Revising US history through WASP-tinted glasses

Don'€™t give the elites of yore credit for their opponents'€™ achievements

January 11, 2014 9:00AM ET
Senators have lunch in Senate dining room, 1943
Thomas D. Mcavoy/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Remember the good old days, when America had true leaders, guiding our nation in the right direction? What went wrong? And why were we led astray?

Writing in The Wall Street Journal last month, Joseph Epstein proposed a theory: The U.S. used to be ruled by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs. Their mantra was “trust, honor and character.” Scandal and incompetence were absent. Gravitas and social responsibility were the mores of the establishment and thereby defined our nation.

Our current rulers, by contrast, are products of the so-called meritocracy. They may well be smarter and more accomplished than the WASPs, but in Epstein’s view, their moral character leaves much to be desired. The result is a rotting national politics corrupted by the flaws of our current leaders.

While providing a long list of WASP virtues, Epstein never gets around to mentioning what WASPs actually did. His main point is that the era of the WASP was a time when America was unified, leaders made difficult but admirable decisions and the nation was not only an economic power but a moral beacon for the world. The logic goes something like this: Because WASPs were leading at the time, they must have be the source of such virtue. And if we had leaders more like them today, we might not be stuck in our present morass.

Part of this view is understandable. WASP leadership coincided with the expansion of civil rights, of women’s liberation, of economic development driven by middle-class growth, of international leadership and of the United States’ becoming the most powerful nation in the world.

But there are three problems for nostalgists like Epstein: First, the “virtuous” WASP was in many ways not that virtuous; let us not forget that the greatest of all WASPs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, engaged in an affair with his wife’s former social secretary for decades, including throughout his time in the White House.

Second, WASPs had little to do with any of the social progress I mentioned. If anything, these men aggressively fought against reforms and conceded only under immense pressure.

A third and most damning challenge for the nostalgists is in their logic. Great leaders do not explain why times are great. We give too much credit to and place too much blame on leadership.

What made the WASP era truly great were the WASPs’ opponents — the labor unions that demanded fair wages; the civil rights leaders who were consistently imprisoned by the WASP establishment they protested against; the anti-war activists, some of whom were killed for their service; and the economic thinkers who argued that government was not a great evil and that redistribution was both a moral and economic good.

Natural aristocracy

WASPs present themselves as born, not made — part of a kind of natural aristocracy, bred to rule with dignity and wisdom. But WASPs, like other Americans, are a product of their environment, not their breeding. And the birth of the WASP was largely reactive.

When, during the 19th century, Jews, Catholics and others poured onto American shores, some of them, like Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie, were lucky enough to become fantastically successful. They joined other new men — like John D. Rockefeller — and built their wealth in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, fueled by the fires of innovation and the work of an ever-expanding immigrant labor force. This new elite began to economically surpass the old, which responded by suggesting that working for a living was distasteful.

Threatened by the massive fortunes of new men, the old elites fashioned themselves as the establishment — creating an exclusionary culture, drawing on their social connections built in private spaces like the Union Club and using their associations with such institutions as Ivy League universities to help support their positions. The establishment feared the rabble of the working classes. So scared of the potential threats of Gilded Age workers were members of the Upper East Side establishment that they built an armory in their neighborhood to protect themselves in the event of class warfare. And so the WASP was made: a clique not dedicated to the betterment of the nation but consolidated through its members’ fear and motivated to realize their continued shared advantage.

The legacy of the WASP is thus found in exclusion, anxiety and class interests. The civilized reforms that we now associate with this era were the result of fights in which the WASP was most often on the wrong side. We might ask, “Why do workers enjoy a 40-hour workweek, a weekend and modest but important labor protections?” Certainly not because of the magnanimity of their managers. Let us not forget that there were some 37,000 strikes in the United States from 1881 to 1905, in which more than 7 million men and women put their livelihoods on the line.

WASPs were hardly supportive of these movements. U.S. Attorney General and known WASP Richard Olney led the response to the Pullman strike of 1894, sending some 12,000 U.S. troops to confront the workers. Thirty strikers were killed, and eventually the WASPs had to concede the right for workers to enjoy reasonable wages, benefits and labor conditions. But they put up a fight while they could.

The civil rights movement is another example of progress that took place not because of WASPs but despite them. It would be absurd to suggest that the extension of political rights to African-Americans was somehow not the result of popular protest and outrage against white America. We cannot claim with a straight face that men like Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. were secondary players and that women like Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates and Diane Nash were merely beneficiaries of WASP grace.

Racism, bigotry and nostalgia

There is a long intellectual tradition that seeks to glorify the WASP on religious grounds. The sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Protestantism made capitalism possible, thereby helping the nations of Northern Europe and the United States distance themselves from the rest of the world. Weber’s arguments are easily misconstrued. Intellectually lazy thinkers extrapolate his ideas and suggest that the virtuous character of Protestantism is the source of all that is good. The perceived loss of association with Protestantism, then, must help explain America’s so-called national decline.

The current wave of WASP nostalgia draws from this tradition. But why choose now to lament the WASP? Perhaps because our current president is not white. Perhaps because Barack Obama’s Christianity has been questioned. Even the president’s birthplace has been the subject of endless debate since before he took office. It is clear, at the very least, that Obama is no WASP.

Racism and bigotry may well part of the great WASP lament, but they are not its only sources. A coordinated, homogeneous ruling class does seem more able to achieve its goals than the (admittedly more diverse) fractured and fighting leaders we have today. But the goals of a unified elite aren’t always worthwhile, and great men do not necessarily make great leaders. It’s unique situations that make good leadership possible, and those situations often include a coordinated opposition movement that speaks truth to the powers that be.

We need a return to this sort of progressive opposition, not some fabricated memory of great leaders. If we wish to lament the loss of the WASP era, let us not suggest that it is establishment white Protestants we need. Instead we need what made the WASP great: the diverse and driven people who opposed them.

Shamus Khan is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of "Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School" (Princeton, 2011) and "The Practice of Research" (Oxford, 2013, with Dana Fisher) and is completing "Exceptional: The Astors, Elite New York, and the Story of American Inequality" (Princeton). 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter