The Fall of the American Establishment and Its Consquences

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What are political norms so badly eroded? Why are fair play and following the rules in decline in our society? How do we explain the decline in trust in institutions and the rise of conspiracy theories? What accounts for the electoral success of a charismatic populist like Trump?

Believe it not, one man, sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, had a lot of very insightful things to say on all of these topics. To some extent he even predicted them decades ago. Baltzell, the person who popularized the term “WASP” for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, was America’s foremost scholar of the upper class. He saw after World War II that the Protestant establishment was in trouble, in part because of WASP failures to assimilate non-Protestants and to take up leadership roles in society.

But unlike most people, Baltzell thought America needed an upper-class establishment, and that its loss would create many of the negative social dynamics we are experiencing right now. While we should not view his takes overly determinative, he has fascinating and seldom considered perspectives on the problems challenging our country today.

I wrote a major feature article at American Affairs that is an introduction and retrospective on Baltzell’s work. I strongly encourage you to read it. Not only it is key in understanding social changes in America since the 1960s, it covers a lot of material very few of you have probably encountered before.

One of Baltzell’s most valuable contributions is in how he helps us to distinguish between the elite, the wealthy, and the upper class. He also helps us distinguish between a well functioning (aristocratic) and poorly functioning (caste) upper class, and between a well-structured (establishment) and poorly structured (declassed) elite. Just having these categories and distinctions in mind is very valuable.

As a descendent of Catholic peasant stock on both sides of my family, I would not have been invited into the WASP clubs, but I found researching this fascinating nevertheless. I’ll be writing more on this topic future newsletters, but here’s an extended excerpt from my piece:

An upper-class establishment was necessary, in Baltzell’s view, to a healthy and functional society. Without it, a democracy would devolve into bureaucratic despotism, corporate feudalism, charismatic Caesarism, or some other undesirable state as a result of runaway social atomization. This upper-class role came from its status and wealth, to be sure. But it also arose, crucially, from the fact that—in contrast to economically or functionally defined groupings, such as the working class or the elite—it was an actual social community. As Balztell’s student and collaborator Howard Schneiderman summarized it, the upper class maintained “a sense of gemeinschaft-like solidarity.” This social solidarity is what made it a counterweight to social atomization and an independent power base that could act as a check against excesses in business, government, or a charismatic populist leader.

In their day, the WASPs were a culture-setting class for America, meaning that many of their moral and behavioral codes were normative, or at least aspirational, for all classes. In addition, because WASPs themselves held a substantial number of key elite positions in the era of the Protestant establishment, this allowed them to enforce les règles du jeu and to ensure that not just the letter of the law but also the unwritten rules and norms were followed by all. As Schneiderman put it,

A moral force within the putatively amoral world of politics and power elites, an establishment of leaders drawn from upper class families, is the final protector of freedom in modern democratic societies. Such an establishment of political, business, cultural, religious, and educational leaders succeeds in its moral function when it sets, follows, and enforces rules of fair play in contests of power and opinion. . . . Hegemonic establishments give coherence to the social spheres of greatest contest. They don’t eliminate conflict, but prevent it from ripping society apart. . . . The genius of an establishment lies in its capacity to put moral brakes on power by applying an upper class code of conduct and responsibility to it.

But an establishment was also something of a contradiction in America. The idea of hereditary upper-class leadership was at odds with the country’s egalitarian and democratic aspirations—even if, without it, a successful, healthy democracy was not possible in Baltzell’s view. The country needed to live within that tension to succeed, perhaps even to survive as a society. Baltzell wrote, “No nation can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.” Only a genuinely aristocratic upper class, one that both served the nation through leadership and was open to new men of merit, was capable of sustaining this tension. Such a class could bring needed balance and prevent “the atomization of society, fostered by the fanatic forces of egalitarian individualism,” which he saw as “the greatest threat to political freedom in our time.”

Balztell also foresaw other touchstones of our contemporary era. The election of Donald Trump would not have surprised him. In the absence of an establishment, an atomized population falls easily under the spell of a charismatic populist. He wrote, “The absence of class authority inevitably leads to the rule of charismatic men on horsebacks, with their legions of personal followers.” The centrality of personal charisma, usually manifested through the mastery of TV and other media, has become part of our political landscape. But Trump represents a step beyond even this. He may be the first national figure in which his voters were followers of him personally, rather than of the standard bearer for a party or platform. There’s a good chance he won’t be the last such figure.

Baltzell would also have predicted our current elites’ increasing reliance on thinly disguised raw power to enforce their self-interested preferences, precisely because they do not meet his definition of an upper-class establishment. He observed, “Viable civilizations, are, almost literally, clothed in authority; and when the emperor’s clothes are removed his only recourse is the exercise of naked power.” When the legitimized, institutionalized authority of the establishment disappears, coercion is what remains. “Authority—a hated word in education, in politics, and in all areas of social life—has been more or less replaced by naked power veiled in manipulation and deceit if not downright fraud.”

And there is less ability for the people to resist that coercion in our atomized era. The upper-class establishment was an intermediary institution that could check or resist the power of corporations, the state, or a would-be Caesar. Baltzell argued, “A powerful, wealthy, yet declassed elite may be one of the greatest threats to freedom in modern American society.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

I also discussed my piece with Geoffrey Kabaservice on his Vital Center podcast at the Niskanen Center. Kabaservice is the author of The Guardians, a book based on his dissertation that looks at the last generation of the WASP establishment. He called my article, “the most serious and the most interesting treatment of Baltzell’s ideas that there has been in decades.” Here’s an excerpt from our discussion, which is available in audio and transcript form:

So, in essence, an establishment occurs when there is heavy overlap between the elite and the upper class. And he [Baltzell] thought this was actually a very good thing and a very important thing, because he felt that this allowed the upper class’s code of conduct, the code of manners that they had in the upper class, to essentially put a moral box around the behavior of the elite. And if you didn’t have this upper-class kind of domination of the elites, then you would have what he might call a declassed elite, where it’s just a collection of individuals sort of atomized from each other, and they have no shared moral codes, no shared rules of the road, rules of the game. And it would create a lot of negative outcomes for the leadership of society if there were not some agreed-upon gentleman’s code that these people were all living under.

I was really struck by Kingman Brewster [the main character in The Guardians], eleventh generation from the Mayflower that his family had been in leadership. Or I think about Charles Francis Adams IV, who died in 1999. And essentially the Adams family, which had been like 200 years of service to the country — these ancient lineages of our land have essentially gone extinct, if you will, from the standpoint of public leadership. So I don’t know that it’s ever possible to resurrect something. There is a — I don’t know the right word — primordial authority that comes from having those deep, longstanding, multi-generational roots in a place. I think that is one of the things that contributed to people’s willingness to come along. And that is now gone, that continuity of leadership in America. That organic upper-class, from the founding of the country to the 1950s, is now extinct. And there are still WASPs around; I guess they still publish the Social Register. But whatever it looks like in the future, it’s not going to look like what it looked like in the past.

Again, click through to listen or read the entire transcript.