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The Decline of the WASPs Revisited By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 19, 2003


One of the great mysteries of modern American history is why the old White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment abdicated its traditional rule in the late 1960’s.  This was one of the key events that caused the 60’s to get out of hand. Nobody living in the politically-correct atmosphere of today can be unaware of this establishment’s faults, but as conservatives we can’t help being aware of its virtues, either. 

Despite the nonsense said about it by the Left, it was the most enlightened ruling class in the world in its day.  America in its final heyday, the 1950’s, had less economic inequality by standard measures than it has today and was a far more contented and morally confident society.  This was an elite that sent its own sons, like George Bush Sr., to fight its wars, not somebody else’s.  And many of  its faults were being remedied at the time it died, anyway – it was still alive and kicking when the 1964-5 civil rights bills, which were opposed by the South, not the establishment as such, were passed.

For those of you whose sense of American social history is blurry, the WASP establishment was the world of the Ivy League, Fifth Avenue, gentlemen’s clubs, the Social Register, elite country clubs, top New York law firms and investment banks, Boston Brahmins,  Main Line Philadelphia, the upper management of great corporations like the Pennsylvania Railroad, certain parts of the military, the OSS and its successor the CIA, the Episcopal Church, New England boarding schools, and the old diplomatic corps.  It ruled America from Plymouth Rock until the late 1960’s. 

The WASP establishment is truly dead and gone a generation ago now[1], so please let no-one imagine that anyone, least of all me, is advocating its return.   But the fact is that this country hasn’t had a coherent ruling elite since.  Human societies are inevitably hierarchical; the question is whether those at the top take seriously the obligation to govern that their social position imposes on them or whether they merely feather their own nests.  In older nations with feudal roots, this function has traditionally been taken by an aristocracy with a sense of noblesse oblige. The WASP establishment was a kind of quasi-aristocracy for democratic America.

Bill Clinton’s crowd were, as David Brooks has accurately diagnosed, essentially bobos (bourgeois bohemians) and their ridiculous anti-establishment counter-culture posturing made clear that they refused to admit that they were the establishment.  Except, of course, when the time came to exercise power; hypocrisy came as naturally to them as it does to all liberals.  They thus lacked the crucial sense of responsibility for the nation that is at the core of any decent ruling class. 

Bush’s crowd, while led by a member of a genuinely patrician old-American family, have at best a pale shadow of this sense of inherited duty. Bush’s desire to identify as a Texan, rather than with his Andover, Yale and Harvard heritage, is a sign that he is running away from something that is no longer accorded the respect it once was.  Defense Secretary Rumsfeld probably comes closest to the old ideal in terms of his sense of duty, though it is interesting to note that although educated at ultra-establishmentarian Princeton, he is actually German-American by heritage, a reminder that “WASP” in the American context included a lot of people who are not actually Anglo-Saxon.  And Rumsfeld is so blunt compared to the famously understated old establishment.

So how did this establishment, which no-one thought was on the verge of collapse, collapse? Some thoughts:

1. An ethnarchy like WASP-dom in a free society depends on WASPs being richer, better educated, and more powerful than everybody else.  This is not sustainable in a dynamic economy  where Irishmen and Jews and all sorts of people end up being rich.  The WASPs may have been willing to maintain a Jewish quota at Yale (a private institution in all conscience) but they were not willing to repress non-WASPs hard enough to keep them down forever.  In fact, they created an economy more open to the advancement of ethnic outsiders than any the world had yet seen.  In 1920, they can rely on these people being fresh off the boat and uneducated, but they will not stay that way after a few generations.   So this ethnarchy depended upon a basic social inequality that they weren't prepared to defend.  Unlike, say, many Latin American countries, which are still run today by the descendants of the conquistadors because they really are willing to keep their countrymen poor and uneducated.  Mexico, for example, is a nation of mostly Indian blood run by Iberian-descended white people who maintain a national myth of “we are all mestizos.”

2. The WASP establishment made a great wrong turn after immigration surged in the 1880’s by defining itself as Anglo-Saxon rather than native American.  This had enormous consequences.  If they are in essence Anglo-Saxon, it logically follows that they should rule England, not America.  They defined themselves as foreigners in their own country for the sake of establishing an unsustainable title to social superiority.  It caused them to shrivel into a narrow caste [2] rather than absorbing rising ethnics and defining a distinctively American upper class. (This did happen somewhat, by default, but it lacked this needed ideological underpinning and didn’t happen enough.)

If they had contested the definition of what a "real, indigenous, non-foreign, native American" is, they could have won it, which would have carried the logical consequence that if they were the real Americans and therefore had a title to govern.  But they didn't, either out of snobbery – which is perverse, given that defining oneself against the British is something that George Washington's generation and the one after would have understood and respected perfectly well – or out of the fact that America lacks enough of a long history and volkish culture for self-definition as an ethnic American to be emotionally satisfying to anyone in a way that it is in other nations. 

This ultimately leaves the definition of what is a real American in the ethnic sense unclaimed, producing the void in our self-conception as a people that is later filled with “propositional nation” sophistry.  (You can say America is not an ethnically-defined nation, but then what is its boundary?  Question: whose well-being should it maximize?  Answer: it should conquer the world and give the world what's good for it.)

3. The spiritual basis of WASP society, the Episcopal Church, was corrupted from within.  Religious modernists started taking over the seminaries in the 1930's, resulting today in the terror-apologizing near-atheist Episcopal Bishop John Spong today and anti-Christian, anti-American  Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.  Even among Episcopal bishops who do not express disdain for traditional Christian beliefs, there is a cold, alienated, intellectualized approach to central matters of faith.

4. WASP culture, particularly of the upper-class variety, is dependent upon a sense of superiority over other ethnic groups that is a lot easier to maintain when Britain is ruling 1/4 of the world.  This goes away because of the collapse of the British Empire after WW II.  And their instinctive sense of the legitimacy of racial and ethnic superiority was shaken by the Nazis.

5. There is great laziness in the generation that grew up in the 1920's, which is the cohort that abdicated in the 1960's.   F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about this in his short stories like "Six of One." A bourgeois class can only really sustain itself if it has a quasi-aristocratic ethos of imposing a duty on itself to rule, which is entirely different from just making money and playing golf. (The biggest myth of the Left is that bourgeois society possesses the will to power.) The 1920's were similar to the 1990's in that a stock-market boom caused a lot of people to forget about their values and think making money is enough.

6. There are internal weaknesses in WASP culture, like an emotional coldness that produces alienation between generations with predictable consequences.  And there is liquor; this is a stereotype but like all stereotypes it has significant truth.

7. The United States had to become a technocracy after WWII. Technocracy destroys aristocratic and quasi-aristocratic social orders because it requires society to give power to people with the wrong social backgrounds because there aren't enough trained people with the right ones.   If a society has to hire and promote on brains rather than inherited status, inherited status ceases to be inherited. Technocracy becomes mandatory when economic progress and the democratic demand for efficient maximization of the economy produces the need for a huge administrative class. Clearly big government is the enemy of anything quasi-aristocratic. Technology just makes this worse. This is the story of how Pres. Connant of Harvard brought in the SAT. He was very conscious of the caste-destroying effects of what he was doing.

8. The decline of the WASP ascendancy resembles  Plato's hierarchy of regimes and their cycle of decay in book VIII of The Republic.  Plato’s analysis is an abstract formulation of the intrinsic truth that all ruling elites constantly face the temptation to cannibalize existing social capital.  Why not just enjoy your rule, rather than working to maintain it for the next generation? Why maintain social structure rather than letting it run down?  Frankly, this is a profound argument against democracy, i.e. the absolute sovereignty of any one generation. It is an argument for the Burkean sense of traditionalism as our duty to those who came before us and gave us what we have and to those who will come after us whose nation we are borrowing for a time.  But this only works if one has a coherent sense of nationhood and peoplehood and we do not.  Having a hereditary core to the ruling class can clearly help maintain this sense.  Unless, of course, this core decays for the aforementioned reasons.

One of the great virtues of the WASP ascendancy is that it provided, in a nation made ethnically fluid by immigration, a concrete core towards which other groups should assimilate.  Those of you who don’t like this, sorry, but they were here first.[3]  To have a nation with open boundaries, one needs a solid core, not the “anyone can be an American the instant they sign their passport” chaos we have today.  The WASPs played this role despite, as I noted above, failing to define themselves as real Americans rather than Anglo-Saxons as they should have.

The WASP ascendancy also contained, because the WASPs staged the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, an emotional attachment to this country’s early history and founding that has either dissipated or become abstract, i.e. “propositional nation” sophistry.  A nation must revere its history if it is to sustain its identity, and obviously people whose own ancestors were involved in that history have a more concrete relation to it than those of us who came later.

One of America's big problems as an historical nation has been its lack of interest in culture – Camille Paglia calls America “this masculine pioneer country that has never taken the arts seriously”[4] – and failure to see the need to impose a national culture of real quality as an emotional and intellectual focus of its sense of nationhood.  We used to have some of this prior to the 1960’s, but it didn’t really stick and has since been drowned by commercial pop culture and delegitimated by multiculturalism, which denies that we even should have a common culture.  One can still see remnants of it here and there, like the architecture of our better old universities. A nation's sense of identity should be organized around its history and its peoplehood but you need culture to make this pretty so people will like it and feel it as well as think it.  It is clearly against our grain to have an Academie Americain to distill our culture for us, but we have various vested interests, like the universities, doing this de facto anyway.

One conclusion one could draw from this is that an artificially-created nation is a rationalist mistake, but I think not, particularly given the ambiguous balance between conscious self-creation and unconscious emergence that exists in the history of many superficially "organic" nations.  (Don't tell me Germany is not a conscious creation! But then of course look what a mess they made; this is clearly a partial, if not a whole, truth.) There is also a degree to which America is not even artificial, i.e. not identical with its state and founded in 1776 but organically growing from 1620, but consciousness of this is undermined by changes in our ethnic makeup due to immigration. An explicitly founded nation merely has to be aware of the temptations to which it is uniquely suspect – like propositionism – and avoid them. Unfortunately, this requires a degree of self-restraint which is against the grain of current American culture.

Though I cannot help noticing that it is a WASP characteristic.


[1] The novelist Louis Auchincloss, a descendant of it, has been elegantly sweeping up the rubble ever since

[2] This is the essential point of E. Digby Baltzell in his fine book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America.

[3] My own people were actually Scots, which makes them Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon, and respectable though not upper-class.

[4] Sex, Art & American Culture.




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