Wednesday, December 05, 2018


Ross Douthat argues that the widespread praise for George H.W. Bush might be a sign of a longing for the old WASP order:
... in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

I think you 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 in our society today.

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.
But if we long for WASPs so much, why are the Bushes the only ones we've elected since 1944? Why did we reject a third Bush in 2016, even though he seemed to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination? Why is Poppy Bush the only one of the five presidents before Donald Trump to lose a reelection bid? Why were we electing presidents from outside the world of the WASP elite long before we gave Poppy that one term? The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 is seen as the moment when the postwar meritocracy replaced the old establishment, but remember, the first president we elected after FDR was a Missouri haberdasher, and after that we elected a Kansas general, a lace-curtain Irishman, a Hill Country Texan, a lower-middle-class California striver, a peanut farmer, and an Illinois alcoholic's son turned movie actor... We don't miss the WASP establishment -- maybe some in the elite media do, but the rest of us don't.

Douthat says the WASPs seemed to run things better -- yet he also says that the meritocrats have mimicked the old WASP order.
You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex ... and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.
With the result that some people outside the WASP establishment carry themselves like WASP establishmentarians:
The establishment had always been somewhat permeable to arrivistes, Jews and Catholics imitated WASP habits in the 1940s and 1950s, and in our era their admirable influence is still felt in figures as different as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Nevertheless, Douthat insists that the old WASPs were just ... better. He starts to tell us that it's because they sent their sons to war, and because "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."

But then we get to the real reason he feels this way, as he imagines what would have happened if the WASP establishment had changed rather than faded away:
... 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). The goal would have been to keep piety and discipline embedded in the culture of a place like Harvard, rather than the mix of performative self-righteousness and raw ambition that replaced them.
There we are -- we've reached one of Douthat's main hobbyhorses: Why isn't American religious anymore? And while his talk of the WASPs' "discipline" and "self-denying culture" is contrasted with the meritocrats' "emotivism," "performative self-righteousness," and "raw ambition," I'm reading between the lines and detecting a longing for the time before the sexual revolution. That's usually where Douthat's thoughts are trending when he's on the subject of self-denial.

The America we saw on Election Day last month seems to be longing for decency -- but there's no evidence that it's longing for the old WASPs. George H.W. Bush was admired, but voters chose new leaders who developed their moral bearings far from any prep school. You can keep your WASPs -- I'll take leaders like Lucy McBath, whose unarmed son was gunned down by a racist and who channeled her grief into a successful House campaign in Georgia as an opponent of the gun lobby. Well-manicured New England lawns aren't the only places where character is taught.

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