Do We Miss the WASPs? Do We Need a New “Establishment”?

In the December 5 New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat makes his column a paean to the lost American Establishment that George H.W. Bush, being buried today with much fanfare,  represents (to him):

“Why We Miss the WASPS,” he undertakes to explain. He says we can

Ross Douthat

describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Not that this late lamented Establishment, which he thinks reigned for a century or more, was perfect:

 The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology (and don’t get me started on its Masonry).

Nevertheless, since Douthat is a staunch conservative, this column,  like most of his work, soon circles back to his abiding themes, among the most prominent of which is how bad these days are in contrast to what existed Before The Fall (e.g., all the fun parts of the Sixties).

In this case, the unwelcome news is that the Old GHWB Establishment has been succeeded by a new one, only worse: Douthat declares we have a new Upper Class, but one with no class:

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Well, as is true in much public conversation nowadays, some of the biggest landmines are buried among the pronouns. In Douthat’s case, one must always be cautious about “we.”

Who is the “we” in his “we miss the WASPs”?

Turns out there were many readers who took exception to being part of his “we.” I prepared a reader’s comment for it early this morning; when submitted it was one of 75. At this writing, it is buried under 870-plus more, and it is not yet noon.

Mine does not entirely differ from Douthat’s, though I do strongly dissent from his characterization of the new elite, at least some of its most visible members. For instance, with every passing day I see more clearly how the Obama White House was a high class operation from start to finish. Their dignity completely out-WASPed the WASPs (except maybe in the volume of thank you notes) and provided examples of character I am keen to pass on to my three living generations of posterity.

Yes, there were policy mistakes. But that is something else: beyond the unfailing discipline and decorum of the First couple, there is the fact that in those eight years, not one member of the administration was indicted. And never mind (for now) comparing that spotless record to the steadily unfolding criminality of the current occupants; glance briefly back at the years  of the sainted Ronald Reagan, whose reign resulted in “the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials, the largest number for any U.S. president.”

138: That’s 1.4 criminal scandals per month, for 96 months.

Further, note that today’s loudly-mourned emblematic Establishmentarian all along was Number Two in that epic conclave of the crooked.

Still, I don’t completely reject Douthat’s nostalgia for a trusted, honest Establishment. As I said in my comment (now lost amid more than a thousand others),

E. Digby Baltzell

[Douthat’s] theory here has been set forth more extensively & elegantly by the late great E. Digby Baltzell, historical sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

Baltzell’s career topic was the care, feeding & survival of aristocracies, and from it he produced two masterworks: The Protestant Establishment (1964) & Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia (1979). (For Quakers readers, both should be required.)

Baltzell’s key argument was that aristocracies persist if they can absorb the brightest of the lower ranks, and above all, if they solve their society’s great crises.

FDR was Baltzell’s model Establishment leader: he saved and extended its hegemony by tackling the Depression & winning World War Two. But then this Establishment stumbled in dealing with American racism, and failed abysmally, fatally in Vietnam. (See David Halberstam’s great elegy/autopsy, The Best & the Brightest. [1972])

The rest is (yet unfolding) history, with the Reagan-GHWB years showing its rapid decline into the “Southern Strategy” and grab-the-loot-while-you-can profiteering.

Good riddance. And yes, this old Establishment’s successor is now taking shape. While still a work in progress, it’s pretty clear that for many reasons, Douthat won’t like it; and for a few similar, but more different reasons, in many ways neither will I.

In Baltzell’s version of aristocratic history, besides managing big crises, an aristocracy’s key to staying on top is by absorbing the brightest upstarts from the lower orders;  his historical examples are England vs. old France. The French aristocracy, he argues, became a closed caste, with no way for rising underlings to break in. The pressure produced the bloody explosion of the French Revolution, which Baltzell considers a disaster.

By contrast, the British upper crust, after their brief revolutionary interregnum,  became adept at dropping knighthoods and other titles on carefully vetted, especially newly-rich, commoners (e.g., Sirs Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr; and more importantly, her royal highness the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle); the result was continuing centuries of non-revolutionary muddling through.

Douthat thinks along the same line:

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.”

Baltzell called for much the same thing sixty years ago. But note that Douthat does not include LGBTs on his list; this is no accident.

At the same time [The WASP elite] would have retained both its historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism) and its more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism).

Here he gets entirely carried away by his other overarching theme. After all, his elite religious “adaptation” has already arrived, but its  “Protestant rigor” has taken a resurgent racist, islamaphobic and raging homophobic/anti-LGBT form; along with the relentless reactionary Catholic putsch against the all-too-mild reformism of pope Francis,  — a crusade Douthat promotes at every opportunity.

Yes, that new religious “Establishment” is fighting tooth and nail for  supremacy against all that it saw embodied in the era of liberal “Obamination.” Douthat would likely insist that this is not exactly what he was after, but such protests will not convince. He has helped to sow the wind. And we will soon be reaping the whirlwind of its conquest of, among other redoubts, the Supreme Court.
How will this struggle turn out? As GHWB, the moment’s memento of that fabled lost Establishment, goes to his warrior’s rest,

 I’m reminded of a proverb that I’m told is African:

“When the elephants fight,
It is the grass that gets trampled. . . .”

5 thoughts on “Do We Miss the WASPs? Do We Need a New “Establishment”?”

  1. Q. How many White, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon bank trust officers does it take to change a light bulb in the property they manage?

    A. Two, one to call the electrician, one to mix the martinis.

    From an old bank trust officer

  2. I was as a teenager awannabe wasp….but my perceptions of what that word meant had no political meaning..except most were Republicans in Westchester. What it meant to me being a
    wasp was being in the stereotype of the “IN” group that came as early settlers to America (many D A R people with papers to prove it. Their clothing was conservative…too expensive for me.
    They were royalty..and the “whiteanglo-saxon protestant” was
    and still is their mantra of entitlement. What they were NOT the people who were known as special moral, ethical icons of empathy and social responsibility. Rather like or unlike ordinary
    people. I am ashamed of my intense jealousy of material things.

    What makes me proud are the many years of volunteering, the fact that our teachers and our town and neighbors were ordinary and if the whole nation was like our little town, living and witnessing to the truth, we would not worry about our future.

  3. Lamenting the “waspishness” of GHW Bush, his patrician “civility?? That was the veneer that covered up his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was vice president when the Reagan administration conspired to deceive and defy Congress with its illegal arms sale to Iran in exchange for securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The proceeds from the sale were used to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. In 1992, when Bush Sr. was president, he pardoned several Iran-Contra defendants, including Caspar Weinberger, Robert McFarlane and Elliott Abrams. We may never know how many people were murdered by the”death squads” in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
    As head of the CIA, he presided over—the head of CIA in 1976 during the height of Operation Condor, which kind of organized national death squads in Latin America—and coordinated their activity. The single largest run of bombings and executions carried out by Condor happened while Bush was the head of the CIA.
    H.W. Bush was “presiding over the CIA when Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, had concentration camps open. They were torturing people. They were executing people. They were persecuting people. And they were killing people overseas.”
    Bush Sr. sent tens of thousands of troops into Panama, ostensibly to execute an arrest warrant against its leader, Manuel Noriega, who was once a close ally to Washington and on the CIA payroll, on charges of drug trafficking.
    Yes, let us pine the the “civility of this great man” and ignore the crimes he committed to continue American hegemony in the world. I want no part of it.

  4. Lament the “civility of this great man??” I don’t.
    The difference between GHW Bush and Donald Trump is that the bloodshed resulting from Bush’s involvement as head of the CIA and as vice-president, then later President, in the the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile and installing a brutal dictator killed and tortured thousands ; his involvement with the Iran/Contra scandal that financed and armed death squads in Nicaragua; the invasion of Panama; the first Iraq War among other international crimes, is covered with a veneer of “civility that disguises our government’s efforts to maintain US hegemony in International economic and political affairs. Meanwhile, the rest of us can bask in memories of his patrician “civility” and pretend that we live in a freedom-loving country that strives to protect human rights around the world.
    Trump on the other hand, exposes our undemocratic, racist, misogynistic, fascistic underbelly for the world to see. Distressingly, a third of our population supports him and much of the rest of Americans seem to be ignorant about how fascism takes root in a country. The Republican Party is nearly in lock-step with him in their lust for power.

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