Although Zinn’s book is, first and foremost, about the American people, he argues that American history is, in large part, about the clashes between the least powerful Americans and their opposites: powerful, influential, Americans, which Zinn terms the Establishment (and uses interchangeably with “the elite” and “the rich”). Much like the category of “the American people,” Zinn’s notion of the Establishment incorporates many different people, groups, and institutions, sometimes with mutually contradictory agendas. However, Zinn discusses some of the historical events and trends that have formed a loose coalition between the different members of the Establishment.
Perhaps the single most important milestone in the history of the Establishment was the alliance that arose between the federal government and the business community following the end of the Civil War. In this period, businessmen began donating more and more money to presidential elections in order to ensure that the government would protect business interests. With the growth of the business sector in the 19th century, businessmen began funding the university system, too, ensuring that generations of American college graduates would be trained to accept the status quo and, implicitly, to honor the interests of the government and the business sector. Zinn isn’t saying that business, government, and university elites are members of literal organizations whose goal is to maintain power (although sometimes, he argues, they are). Rather, he argues that the most powerful people in America, more often than not, have strong incentives to cooperate with one another, and therefore, they will act in their own best interest by cooperating. Thus, the common characteristic that unites all members of the Establishment is that they have power and that they can cooperate with one another, both consciously and unconsciously, to ensure the continuation of their power.
One of the key strategies that the Establishment has used in the last century is cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans; indeed, tax rates for the wealthy have gone down dramatically since World War Two. Moreover, Zinn shows that some of the key pieces of legislation lowering the tax rates for the wealthy were proposed by Democratic and Republican senators working together, confirming the point that powerful people often have more in common with each other than with the struggling “common man.” By the same token, the Establishment has cut welfare programs for the working classes in recent decades. While Zinn admits that Democratic politicians have done more than their Republican counterparts to protect welfare, neither political party, he argues, has fought for anything more than a “pitiful” increase in welfare, suggesting a basic “consensus” between Democrats and Republicans, and between all Establishment elites. A final strategy that the Establishment has used to strengthen itself is to invade and take control over other countries. In these conflicts, elites ensure that those countries’ resources flow back into the U.S., benefitting elites far more than they benefit ordinary people. (For more, see Militarism theme.)
But it’s not enough for the Establishment to fight to ensure its own health, Zinn argues—it must also work to weaken the American people. Zinn argues that, traditionally, the Establishment has tried to weaken and divide the American people by pitting different races, especially black people and white people, against each other. As far back as the colonial period, Zinn shows, elites deliberately passed laws preventing poor white servants and laborers from associating with (and, implicitly, befriending) black slaves, partly out of fear that poor whites and black slaves would rise up against their masters. Indeed, Zinn suggests that racism intensified in the colonial period because elites took great care to isolate and divide poor whites and slaves. Another key strategy that the Establishment has used to weaken the American people is to emphasize the rhetoric of equality and freedom. The American traditions of patriotism, equality, and meritocracy, Zinn argues, have the effect of masking the true inequalities of American society. In effect, Establishment rhetoric is the “opiate of the American masses”; it encourages people to accept their misery, or even blame themselves for it. The Establishment has also weakened the American people by declaring frequent wars, which have the effect of focusing the people’s energies outwards, toward other countries, instead of inward, toward the Establishment itself.
At times, Zinn’s discussion of the Establishment can seem overly simplistic. As with his treatment of the American people, he doesn’t spend much time discussing the divisions and conflicts within the Establishment. For example, he treats President Franklin Roosevelt as a typical Establishment figure, rather than discussing the derision that Roosevelt faced from the wealthy elite for promoting policies to help the poor. Furthermore, Zinn offers no proof that Democratic politicians who fought for minor welfare reform were cooperating with Republican members of the Establishment. Zinn’s descriptions give the impression of unity and solidarity within the Establishment when, in fact, there has been a lot of controversy and competition. However, Zinn’s treatment of the Establishment gives a sense of the informal cooperation that sometimes arises between powerful people, and of the growing divide between the rich and the poor, a theme that has recently become more relevant to American life than ever.
The Establishment ThemeTracker
The Establishment Quotes in A People’s History of the United States
Two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the National Labor Relations Board would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances. Thus it could moderate labor rebellion by channeling energy into elections—just as the constitutional system channeled possibly troublesome energy into voting. The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And second, the workers' organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers' insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.
The point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.
Under congressional policy approved by Lincoln, the property confiscated during the war under the Confiscation Act of July 1862 would revert to the heirs of the Confederate owners.
As the first act of the new North-South capitalist cooperation, the Southern Homestead Act, which had reserved all federal lands—one-third of the area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi—for farmers who would work the land, was repealed. This enabled absentee speculators and lumbermen to move in and buy up much of this land.
And so the deal was made. The proper committee was set up by both houses of Congress to decide where the electoral votes would go. The decision was: they belonged to Hayes, and he was now President.
Meanwhile, the government of the United States was behaving almost exactly as Karl Marx described a capitalist state: pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich. Not that the rich agreed among themselves; they had disputes over policies. But the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system. The arrangement between Democrats and Republicans to elect Rutherford Hayes in 1877 set the tone. Whether Democrats or Republicans won, national policy would not change in any important way.
What was clear in this period to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists, was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the "Progressive Period," the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.
"War is the health of the state," the radical writer Randolph Bourne said, in the midst of the First World War. Indeed, as the nations of Europe went to war in 1914, the governments flourished, patriotism bloomed, class struggle was stilled, and young men died in frightful numbers on the battlefields—often for a hundred yards of land, a line of trenches.
Would the behavior of the United States during the war—in military action abroad, in treatment of minorities at home—be in keeping with a "people's war?" Would the country's wartime policies respect the rights of ordinary people everywhere to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And would postwar America, in its policies at home and overseas, exemplify the values for which the war was supposed to have been fought?
Truman had said, "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." It was a preposterous statement. Those 100,000 killed in Hiroshima were almost all civilians. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said in its official report: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population."
In that same period of the early fifties, the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its heyday, interrogating Americans about their Communist connections, holding them in contempt if they refused to answer, distributing millions of pamphlets to the American public: "One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism" ("Where can Communists be found? Everywhere"). Liberals often criticized the Committee, but in Congress, liberals and conservatives alike voted to fund it year after year.
Back on September 26, 1969, President Richard Nixon, noting the growing antiwar activity all over the country, announced that "under no circumstance will I be affected whatever by it." But nine years later, in his Memoirs, he admitted that the antiwar movement caused him to drop plans for an intensification of the war: "Although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy. . . I knew, however, that after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war." It was a rare presidential admission of the power of public protest.
The televised Senate Committee hearings on Watergate stopped suddenly before the subject of corporate connections was reached. It was typical of the selective coverage of important events by the television industry: bizarre shenanigans like the Watergate burglary were given full treatment, while instances of ongoing practice—the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the work of the FBI and CIA—were given the most fleeting attention. Dirty tricks against the Socialist Workers party, the Black Panthers, other radical groups, had to be searched for in a few newspapers. The whole nation heard the details of the quick break-in at the Watergate apartment; there was never a similar television hearing on the long-term break-in in Vietnam.
The Trilateral Commission apparently saw itself as helping to create the necessary international links for the new multinational economy. Its members came from the highest circles of politics, business, and the media in Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. They were from Chase Manhattan, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Banque de Paris, Lloyd's of London, Bank of Tokyo, etc. Oil, steel, auto, aeronautic, and electric industries were represented. Other members were from Time magazine, the Washington Post, the Columbia Broadcasting System, Die Zeit, the Japan Times, The Economist of London, and more.
The result of these higher payroll taxes was that three-fourths of all wage earners paid more each year through the Social Security tax than through the income tax. Embarrassingly for the Democratic party, which was supposed to be the party of the working class, those higher payroll taxes had been put in motion under the administration of Jimmy Carter.
After the bombing of Iraq began along with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush's action, and this continued through the six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizenry's long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.
Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, and the House of Representatives voted to impeach him on the ground that he had lied in denying "sexual relations" with the young woman, and that he had obstructed justice by trying to conceal information about their relationship […] What the incident showed was that a matter of personal behavior could crowd out of the public's attention to far more serious matters, indeed, matters of life and death. The House of Representatives would impeach the president on matters of sexual behavior, but it would not impeach him for endangering the lives of children by welfare reform, or for violating international law in bombing other countries (Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan), or for allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die as a result of economic sanctions on Iraq).
Clinton claimed to be moderating his policies to match public opinion. But opinion surveys in the eighties and early nineties indicated that Americans favored bold policies that neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to put forward: universal free health care, guaranteed employment, government help for the poor and homeless, with taxes on the rich and cuts in the military budget to pay for social programs.