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.