Five years ago, I wrote about how columnists David Brooks and Joseph Epstein thought we were better off under a hereditary WASP elite (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) than under our current meritocracy. Now Ross Douthat uses Bush I’s funeral to thump the same nostalgic drum (not a direct link): we’re mourning Bush (“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.” Like Epstein and Brooks, Douthat thinks the WASP noblesse oblige made them more dedicated to public service. They were traveled and experienced enough to understand foreign cultures “better than some of today’s shallow multiculturists,” and to function as great statesmen on the world stage. Their fatal mistake was giving up and letting meritocracy take over when they should have “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.'”
Roy Edroso suggests Douthat’s just positioning himself for the post-Trump era. I’m more inclined to agree with NMMNB at the link, Douthat’s interest seems to lie in a continued WASPocracy being more religious, more conservative and probably a lot more restrictive about sex (he’s not sex-positive). And given Douthat thinks conservatives aren’t reactionary enough, it’s not surprising he’d like to return to an older order dominated by a more authoritarian elite. But regardless of his motives his column, as usual, is an incoherent mess of untruth.
As NMMNB points out, if we miss WASPs so much, why is it we’ve elected so few of them since WW II? Just Bush I, who lost his re-election bid, and Bush II, who positioned himself as a plainspoken Texas farmer rather than a Yalie? Do we really miss them at all? Do we even miss Bush I that much? Douthat argues one of the WASPs’ virtues was sending their sons to war alongside the poor and working class, but Bush II dodged the draft by going into the National Guard, after family friends pulled strings to get him in (there’s no proof W personally asked for this).
As I pointed out in my original column, WASP’s noblesse oblige didn’t express itself in, say, fighting lynching or opening the doors to Jewish immigrants fleeing the rise of the Axis. They were perfectly happy setting quotas that kept out Jews and non-whites (and women) from their Ivy League schools or from their neighborhoods. Douthat argues that the current meritocracy can be exclusionary too, which is a fair point, but the solution is to fight against that, not simply decide “well elites are always elitist so what’s the point?” They had mistresses. They drank during Prohibition. They may not have been more corrupt than today’s elites, but they were certainly no less. As for their international statesmanship, these are the people who gave Guatemala, Panama and El Salvador brutal dictatorships that lasted for decades. Some statesmanship!
And Douthat’s alt.history is ludicrous. WASPs were racist, sexist and anti-Semitic (David Brooks admits that much, at least). They probably considered themselves perfectly meritocratic, it’s just that they knew merit resided in white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. Asking “what if they’d accepted women and non-WASPs?” answers itself; it’s like asking “what if Southern whites had made segregation better by treating talented black as equals?” Not gonna happen.
That’s more thought than anything by Douthat deserves, but he got it anyway.