written before, it is the power of partnership as opposed to the power of dominance. It is the power of citizenship. The power of democracy. That is how almost all progressive change has happened in this country.

Another way the establishment is often defined is to see it as those who defend the status quo. The zeal of radicals is often about busting up the status quo and replacing it with something new. When Sanders says that our system is “rigged” and needs to be replaced, that’s what he is talking about.

The question that raises for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (or merely their leaders) is whether or not they are working to protect the status quo. Here’s where this whole question gets interesting. For example, when it comes to Planned Parenthood, if by status quo we mean Roe v Wade and affordable access to reproductive health services then yes, both the organization and its leaders are working very hard to protect it. The same could be said about the Human Rights Campaign now that marriage equality is the law of the land.

Beyond the two organizations Sanders named, when we talk about the establishment being about power and/or defenders of the status quo, it is not helpful to think in terms of all or nothing. Liberals need power in order to effect change and sometimes it is important to defend the status quo. If that means being part of the establishment…so be it.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.