Although the term has retained its original meaning in British English and continues to be applied to various individuals and groups, in American English the term is used more specifically to describe certain social and political movements that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s.
However, by operating through the arts and media, the line between politics and culture is blurred, so that pigeonholing figures such as Banksy as either anti-establishment or counter-culture figures can be difficult. The tabloid newspapers such as The Sun, are less subtle, and commonly report on the sex-lives of the Royals simply because it sells papers, but in the process have been described as having anti-establishment views that have weakened traditional institutions. On the other hand, as time passes, anti-establishment figures sometimes end up becoming part of the Establishment, as when The Who frontman Roger Daltrey was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 in recognition of both his music and his work for charity.
Individuals who were anti-establishment often spoke of "fighting the man", selling out to the Establishment, and "tearing down the Establishment." Many historical figures innovated great changes to society by standing up to "the Establishment", including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In many publications including pop ones, Jesus was said to have been anti-establishment because he defied convention and the local authorities.
The "Establishment" to these, and to modern-day liberals, was not simply the people of the older generation. It encapsulated all of American society, so included the socio-economic "military-industrial complex", a complacent and conservative "Middle America", a legal system that perpetuated the status quo, religions that required unquestioning obedience, and the juggernaut of tradition and custom that demanded "conformity". However, some conservatives claim that liberalism itself now constitutes the Establishment in America due to its perceived influence on government, media, society and academia.
A vague unease spawned diverse paths. The Hells Angels was originally composed of WWII veterans feeling rebellious: the name came from WWII fighting units. The image of Marlon Brando as a motorcycle rebel in The Wild Ones and James Dean as a Rebel Without a Cause horrified some Americans and electrified others. Some veterans founded the Beats Movement, then were denigrated as Beatniks and accused of being "downbeat" on everything. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a Beat autobiography that cited his wartime service.
Many people craved angry "true" commentary such as Lenny Bruce's acid-tongued comedy, or simply a desire for more personal freedom, even "vices". Playboy magazine, with its famous nudes, was the first skin mag sold alongside national magazines, and caused a scandal and backlash.
Many women also harbored a deep resentment. During the war years, they had been encouraged to assume men's roles in industry, both white collar and blue collar. Rosie the Riveter was a national icon. But after the war, women were forced to give up their jobs and become homemakers.
Citizens had also begun to question authority, especially after the Gary Powers U2 Incident, where President Eisenhower repeatedly assured people the USA was not spying on Russia, then was caught in a blatant lie. This general dissatisfaction was popularized by Peggy Lee's laconic pop song "Is That All There Is?", but remained unspoken and unfocused. It wasn't until the Baby Boomers came along in huge numbers that protest became organized (or disorganized in the case of the hippies), who were named by the Beats as "little hipsters".
Anti-Establishment debates were common because they touched on everyday aspects of life. Even innocent questions could escalate into angry diatribes. For example, "Why do we spend millions on a foreign war and a space program when our schools are falling apart?" would be answered with "We need to keep our military strong and ready to stop the Communists from taking over the world." As in any debate, there were valid and unsupported arguments on both sides. "Make love not war" invoked "America, love it or leave it."
As the 1960s simmered, the anti-Establishment adopted conventions in opposition to the Establishment. T-shirts and blue jeans became the uniform of the young because their parents wore collar shirts and slacks. Drug use, with its illegal panache, was favored over the legal consumption of alcohol. Promoting peace and love was the antidote to promulgating hatred and war. Living in genteel poverty was more "honest" than amassing a nest egg and a house in the suburbs. Rock 'n roll was played loud over Easy listening. Dodging the draft was passive resistance to traditional military service. Dancing was free-style, not learned in a ballroom. Over time, anti-establishment messages crept into popular culture: songs, fashion, movies, lifestyle choices, television.
The emphasis on freedom allowed previously hushed conversations about sex, politics, or religion to be openly discussed. A wave of "liberations" came out of 1960s: the Feminist movement, the Black Panthers and Black Power, Gay Rights, Native American awareness, even "Gray Power" for elders. Programs were put in place to deal with inequities: Equal Opportunity Employment, the Head Start Program, enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, busing, and others. But the widespread dissemination of new ideas also sparked a backlash and resurgence in conservative religions, new segregated private schools, anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation, and other reversals. Extremists tended to be heard more because they made good copy for newspapers and television. In many ways, the angry debates of the 1960s led to modern right-wing talk radio and coalitions for "traditional family values".
As the 1960s passed, society had changed to the point that the definition of the Establishment had blurred, and the term "anti-establishment" fell out of use. In India, the 1960s saw emergence of a group of writers who called themselves Hungryalists. They were the first anti-establishment writers in Bengal whose dissenting voice drew attention of the government and court cases were filed against them.(reference: Amritalok ISSN.0971-4308)
Despite the establishment usually being associated with the right, some conservatives have asserted that liberalism has been the establishment at least since the 1970s and even as far back as the 1930s. They argue that many sections of society, such as the mainstream media and the school system are controlled by the left. Others argue that this liberal establishment manifests itself in popular culture, in the views of many Hollywood celebrities and other forms of Political Correctness, in peer-pressure, and in the natural societal expectation that young people will probably be liberal.
However, this view is often criticized by the left, who say that the right is still the establishment, they often cite the Bush administration, the predominance of conservative economists and the power of the Christian Right.