In his Wednesday New York Times column, Ross Douthat argued that, contrary to popular opinion, the old WASP aristocracy really wasn’t so bad—and that what’s replaced it is in some ways worse. Whereas yesterday’s elites drilled a spirit of noblesse oblige “that trained the most privileged children for service”—in part, Douthat concedes, as a way of fortifying their status against potential challengers—the problem with today’s ruling class is that it does not even recognize itself as such.
Rather, it uses the aegis of meritocracy to exonerate its members’ perpetual misrule, which in turn fuels nostalgia for the kind of old-school style patricianism embodied by the likes of FDR and George H.W. Had our elite retained their “historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism),” as well as their “more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism),” we might have ended up with a stronger, more competent establishment, one capable of adding diversity without thereby sacrificing its effectiveness.
Douthat is right that the WASPs had a distinctive and, judging by Twitter, underappreciated set of virtues whose recovery would serve the nation well. And he’s right that there is no necessary connection between self-denial and bigotry, whatever else our current meritocrats may claim.
But the “WASP-to-lost” story recounted here also omits a crucial truth: The worst impulses of American meritocracy were themselves outgrowths of American Protestantism.
This is certainly evident in foreign policy, where the bien pensant outlook remains more or less Calvinist: pro-individual, pro-market, pro-scripture—and very much not pro-hierarchy. From Wilson’s screeds against the Habsburgs to Clinton’s human rights credenda, U.S. statecraft has long revolved around the idea that non-liberal, non-democratic states are de facto illegitimate—that a written constitution, or, if you will, covenant, is the best and highest mode of political order. Such thinking could only seem obvious “in a culture shaped at its origins by Protestantism,” wrote the historian James Kurth, “rather than by some other religion.”
Then of course there’s the economy. Because Protestantism emphasized salvation through grace alone—and because the Protestant faith was founded on a denial of hierarchical ecclesia—it could not simply take for granted that works in church constituted evidence of salvation. Instead, the relevant standard became success in the material world, giving rise to what Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism”—a spirit that has proven significantly more resilient than the WASP establishment that incubated it.
These two impulses—a missionary zeal abroad and a market-oriented zeitgeist at home—didn’t go away with the rise of a new meritocratic elite; they just degenerated into less palatable forms. The Bush administration’s self-described “crusade” in Iraq; the Obama administration’s disastrous intervention in Libya; and from both parties, a technocratic consensus in support of neoliberalism—all of which has grown increasingly unpopular with WASPs and non-WASPs alike.
So when Douthat pins our current malaise on a WASP elite “pre-emptively dissolv[ing] itself,” he’s only telling one side of the story. Yes, the old regime had virtues that made it seem a lot more competent and legitimate than what we’ve ended up with since, but those virtues also kept in check a great many vices whose origins were every bit as Protestant, every bit as American, as the piety and self-discipline Douthat would like to see revived. The problem, then, isn’t that meritocracy displaced the WASPs; it’s that meritocracy displaced the ascetic parts of WASP culture while leaving the rapacious parts intact.
But even this framing is arguably too generous, for the WASP demission wasn’t just the result of exogenous secularism. Rather, secularism was the predictable result of the Protestant faith itself, especially in its personalist American variant. By tearing down the intermediaries between God and man, the Reformation elevated the individual with respect to all existing hierarchies—including, eventually, those hierarchies encoded into its own theology. Thus, writes Kurth, “we no longer say ‘In God we trust’ and really mean it; we trust in ourselves and ask God, if he exists, to say, ‘Amen.’”
In which case the loss of self-confidence was somewhat understandable once WASPs began recognizing their own contingent position on the totem pole. Douthat writes that “the combination of pious obligation joined to cosmopolitanism gave the old establishment a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship.” Maybe, but that combination was always unstable, held together by a religious logic that deplored any sort of pecking order. Indeed this logic is so firmly embedded within American life that even our current elite cannot escape it: To acknowledge its role as an elite would be to reject the egalitarian premises underlying the “Protestant Deformation”; and to reject that would be to reject an enduring strain of civic culture—which, like it or not, the WASPs bequeathed unto their successors. In this sense as in others, our ruling class remains more WASPy—well, more Protestant—than either its critics or advocates may like to think.