In the December 5, 2018 New York Times, conservative writer Ross Douthat made his column a paean to the lost American Establishment that George H.W. Bush, who was being buried that day with much fanfare, represented (to him):
“Why We Miss the WASPS,” he undertook to explain. He said we can
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 from our society today.
Put simply, he said 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 circled 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 declared 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. Two hours later, it was buried under 870-plus more, and it was not yet noon.
My thought 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, including some big ones. 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. Its probity was so seamless as to become invisible and unremarked. And never mind (for now) comparing that spotless record to the steadily burgeoning criminality of the current occupants; let’s 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 Douthat’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),
[Douthat’s] theory here has been set forth more extensively & elegantly by the late great E. Digby Baltzell, a 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. Although Baltzell was a lifelong Philadelphian, his deeply researched views of the Quaker culture and its legacy there were often deflating and astringent — a needed tonic for a too-often complacent cohort.)
Baltzell’s key argument was that aristocracies can stay at the top if they can absorb the brightest of the lower ranks, and above all, if they solve their society’s great generational crises.
FDR was Baltzell’s model Establishment leader: Old Money WASPery personified, he saved and extended its hegemony by tackling the Depression & winning World War Two.
But then, Baltzell laments, 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. )
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 long-running 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; it is also pressing to entrench minority white rule alongside a relentless reactionary Catholic putsch against the all-too-mild reformism of pope Francis, — a crusade Douthat promotes at every opportunity.
I was reminded of a proverb that I’m told is African: