It is often claimed that US foreign policy is essentially guided and handled by the 'establishment' or an 'elite'. It is implied that these individuals are extremely influential and often unelected. Is this a conspiracy theory or is it grounded in factual evidence?

Who are the people part of this elite? Who are the 'establishment' and what are their political goals?

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    According to who?
    – DonFusili
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 10:35
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    I protected this question because it seems to become a hot network question and is the kind of question which attracts weird conspiracy theories.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 16:25
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    The part of this question that is about elite theory may be of interest to you. Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 16:39
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    As a matter of insulating yourself from falling for conspiracy theories, you should demand reliable sources to back-up any claim that there exists an elite shadow organization that pulls the strings of whatever it is they are manipulating. Also, lack of specific details makes for difficult fact-checking, which is another red flag -- the unfalsifiable, but nevertheless fabricated conspiracy theory. Having said that, I'm sure that lobby groups like the oil lobby and the private arms manufacturing industry exert some influence on foreign policy.
    – John
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 22:07
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    See also this related question politics.stackexchange.com/questions/34724/… Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 22:50

4 Answers 4


"The establishment" and "the elite" are just disparaging terms used to refer to people who have built up a political career by engaging with the established parties and systems. The accusation is that these organizations represent a kind of club that politicians want to join for the benefits they will receive (power, money, access, that kind of thing) and thus their actions are purely selfish and cannot be trusted.

It's something of a conspiracy theory too, suggesting that established political parties have some kind of hidden agenda and that anyone who associates with them is trying to pursue it.

In short it's too incoherent to really answer your question in a satisfactory way. The specific goals of "the establishment" vary depending on what the speaker is objecting to at the time, or what they can spin into a conspiracy.


These are, as far as I know, referring to two different groups that may be of similar purposes but only somewhat overlap. Note please that I'm using the word "group" in the loosest possible sense, it isn't clear at all that these groups act in some sort of concerted fashion as much as they share or have compatible goals/means.

The Establishment

This refers to the fact that politics has not only become a career in itself, but has spawned an entire cottage industry of ancillary jobs: staffer, aide, lobbyist, campaign management, etc. There are a lot of people in Washington D.C. whose financial fortunes are tied up with the current order. Because this group is presumably large and geographically co-located, it creates the impression that it is a culture unto itself: even if Democrats and Republicans are on opposite sides they're both caught up in the same game. To say someone is a member of the "Establishment" is to claim that their opinion is untrustworthy because they have too much at stake in the current order to effect meaningful change.

The Elite

This refers to a group that only occasionally overlaps the first and is comprised of financial, political, and cultural leaders. Elites influence policy directly through campaign contributions/lobbying/running for office, but also indirectly via cultural means such as media and entertainment. Again, all of this makes it sound like this is coordinated but it need not be: merely the sum of personal and cultural vectors pointing in the same direction. The moniker "elite" also carries class connotations that may or may not hold in any given case.

Why One Might View America in These Terms

One of the most visible political figures is the President. So let's look at the ones during the course of my lifetime:

  1. Jimmy Carter, exception. Note that he's farthest removed in time from today.
  2. Ronald Reagan, famous actor
  3. George H.W. Bush, independently wealthy
  4. Bill Clinton, wealthy
  5. George W. Bush, multimillionaire son of a former POTUS
  6. Barack Obama, possibly the only actual deviation from the pattern since Carter
  7. Donald Trump, billionaire, household name before running for office

Every single one of them were either extremely rich or famous or both with the exception of Obama and Clinton, the latter of whom was still pretty well-off. Note that losing presidential candidates tend to follow this pattern as well (Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Mitt Romney being a couple of particularly stark examples). This creates an impression that rather than some unbiased meritocracy the public instead is expected to be grateful to have a choice as to which particular multimillionaire relative/spouse of a former national politician gets to nominally run the show.

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    Barack Obama was a millionaire author before becoming president, certainly not a deviation from this pattern. He is now 12th among presidents by net worth. Both Clinton (9th) and Obama are wealthier than Carter (26th) now. Among the presidents on your list, only Trump is richer.
    – Brythan
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 2:02
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    Jimmy Carter was not "independently wealthy" by any definition I know of. I can't find exact figures, but his inheritance was supposedly quite small after paying off debts and splitting it between his siblngs; he made just $200 the year after he took over the family farm, so little they ended up living in subsidized housing for a time. When he became President, he put the business in a blind trust where it went under, and he ended up leaving the White House in debt. He's wealthy now, thanks to book deals, but he was by no means independently wealthy at any time before he left office. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 3:14
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    Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both had powerful political connections, and the organizations they were a part of and used are a form of political capital as much as fame or private wealth. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 8:03
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    @Brythan $1.3 million in net worth is still middle-class IMHO. That's "can retire earlier" money, not "my grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives" money. I edited the bit about Carter. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 11:55
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    @Shadur not sure that really has any bearing on the topic of discussion. He's still a wealthy heir. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 11:57

"The establishment" is simply the group of people who have significant power in the government or politics generally. It is true that most of this group is unelected, it includes extremely wealthy individuals, the directors/chief officers of large corporations, Democratic/Republican Party leadership, high ranking military officers, and the heads of several government agencies (though those are mostly appointed by elected officials).

It is also true that some of this group controls foreign policy. Overtly in the case of the President, Congress, and their foreign policy advisors. There are also members of the establishment with a vested interest in specific foreign policy outcomes (e.g. a defense contractor benefits from more wars) and they often lobby those with direct control of foreign policy to enact those outcomes. While it is difficult to directly prove that lobbying influences policy an analysis of public policy does show that the interests of economic elites are served over the interests of the majority in almost all cases.

The establishment collectively are a group with some common interest, but I personally doubt that extends beyond support for policies that benefit high income/wealth individuals. Foreign policy is certainly part of that, but there isn't any evidence of an actual conspiracy to shape foreign policy to be what it is today. This is a case of many individuals acting in their own individual interests.


Since it can be used by both major parties as a criticism, one simple definition of “The Establishment” could be the union of the set of agenda items between each major party (the center region of a venn diagram). For example, while Democrats and Republicans differ on abortion, gun control, and tax policy, they agree on NSA spying, preventing criticism of Israel, the increasing use of executive power, the use of military force in many foreign conflicts, etc. Just look at which bills pass with bipartisan consent to get a feel for what the agenda is.

The status quo/establishment is the part of government that rarely changes, regardless of who is in power. Of course, both sides of the aisle would always prefer to be portrayed as fighting against “the establishment.”

  • @user4012 I agree, and I think most people are wrong.
    – blud
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 0:15
  • @BenR. Third possibility: they can read. theintercept.com/2019/01/05/…
    – blud
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 16:55

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