Immediately after the death of President George H. W. Bush, Ross Douthat's column "Why We Miss the WASPs" was published Dec. 5, 2018 in the New York Times. There was a swift and negative reaction to the column. A main problem was Douthat's assumption that such nostalgia is universal (when straight white male Protestants are a minority in the United States) and his use of the pronoun "we" to describe, for example, what "we feel" (when many Americans emphatically do not share his sentiments). Another problem was his fuzziness about the term WASP itself, an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant that he uses seemingly interchangeably to describe powerful people and a particular set of values.
What he saidJumping off from two reflections he'd recently read in The Atlantic — that Bush was the last scandal-free, resentment-free president considered "legitimate" (per Peter Beinart) and that, reflecting on Bush's death, the public feels nostalgic for prep-school educated leaders who came from an "Establishment" (per Franklin Foer) — Douthat opined that what is missing today is "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." Douthat agrees, after Foer, that "the old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, [and] it had failures aplenty," and Douthat adds that "as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology (and don’t get me started on its Masonry)." Yet he feels that the WASPs' "more meritocratic, diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well." Nostalgia for WASPs "probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive."
I see two prongs to his comment, and there are vulnerabilities in what he is saying.
First, in the moral realm: Douthat is saying that the WASPish aristocrats weren't so bad, and that people in power today have basically all of the historic WASPish vices with fewer of their virtues. This is a difficult statement to unpack in part because Douthat doesn't clearly name or identify the vices and virtues he's talking about. He tries, referring explicitly to "discipline" and "a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety...a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success," as well as "a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety" since "for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists." This yielded "a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship." His explanation is inadequate because discipline, noblesse oblige, personal austerity, piety, service, and even "competence and effectiveness in statesmanship" first need to be defined, and there just isn't enough space within a newspaper column. It is also probably not literally true that bigots and non-bigoted, deep, scholarly multiculturalists existed in a 1:1 ratio among white Protestants, and that is anyway not a testable hypothesis. And when he says that WASP virtues were replaced by today's "performative self-righteousness and raw ambition," he is unclear if he believes those particular vices existed among the WASPs, too, or, if they did not, exactly what the WASPs' vices were. And there are plenty of people for whom buzzwords like "personal austerity" and "piety" raise red flags: queer proles ruled by self-declared holy leaders have always been menaced by these words that so often signal damaging, repressive policies. LGBT people, even if they can see how austerity and piety may be considered personal virtues, are not nostalgic for the influence of those particular "virtues" in politics.
Second, in political theory: Douthat is pointing out that it might be "a contradiction in terms" to attempt to form "a more democratic and inclusive ruling class." Well, yes. Ruling classes are...not democratic and inclusive. The standards for who gets to be in the ruling class might change over time, and they might be more democratic and inclusive without ever being fully democratic and inclusive. He quotes Helen Andrews to the same effect: Aristocrats can promote "ethnic balance" or "geographic diversity," but they remain aristocrats who have different "values" and "responsibilities" and are not "representative of the country over which they preside." Part of the point can be accepted: More types of people might have a chance to become president, but, even so, not everyone gets to be president. That is clear and unavoidable. The inherent scarcity of power does not, however, lead to the position that, when considering demographic access to power, we should be indifferent or deliberately restrictive; nor does it mean (to be more specific) that the white prep-school Establishment should continue to favor itself; nor does it mean that the existing values need to be propagated; nor does it mean that the individuals in power (who will always be small in number, by definition) need to think of themselves as part an aristocracy or an establishment and ought to interpret their own personal values as coalescing and gaining strength in a hive of meta-values shared by other powerful people. Douthat says "a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is," but this prescription is not obvious; perhaps, to the contrary, in the spirit of term limits or the theology of kenosis, a ruling class achieves more good in the world when it disavows some of its own power and attempts to empty itself.
He goes on, creating more problems.
He says that "in any scenario the WASP elite would have had to diversify and adapt," and that the WASPs themselves began to believe that "the emerging secular meritocracy would be morally and intellectually superior to their own style of elite," so they voluntarily "pre-emptively dissolved," which amounted to "self-abnegation" and "surrender." He is speaking out of both sides of his mouth here: white patriarchs really have to begin promoting diversity and interpreting talent differently, but when they actually begin to listen and make room for other people, they are shooting themselves in the foot and abdicating? In other words, he is saying that diversity is a value, but then he frames power as a zero-sum game. If he really wants to promote diversity, maybe he shouldn't describe it as win-lose for WASPs vs. others.
He says he wishes that these end-stage WASPs had not believed that merit alone could justify a leader but that they instead had followed "a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy" as part of their racial and gender diversification. But what on earth could such an elite-crafting strategy be, if not encouraging talented, motivated, meritorious people to rise in power and influence? Is he implying that he wanted the WASP Establishment to impose its idea of virtue on the up-and-coming meritorious leaders, to mold the new elite in the old WASP image? But that, too, is missing much of the point of diversity. The moral failures of bigotry and cruelty were not necessarily random occurrences that happened to coexist with virtues like noblesse oblige; they were its very shadow. The old guard does not have moral authority to impose WASP virtues on new leaders of diverse demographics (and likely won't succeed in that endeavor, anyway) if it has not yet examined what went wrong with those virtues such that their previous exemplars accommodated or enabled evil. The Establishment really does need to listen to new ideas especially when it has not yet fixed itself.
He wants today's leaders to pursue an "imitation of the old establishment's more pious and aristocratic spirit." Even if individual leaders perceive value in piety and aristocracy (whatever exactly that means), why should they imitate the past, rather than being authentically who they are today and responding to the actual needs of others around them?
And then he said
Three days later, the New York Times gave him more space to clarify. The new column on Dec. 8 was headlined "The Case Against Meritocracy: An aristocracy that can’t admit it." He immediately denied that his argument was racist, and then he simply elaborated on his previous column.
He said that "ideals of diversity and meritocracy are two different ways of shaping an elite, which can advance together but which are just as often separable, or even in tension with each other." Sure. This is understandable. You can admit, hire, or vote for someone based primarily on their identity group, or primarily on their track record, or both. If you seek a full, personalized understanding of someone's values and capabilities, you are probably looking at both their background and their merit. (Douthat certainly did it in the previous column where he used the term "WASP" to refer to a group of largely white male Protestants who fulfilled specific social roles and when he tied the demographic and collective track record together to imply something about WASP beliefs, values, and "competence and effectiveness." In the second column, he adds that WASPs tended to study "academia, finance, foreign policy," to be Republican, and to have "manners.")
He complains that meritocracy amounts to a brain-drain, "plucking the highest achievers from all over the country and encouraging them to cluster together in the same few cities," leaving "demoralized peripheries." But the solution — as I see it — cannot possibly be to take away the ladder to advancement, granting some people extreme power simply because they happen to be born in Washington while discouraging equally capable, motivated people from coming to Washington. If indeed geographic brain-drain is a problem, a more appropriate solution would seem to be the decentralization of power. He does not take up this line of thought.
He then says that the highest achievers in any system (even a supposedly meritocratic one) cannot help but pass on their own brand of privilege to their children. Today's meritocrats are especially prone to the "self-deception" that they are self-made due to their own achievements rather than to their aristocratic heritage, and thus they tend toward "ruthless solipsism." To avoid self-deception, he suggests that "an aristocracy that knows itself to be one might be more clearsighted and effective than an aristocracy that doesn't."
On this theory, it seems that the brain-drain affects only the first generation of high achievers (the ones with the most personal merit), who then migrate to large cities where their children grow up to become the second generation of high achievers (due more to their privileged, aristocratic upbringing than to their innate merit).
He says he supports diversity but not meritocracy, explaining that "the older American system was both hierarchical and permeable, with room for actual merit even without a meritocratic organizing theory." He also says that the original WASPs, the ones who were actually white Protestants, imposed their values: they "set a tone for the American upper class that was adopted by other groups when they ascended." However, he also describes non-white, non-Protestants who reached the upper-class as having merely "imitated" WASP culture, a word that is telling. He says that they lived "in the shadow of racial apartheid and residual anti-Catholicism." So the hierarchy wasn't that permeable, after all. Or perhaps the word WASP really does refer to an ethnic and religious demographic, such that one must be born into it; in this case, the verb "ascend" is wholly inappropriate, since it implies that certain ethnicities stand above others in the natural order of things. In any case, the demographically diverse people who reached the upper-class constitute an example, in his mind, that it is possible to "adopt the WASP establishment’s upper-class virtues without the ethnic and religious chauvinism." That remains unproven because he has not here examined the full range of virtues and vices and explained which ones led to chauvinism and which ones undid it.
He names "aristocracy’s vices" as "privilege, insularity, arrogance." (He also adds "duty" and "self-restraint" to the list of virtues given in his previous column.) He reiterates that today's leaders — those who exemplify the meritocracy rather than the aristocracy, as he defines it — exhibit aristocratic vices but not WASPish virtues.
At the end, he claims: "I don’t want to bring back the WASPs; if I had the magic wand to conjure a different elite, it would be a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile." His undefended preference for Catholicism should present a concern for the 80 percent of Americans who aren't Catholic. Exactly who does he want in power: local Catholics who happen to have been born in Washington and weren't brain-drained from other cities, and who absorbed their American values (but not their theology) from Protestants, and who cultivate those values to make up for whatever merit they might lack? His comment helps non-Christian readers see more plainly that his references to "piety" and "discipline" are indeed coded messages to Christians. People who weren't raised with Protestant or Catholic definitions and appreciations of these terms are, perhaps, not meant to understand exactly what he means by them. But, then, there is a problem: How can "we" feel properly nostalgic for an aristocracy that operates by virtues that aren't ours? Are we meant to perceive neo-WASPs as competent and effective while not understanding the divine Christian mystery (alien to us) by which they achieve it? Are we encouraged to convert to Catholicism so that we can begin to understand what makes them so special?
This, all of it, is a problem. Both columns.
I don’t say this to be provocative or trollish: this column, which I have now read multiple times, does not make sense. I am at a loss as to its point. I am open to other readers suggesting what they got out of it. https://t.co/ilW41jrWcP— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) December 9, 2018
Related to this subject, please see also my Goodreads review of Robert P. Jones' book The End of White Christian America and my year-old blog posts, "Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?" (Dead Men Blogging) and "Reaction to Mark Lilla's 'The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics' (Disruptive Dissertation)