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The Death of the WASP Elite Is Greatly Exaggerated

A story of legacy admissions, low social mobility, and nostalgia for...what, exactly?

Topical Press Agency/Getty

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is using the death of President George H. W. Bush to mourn the caste the late president belonged to. Bush, Douthat argues, was an exemplary member of the old WASP elite whose rule has been replaced by a grasping and often incompetent meritocracy. “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,” Douthat asserts.

The WASP ascendency, he argues, faced a crisis of faith in the 1960s, surrendering to meritocracy. It would have been better if that ruling class had held on to power, albeit with a greater acceptance for diversity. Douthat lays out an hypothetical scenario:

... 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.” At the same time it 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).

Douthat’s article makes little sense as history.

The term WASP—standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant—is a bit anachronistic, since white Catholics are now very assimilated into white culture. If we recognize that white Catholics are now equal partners in WASP culture, then America remains a land overwhelmingly ruled by WASPs.

Ivy League schools—which still function to some extent as social gatekeepers in the United States—still have legacy admissions, giving a leg up to families like the Bushes. In 2017, a third of the incoming Harvard class falls under the “legacy” category. Nor, in an age of increasing inequality and stagnant social mobility, are members of the white working class more able to join the elite than in the past. The current ruling class is hardly characterized by openness to outside talent. Even though the incoming Congress is described as the most diverse ever, people of color only make up 102 members (or 19 percent) in a body of 535. The Trump White House is notoriously lacking in diversity. There is no black senior advisor in the current administration. There are only three black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies.

WASP power hasn’t disappeared, nor are the cultural developments Douthat decries all that new. He complains about the “exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism.” But Jane Addams, an uber-WASP, adhered to the Social Gospel tradition more than a century before Bush died. Henry Wallace, the WASP vice-president of Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the WASPiest of all Presidents, was an adherent to New Age spiritualism in the 1940s.

The trajectory of the Bush family itself hardly illustrates a story of decline. George H. W. Bush was the son of a Senator who became President and had two sons who achieved great political success, one as a governor and the other as both a governor and president. Bush progeny continue to dot the land in positions of high authority: Neil Bush runs a foundation, Marvin Bush is a partner in an investment firm, George P. Bush is Texas land commissioner, Jenna Bush was a a contributor on NBC’s Today Show, Ashley Bush produces movies. This is not a family that has been marginalized. 

Douthat’s column echoes a familiar conservative lament: the displacement of aristocratic legitimacy by modernity. “But the age of chivalry is gone” Edmund Burke sighed in 1790 in Reflections on the Revolution in France. “That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” One of Douthat’s favorite novelists, Anthony Powell, told the same story (although arguably with less of a normative bent) in his twelve-volume epic Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975) which traces the triumph of the grubby go-getter Kenneth Widmerpool over the languid but charming members of the gentry. 

Burke and Powell weren’t offering history but rather myth. A necessary component of conservatism is the trope that traditional virtues are under siege, so conservative writers keep returning to the idea that the old ruling class is being displaced by their social inferiors, despite the fact that intergenerational inequality often persists for centuries. Douthat’s column merely repeats the old myth with new examples.