The blinkered celebration of American elites
As mourners paid their respect to former President George H.W. Bush at his funeral Wednesday, tributes to the last moderate Republican president continued to roll in. In The New York Times, Ross Douthat casts Bush as the last WASP, and pines for the days of a quasi-aristocratic establishment. "Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well," Douthat writes.
This is in keeping with Douthat's politics, particularly his qualified defense of monarchy. But he goes too far. Self-conscious elitism is the last thing this country needs.
Now, there is something to Douthat's premise that the current "meritocratic" elite is, at a minimum, turning in a pretty abysmal performance. As Chris Hayes argues in his book Twilight of the Elites, the problem with meritocracy as a legitimating ideology is that it inevitably shades into the exact same defense of privilege as any other cynical self-dealing elite — only this time without even a scrap of noblesse oblige. As Douthat writes, even with ostensibly neutral standardized tests and other demonstrations of merit, "you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions."
There is at least decent evidence for Douthat's pro-WASP case. Bush's handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany were good — or, at least, it certainly could have been a lot worse.
However, one shouldn't overlook other instances of WASP failure. Douthat admits they were often extremely racist, but they were also often just stupid and incompetent. The Kennedy brothers (yes, they were Catholic, not Protestant, but still very WASP-y) bungled away half of JFK's presidency with birdbrained schemes to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro, and laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War. Humanity is still dealing with the wreckage turbo-WASPs John Foster Dulles and his brother Alan left across the Middle East and Latin America, toppling democratic governments and sparking decades-long civil wars hither and yon. Bush himself was deeply involved in Watergate and the Spiro Agnew scandal, and personally abused his presidential pardon power to halt the Iran-Contra investigation when it got too close to himself — an act as nakedly corrupt as anything President Trump has done.
Indeed, the idea that the elder Bush was even the last WASP aristocrat at all is questionable. How else to describe his son, who if anything had an even greater claim to an aristocratic pedigree as both the eldest male heir of an important WASP family and the son of a former president? It's also hard to think of a more perfect caricature of aristocratic failure than a hard-drinking failson who coasted through elite schools on his family name, carefully avoided real military service, and whose presidency was a world-historical catastrophe. (One can easily forget that the aristocratic noblesse oblige ethic has usually been honored in the breach.)
At a minimum, the WASP record is a decisively mixed bag.
But let's turn to a really good president who did emerge from an elite background: Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was indeed a WASP — but as Mike Konczal points out, far from representing a self-conscious elite, FDR decisively turned on his fellow aristocrats, gleefully baiting their hatred for political advantage. In return, they loathed him so much that they refused to speak his name, and turned the title of his political coalition into a foul curse. When Montgomery Ward chairman Sewell Avery repeatedly broke negotiated labor agreements, and FDR confiscated his business for impeding the war effort, Avery spat "You … New Dealer!" at the soldiers carrying him out of his office.
Biographers write that Roosevelt's disability also had much to do with his development as a leader. Where before he had been a bit feckless, the desperate struggle to recover from his paralytic illness (which nearly killed him outright) forced him to work to his absolute utmost capacity for the first time. It made his breezy aristocratic confidence more earned and determined, like tempered steel — but also instilled some empathy, by teaching him that bad luck can strike anyone at any time, even a wealthy, privileged politician.
FDR also had the good fortune of a social context that often forced his hand. Early in his presidency he wanted to serve as a power broker between all social groups, but when business wouldn't play along (because, then as now, they hated the idea of making any compromises at all), Roosevelt threw in with the working class. That led directly to his fine record of pro-union policy, high taxes on the rich, Social Security, and careful regulation of business.
Excellent leadership is hard to come by. But the outlines of a positive, non-meritocratic model can be seen in FDR's career, and self-conscious elitism is not any part of it.
Any leader must exercise authority, and that does require a certain confidence. But it also requires humility — the realization that one's power is arbitrary, and should be exercised in an egalitarian fashion. Perhaps most of all, a good leader should be heavily skeptical of any fellow elites, no matter how they obtained the positions they hold. Chances are very strong they are incompetent, corrupt dullards.