The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency

At the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein has penned a paean to the era of WASP ascendency in American life, whose spirit is captured by quotes such as the following:

Much can be—and has been—written about the shortcomings of the WASPocracy. As a class, it was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish. Tradition-minded, it tended to be dead to innovation and social change. Imagination wasn’t high on its list of admired qualities. [….]

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided. [….]

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.

The modern American meritocracy certainly has its serious hypocrisies and defects. One could write an entire book about the failures of the American elite in Iraq, the subprime crisis, and more. Perhaps someone named Christopher Hayes* might write such a book. He might call it Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.

Yet there is something crazy and a little sad about Epstein’s essay. Sure the old WASP elite was a tad snobbish and stodgy. These were hardly their worst problems. Under WASP hegemony, corruption and incompetence were actually quite common in high places, more common than today, in fact. Perhaps the misconduct and stupidity produced fewer scandals. if so, that was only because these behaviors were better-concealed from public view.Where is the honor or the character in maintaining a system of exclusion to protect one group’s social and economic privileges at the expense of others?

The unapologetic exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Catholics. and women did not enhance the integrity or the technical competence of American government. Nor did it noticeably improve elite professions such as scientific research or clinical medicine to exclude these same groups. When I was a Princeton undergraduate, a disgruntled alumnus wrote into the student newspaper to lament the rising presence of “big-city, high-SAT intellectuals,” who were apparently ruining the once-gentlemanly environment. Thirty years before, people like this man successfully maintained quotas that cruelly excluded many among my parents’ generation from attending elite schools. Not coincidentally, the Princeton of (say) 1950 or 1960 was a decidedly mediocre place. We who came later owe a great debt to the pioneering generation who smashed down these barriers and opened the road for others, as well. Our current elites should do some serious housecleaning, but not out of any misguided nostalgia for the unfair and mediocre non-meritocratic era we’ve left behind.

Perhaps I betray my own biases, but I think there is something undignified to celebrate an era and to celebrate the people who so mistreated our own parents, and many others besides. I do have one consolation. Epstein’s misguided essay beats this somewhat similar Walter Lippmann gem, which defines the genre.

*Yeah, I initially misspelled Chris Hayes’ name, which is ironic, given this clip from the University of Chicago’s 67th annual Latke-Hamantasch comic debate.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency”

  1. I’m not certain that WASP is the right category (partly because I’m a Southerner, and Jews and Catholics have always been prominent in the Southern elite), but there is an important difference between the kind of thinking that most of what you have is to be stewarded–protected and passed on (typical of an aristocracy)–and the kind of thinking that is the every-man-for-himself greased-pole-climbing contest that seems to be what we are now calling a meritocracy.

  2. Shorter Epstein: “Princeton hasn’t really been the same since they started letting in all those Joooos.”

    Interesting that Epstein thinks that learning math and “science” is real but learning to read, think, and write carefully, or studying literature, history, philosophy, economics, psychology, politics, and sociology is worthless.

    Yes, a public-spirited hereditary aristocracy has some beneficial aspects along with its defects. But the notion that the Wall Street of the 1920s was more honest than today’s meritocratic world of high finance doesn’t pass the giggle test.

    It’s odd that Epstein singles out Brown Brothers Harriman, where Prescott Bush – having been introduced to Averill Harriman by his father-in-law, George Herbert Walker – got rich financing the Nazi war machine.

  3. Mark, fwiw, Joseph Epstein is a confirmed member of the tribe. (as if his last name didn’t give that away.)

  4. I don’t suppose it’s possible that the Kennedys simply enjoyed nice clothes, sailing, and touch football.

    I mean, I used to like touch football when I was young, and I still like nice clothes. WASP mimicry? I don’t think so.

    WASP’s never went in for “unscrupulous business dealings?”

    Try Richard Whitney, to take one well-known counter-example.

    What an ass Epstein must be, not to mention a tuches-lecker.

      1. One of the really outstanding examples of outsider resentment in our recent history, he was, iirc, Quaker on his mother’s side (which likely means English far enough back) and “black Irish” on his father’s, the phrase supposedly meaning descended from Spanish sailors and soldiers who washed up out of the Armada shipwreck. Maybe sort-of WASP-ish, but definitely not one of the American aristocracy. A striver, not a patrician.

        My impression of Epstein is, he wants us to think that the WASPs of that ascendancy really all *were* what William F. Buckley wanted to be seen as. The ironies of Buckley’s pose are deep enough, and then there are Epstein’s own double-backflips that Mark points to. Makes my head hurt to think about– he’s just the kind of guy he would have excluded, except he’d never have been in a position to do the excluding because he’d have excluded himself. One of those time-travel paradoxes, isn’t it?

        1. Groucho Marx got that a long time ago.

          …and Wm F Buckley wasn’t a WASP, and wrote about his Catholicism prolifically.

  5. “Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life.”


    I mean, srsly?. The Harding administration alone could be your one-stop shopping source for examples of political scandals for a “Political Corruption 101” lecture. On the Democratic side of the aisle, the Hatch Act was passed for a reason.

    Ahem. Okay, I’m better now.

    But perhaps Mr. Epstein should take off his rose-tinted glasses.

  6. Pining for a lost golden age that never was apparently will never go out of style. We’re all vulnerable to it (frex, it’s tempting to look at measurements of inequality and economic growth and think of the 1950s and 60s with a certain longing, but there are some huge problems with that era as well).

    1. Pining for a lost golden age that never was apparently will never go out of style.

      No, not with these second-rate generations we have today. Our grandparent’s generation in contrast, never engaged in such romanticizing about the past… : )

  7. Funny how ‘self-hating jew’ is never used by Wall St Journal editorial page writers like him.

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