The WASPs are finally losing their grip on power. Finally. Again.
The Wall Street Journal reports on the decline of the Protestant Establishment:
The percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped to 55% from 74% in 1961, according to Pew Forum. The corner offices of the top banks, once ruled by Rockefellers and Bakers, now include an Indian-American and the grandson of a Greek immigrant. In old-money enclaves like Palm Beach, Fla., Nantucket, Mass., and Greenwich, Conn., WASPs are being priced out of their waterfront estates and displaced on their nonprofit boards by Jewish, Catholic and other non-Protestant entrepreneurs.
Those old, white-haired lovers of yachts and everything wood-paneled are pretty much the easiest target in the post-1960s US. But wait! What’s a WASP?
Anglo-Saxon means English and English means not an immigrant. And not an immigrant means not from a recently immigrated family. Regarding the WASP, what is mostly feared is new money from new people. And of course a money-establishment culture is against “new money” – not because their money is threatened but because money threatens culture, even monied culture.
So Anglo-Saxon is a pretty broad term that is able, eventually, to embrace a name like Roosevelt or Carnegie. Ethnicity is not so important as the propensity to uphold the culture.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that most early Americans were Protestants, especially in New England. The huge Catholic influx unboarded onto our ports with the great Irish, German, Polish, and Italian migrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. How Protestant was the Protestant Establishment? To repeat – it was primarily not immigrants. The new Catholic Americans were not WASPs, not because they weren’t Protestant, but because they were new. This may be late, in the Protestant Establishment history, but it seems that Buckleys and Kennedys had no problem in the northeast VIP clubs, except when a Catholic ran for the office of President.
Now, the WASPs really were white. It would be hard to say how racist they were, and some probably were not racist. A lot of them were, and this is partially where the WASPs have been left in the historical dust. A black man at the yacht club would probably have caused a stir in most circles. This is not to say that WASP-ism favored government-sanctioned racism. But when the rubber hit the road in the 1950s and 1960s, and American culture had to swallow the large pill that it did, beginning to make racism a cultural wrong – then WASP-ism was going to be transformed.
Could they have adapted? WSJ’s blissfully ignorant response:
In “The Protestant Establishment,” Mr. Baltzell pointed to the prejudice and insularity of the elite as the eventual causes of its decline. “A crisis has developed in modern America largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment’s unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks.”
Jamie Johnson, the documentary filmmaker and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, said he believed the destructive effects of wealth over multiple generations were also a factor.
“The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building,” he said. “Lots of people just got lazy.”
For an establishment, the opposite of lazy is vigilant, and that is precisely what would have killed the rich Protestant Establishment with one quick guillotine. As happened, say, with the racist Southern establishment.
Who rules the country? Whether your answer is the Freemasons, the East Coast liberals, the Jews, the Mob, some sort of Fabian socialists, or whatever – the clear answer in America has always been that we simply cannot stomach a cabal. And the WASP is represented as just that, if less institutional and more prejudiced.
What then could the WASPs have done? If the true value in their establishment – any establishment – is in their refined cultural norms, held arms-length from the market efficiencies and desires that enabled them their money, then they could have used their money to buy public opera houses, open up their yacht clubs to further membership, open up their universities, and make their businesses’ promotion processes more fair. All of which happened, to some degree.
The Supreme Court
WSJ’s occasion for writing this article is, of course, the replacement of the Supreme Court’s last Protestant with a non-Protestant. This historical oddity has provoked a few questions, but the ultimate answer by most commentators is that it probably doesn’t matter. As we have seen, the question itself is misplaced, since membership in a mainline Protestant church is not really the most defining characteristic of WASP-ishness. But furthermore, an East Coast elite could not maintain itself with so many new money holders driving money-culture in new directions. It’s Tocqueville redux, as culture further democratizes. Our conversation about the WASP is really about our country’s ability to hold a stable cultural elite.
Our fluid, non-generational elite is, of course, found in the stable institutions that do exist, like the Ivy League. And Elena Kagan is that. But, as with any elite, it should make us question first of all what her culture has instilled in her to maintain.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.