In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed this weekend titled The Late, Great American WASP, Joseph Epstein mourns the loss of what he refers to as the unofficial ruling class of America, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants or WASPs.
The U.S. once had an unofficial but nonetheless genuine ruling class, drawn from what came to be known as the WASP establishment. Members of this establishment dominated politics, economics and education, but they do so no longer. The WASPocracy, as I think of it, lost its confidence and, with it, the power and interest to lead. We are now without a ruling class, unless one includes the entity that has come to be known as the meritocracy—presumably an aristocracy of sheer intelligence, men and women trained in the nation’s most prestigious schools.
Meritocracy is leadership thought to be based on men and women who have earned their way not through the privileges of birth but by merit. La carrière ouverte aux les talents: Careers open to the talented, is what Napoleon Bonaparte promised, and it is what any meritocratic system is supposed to provide.
The U.S. now fancies itself under a meritocratic system, through which the highest jobs are open to the most talented people, no matter their lineage or social background.
It’s a long read, but you have to read it to believe it. The writer waxes nostalgic about how WASPs ruled this country and all was well. He makes it sound as though things were always honest, fair, and better when WASPs “ruled” America. He’s suggesting that our meritocracy has changed that and is evidenced by the change in society.
What our new meritocrats have failed to evince—and what the older WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own. Character embodied in honorable action is at the heart of the novels and stories of Louis Auchincloss, America’s last unembarrassedly WASP writer. Doing the right thing, especially in the face of temptations to do otherwise, was the WASP test par excellence. Most of our meritocrats, by contrast, seem to be in business for themselves.
Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall history showing that all was well under WASP rule. The Civil War happened under WASP rule. Jim Crow happened under WASP rule. The Trail of Tears happened under WASP rule. I could go on and on, but I think most anybody who knows a thing or two about American history would agree that WASP rule was not always a good thing unless you were part of that ruling class. In that case, the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and other similar families all made out like bandits and their heirs are still living off the money earned long ago.
America was founded to get away from any semblance of a ruling class, so I find it quite refreshing to know that another one has bit the dust. The current meritocracy is not one as Epstein suggests because one still has to belong to that monied class or have adequate access in order to govern in America. A true meritocracy would tend to give us much better thinkers and doers in elected positions than the ones we have now.
Given how much has been made over the past few decades about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, a meritocracy would be the culmination of that principle being applied to real life. You can’t preach one thing and then cry because you get it. Either we reward people for hard work and achievement, or we don’t. Don’t try to play people for fools and preach how hard work and dedication will get you where you want to go all the while locking the goal out of reach because of the class a person was born into. That’s bull!!
I applaud the WSJ for posting that Op-Ed as it serves as a reminder that some people truly want something resembling a feudal system here in America. With the ever-increasing income inequality, it seems as though the WASPs are not going to give up control without a fight. If making America better requires destroying the “ruling class”, then so be it. We’re supposed to be working towards forming a more perfect union, and that union will continue to diversify away from its WASPy roots. Nothing goes on forever, not even a ruling class.
- The Principle of Meritocracy (murination.wordpress.com)
- Elitism- Is Meritocracy to Blame? (2013rgs306grp01.wordpress.com)
- Meritocracy is Almost as Real as this Unicorn (tarahunt.com)
- The Late, Great American WASP (online.wsj.com)
- Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Bemoans The End Of White Rule In The United States (thinkprogress.org)