WASPs Take Flight

May 25, 2010

Assuming Elena Kagan, President Obama’s anointed successor to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (himself an illustrious knight of the Protestant realm), is confirmed to the Court, she will become part of the first Supreme Court entirely devoid of WASPs.

Of the 111 (mainly) men and (less often) women who have served as Justices on the high court, nearly a full third have been white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants… what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell identified in 1964 as the American ruling class. A good amount of Catholics have cropped up lately, notably Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Jews have enjoyed a foothold for a while, starting with Louis Brandeis. (Kagan herself is Jewish: a member of the group most often cited by sociologists like Baltzell as having supplanted the Protestants in wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers.)

Of course, the North American WASP has been a species long declining, thanks in part to what researchers call “generational degeneration.” Centuries ago, a strong Protestant work ethic and Yankee ingenuity made for a lot of fortunes earned; entitled heirs made for a lot of waste. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, explains: “The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building. Lots of people just got lazy.” Southern money might put it differently: fat dogs don’t hunt.

So old-line money and its (sometimes honorable, sometimes insular) values are being swept away, and in their place we expect a shiny new meritocracy, exemplary to the world. It’s not about who you know, but what you can do! Our leaders, including Justices of the Supreme Court, will become a more representative lot, drawn from common stock and full of common virtue. Of course, Ms. Kagan’s proponents hold, there’s no stock more common and popularly representative than Upper West Side Jewish girls with Ivy League degrees.

So we seem in the process of trading one aristocracy for another, and all that really changes is the royal religion. And, given Americans’ generally lax proclivities toward faith, this probably isn’t a terribly important shift. What will be more telling is whether or not the old WASP ideals of grace, charm, style, economy, family, and tradition will stay on. As the late Louis Auchincloss, white-shoe attorney and author, noted: “The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.”  

Victims of regime change.

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