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The Protestant Establishment Revisited.

Why the new meritocracy is bad for America

Almost at the same time that E. Digby Baltzell published his best-known book, The Protestant Establishment, in 1964, his title character began to go to seed. This came as no surprise to Baltzell, whose book, though remembered as a paean to the Establishment, was actually more of a jeremiad. Though Baltzell certainly believes there should be an establishment (or better yet, an aristocracy) running the country, he was upset about the conduct of the establishment we had; its narrow-mindedness and ethnic prejudice, he believed, were transforming it from a ruling class into a ruling caste. Taking his cue from his idol Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of the French Revolution, Baltzell predicted that once the class-to-caste transition took place, the elite would fail to admit into its ranks the best products of the lower orders and would therefore lose its vitality and authority. An anarchic frenzy of social equality would be the inevitable result. In his new book, The Protestant Establishment Revisited* which sounds like a sequel but is actually a collection of essays), Baltzell quotes a famous line from Marx-"The more a ruling class is able to as-late similate the most prominent men of the dominated classes, the more stable and dangerous its rule"-and then suggests that, by his lights, "dangerous" could be changed to "desirable."

Baltzell today treats the Protestant Establishment as if it were obviously dead, and I think he's right. It will be objected (stay your hands a moment, Washington Monthly letter-to-the-editor writers) that today the president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of the treasury are all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants born to secure upper-class wealth and educated at boarding schools and Ivy League colleges-a WASP Trifecta not achieved at any other time in the past half-century-and that Ralph Lauren has gotten very rich helping the middle class to acquire a hint of the old WASP style. All true, but the Protestant Establishment is dead nonetheless. George Bush is president only because the completely unestablishment Ronald Reagan, who beat him soundly in the 1980 presidential campaign, then picked him as vice president; and Bush campaigns as a born-again redneck, not a patrician.

To be precise, what has died is the social world described in the novels of John O'Hara and John P. Marquand, and in some of Baltzell's essays about Philadelphia, his lifelong home: a world where power was held by local barons to a much greater extent than today and where you could not enter the local barony in older communities could not run a big business or a bank or a law firm or a hospital-unless you had been born into the right family, grown up in the right neighborhood, attended the right private schools, and married the right woman. Baltzell reminds us that Philadelphia, which is usually thought of by outsiders as Rocky Balboa's hometown, was an extreme case: As late as 1955, the two candidates for mayor were named J. Richardson Dilworth and Thacher Longstreth.) There is a tremendous difference between the notion that some upper-class WASPs are very powerful, or the notion that the WASP style is popular, and the notion that a small, cohesive group of WASPs runs the country. It's this last notion that Baltzell correctly assesses as having become ridiculous.

I suppose you could argue that in a handful of venues, people still want to know what your mother's maiden name was, and traditional upper-class social credentials certainly don't hurt anybody's chances for success. But having gone to Groton or belonging to the Country Club in Brookline or possessing a last name like Cadwalader is today only about a 15-percent advantage. As recently as the early sixties, having such credentials was a necessity if you wanted certain positions (most of them in local gentries) and was an enormous advantage in the big-time world of Washington and New York. Even Gatsby-style, self-invented big shots now feel free to pick their mates (rather than their mistresses) on the basis of achievement, looks, and personality, instead of on inherited social position. This is a new development: Recall that in the fifties, John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy all felt impelled to marry Catholic society girls from families more respectable than their own. Of course ambitious young men still "marry up," but "up" today means being less ethnic, better educated, and more prosperous by background, rather than possessing a Social Register name or being a post-debutante.

The institutions that were the bastions of the Protestant Establishment-local banks, law firms, and substantial family businesses-have been subsumed into national corporations, or have become less important. The Southwest and West, to which much power has shifted, never worked up much of a Protestant Establishment in the first place. The rise of the media has had an inevitable erosive effect on the ethic of deference on which the Protestant Establishment depended: The current establishment secretary of state, James Baker, is a master press-handler, but imagine how poorly it would serve him to strike the majestic, heyday-of-the-establishment pose of his predecessor Dean Acheson, a man who (tautologically, but undeniably) was formidable because he was formidable. Also, the establishment's folkways were inimical to widespread workaholism-after all, its power arose from its elaborate, time-consuming rounds of sporting events and society balls-so most of its children were ill prepared to compete around the clock for the current tokens of prestige, such as money and high-level jobs.

The Protestant Establishment came into being as the result of a titanic power struggle between the preCivil War aristocracy and the post-Civil War plutocracy. These groups despised each other, and the aristocrats perceived the Gilded Age as a gloomy period of national ruin-The Education of Henry Adams conveys the upper-class attitude toward the era perfectly. But, miraculously, in the period between 1880 and 1915, the aristocrats and the plutocrats arrived at an elaborate, informal entente, smoothed over by many intermarriages. As Baltzell points out, the founding in the late nineteenth century of institutions like country clubs, boarding schools, rich suburbs, cotillions, and downtown men's clubs, along with the transformation of the Ivy League schools from institutions of ministerial training to molders of a national elite, enormously helped the process along. It also made things easier that both the aristocrats and the plutocrats were WASPS. By the end of World War I they had become substantially indistinguishable, and the new cross-bred plutocrat-aristocrat class is the Protestant Establishment that Baltzell made famous.

It's easy to see how someone of Baltzell's generation (he was born in 1915), even if he understood all of the above intellectually, would instinctively gravitate to the view that the Protestant Establishment represented the natural, comfortable, basic order in American society-the state of nature, almost. Because Baltzell is a child of the high-WASP culture he writes about, his work is closer in spirit to that of professors of African-American studies and women's studies than of most of his fellow sociologists: He writes with a wonderfully precise, novelistic sense of familiarity, but his sentimental loyalty to his subject sometimes clouds his analysis. The heyday of the Protestant Establishment was in fact quite brief, occurring mainly in the twenties. The 1929 stock market crash dealt the Protestant Establishment a body blow, and, as Baltzell observes, the reordering of American society after World War 11 rapidly destroyed it.

Baltzell's idea is that the Protestant Establishment could have saved itself by taking in the better class of ethnics. The case of President Kennedy was the perfect realization of the Baltzell model: An Irish-American socialized virtually from birth into the ways of the WASPs-he was raised in the Episcopal suburb of Bronxville, New York, and educated at Choate and Harvard-eventually becomes perhaps the most proestablishment, and most stylistically "upper-class," president in our history. (Bear in mind that Baltzell is so WASPY that he cites Grace Kelly as an example of white-ethnic success.) The prejudice that hurt the WASPs most, in Baltzell's view, was their antisemitism, since it deprived their establishment of a much-needed infusion of brains and entrepreneurial energy-but Baltzell also would like to have seen W.E.B. Du Bois's black "talented tenth" included. Baltzell is tremendously snobbish but seems to be free of ethnic prejudice; the only group he openly dislikes is the Quakers.

Still, Baltzell doesn't make a wholehearted argument that if a few cards had fallen differently, the Protestant Establishment would still be running the country. He knows that the forces arrayed against it, immensely strengthened by World War II, could not have been resisted for long. He identifies with absolute precision the particular mechanism that brought the establishment down: meritocracy. He writes:

[I]n the course of the fifties, for the first time ... the prestige colleges became the major carriers of elite norms; performance on SAT tests replaced 'character' a criterion for admission to the best institutions, and deans of admissions replaced parents and debutante rituals as the major upper-class marriage brokers in America." This process created an elite most of whose members came from outside the Protestant Establishment culture; conversely, in the kingdom of merit, most of the children of the Protestant Establishment were denied positions of power and influence. At this point in the story, though, Baltzell disappoints: He permits himself to be drawn into the clubroom grumblings of his class and to portray what succeeded the Protestant Establishment as an anarchic, immoral, left-wing dystopia of social leveling and excessive state power. He correctly observes that no great society in history has been a complete social democracy, but from this he leaps to the conclusion that every successful society must have a quasi-hereditary ruling class-he doesn't explore the obvious possibility of a democratically constituted (and democratically inclined) leadership, even though he has seen one with his own eyes, as his fond references to the multiclass, multiethnic, very successful World War II armed forces, in which he served, demonstrate.

Because it is extremely difficult for even a curmudgeon like Baltzell to resist the power of intellectual fashion, he was too quick to believe (in the fifties) in the soulless conformity of the new middle-class suburbs and (in the sixties) to overestimate the extent of influence of the values of hippies and SDSers. Thus, he has been able to conjure up a picture of a nuttily anti-assimilationist America with "no common culture, no common values, and no common history," which simply isn't recognizable as the place where most of us live and where millions of people all over the world would like to live. Like Henry Adams at the beginning of this century, Baltzell at the end of it is so distressed by the loss of power of the traditional leadership class that he can't see the current situation as being anything but chaotic.

Lapdogs with laptops

What has actually happened after the collapse of the Protestant Establishment isn't anarchy at all, but the rise to dominance of what might be called the Meritocratic Upper Class. This observation flows so naturally from Baltzell's work that it's really a shame he didn't make it himself-, but he didn't, so I'll have to. The Meritocratic Upper Class is today a distinctive group with its own values and own way of life-perhaps not as fully articulated as the Protestant Establishment's, but the Meritocratic Upper Class is still quite new.

The essential formative experience of members of the Meritocratic Upper Class is educational overachievement. Therefore, in the culture of the class, purely social or ethnic credentials don't matter much, but educational credentials matter a great deal (and adult status is mainly a function of the prestige of one's job). The stations of the cross for members of the Meritocratic Upper Class aren't Tap Day or the Assembly Ball, they're the Princeton Review course and the day the admissions letters from college and graduate school arrive. A social gaffe can't ruin a member of the Meritocratic Upper Class (as it did for a member of the Protestant Establishment in John O'Hara's first and best novel, Appointment in Samarra), but a professional setback can. Grave career problems like accusations of malpractice and plagiarism transfix us because they have the power to destroy meritocrats' lives, and the faked resume plays a part in modem America like that of a shameful bit of hidden lineage in Victorian novels.

The Meritocratic Upper Class is probably somewhat larger than the Protestant Establishment was. Its members live in metropolitan areas, particularly on the East and West coasts. They marry within the class -Baltzell was right about the dean of admissions being the new marriage broker-and usually form two-career couples after marriage. They generally work as what Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts"-as lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, management consultants, professors, and, increasingly, in the fields of journalism, entertainment, and information processing.

Members of the Meritocratic Upper Class have a distinctive taste in clothing, cars, architecture, books, movies, and food. Because it changes regularly I don't want to try to pin it down too precisely. As a general rule, meritocrats prefer things that can be described with words like "authentic" or "understated" or quality" or old," so long as they aren't seedy; they also have a weakness for well-designed hightech stuff. They make a lot of money but don't accumulate "fortunes" in the manner of members of the Protestant Establishment in its great days. Partly for this reason, and partly because they've had to run a gauntlet to get where they are, meritocrats tend to feel somewhat aggrieved: For example, they very often complain about "stress" and feel that they don't live as well as they deserve to and that their taxes are too high.

While they know they can't be absolutely certain of passing on their status to their children, their main focus in childrearing is trying to maximize the odds of their kids' success by stressing education and the development of the psychological tools necessary for high achievement. One day -after novelists and filmmakers of high stature memorably depict its culture-the distinctiveness of this class will be obvious, but it apparently isn't yet.

Perhaps it will help define the Meritocratic Upper Class more clearly if I mention two other classes that also play a part in running the country but are quite different. I'll call them "Lifers" and "Talent." Lifers are people who, after completing their education, join large organizations-the military, corporations, the civil service-and spend their lives slowly rising through the ranks of management until, after many winnowings out, a few of them briefly attain great power. The Talent class includes salesmen, entertainers, athletes, entrepreneurs, and specialists in arcane financial fields like currency trading-they're people who perform (and are rewarded) at a high level in fields where output can be precisely measured, and who therefore don't need formal credentials.

Because the principle of risk reduction is at the top of meritocrats' minds as they choose careers, they tend to shun the Lifer and Talent tracks: In both, only a tiny percentage of those who enter will get to become big shots, while in the professions the odds are a lot shorter. (On the Talent track, even if you make it, you can become washed up later.) Also, in the case of the Lifer track, meritocrats stay away because over the last generation they've developed a contempt for organizational life, and their dream of success is now symbolized by those magazine ads in which the guy is sitting alone on a mountaintop with his notebook computer. As for the Talent track, it's stylistically too vulgar and showy for most meritocrats, whose tastes tend to be muted as a kind of tribute to the WASPs they displaced from power.

Dialectical elitism

Anyone who has spent time around the Meritocratic Upper Class knows that it believes success in America is apportioned on a moral basis. Baltzell doesn't quite see this-he seems to think of meritocracy as being inherently heartless and amoral, rather than as a profoundly fair way of equalizing opportunity and then rewarding the most deserving and hardest working, which is the view of most meritocrats. On the other hand, he reminds us of something we've now completely forgotten, which is that the Protestant Establishment believed that it was apportioning success in a profoundly fair way, rather than simply reserving all the goodies for Episcopalians who happened to have been born in the right hospital beds-it felt itself to be evaluating and rewarding people on the basis of, in Baltzell's words, "character and moral standards." Indeed, within its strictly limited eligibility pool, the Protestant Establishment usually did confer the best positions on people who combined talent, diligence, and decency.

The best-known victims of the Protestant Establishment's way of making personnel decisions were Jews, who, when the top jobs were being handed out, always seemed to be disqualified on the grounds of their shortcomings in the "character and moral standards" department-they were too ambitious, too pushy, insufficiently genteel. (There were exceptions to this rule, but they were usually German Jews, who very often quietly shared the Protestant Establishment's view of their co-religionists from Eastern Europe.) The reaction to this among Jews was to doubt the good intentions of the criterion. It was well known that, as Baltzell readily admits, instinctive anti-semitism was one of the Protestant Establishment's chief vices: Was it really plausible, then, that there were any WASPs who actually believed in "character and moral standards" as something that wasn't synonymous with "different from the way Jews are, culturally"? The fight to replace the Protestant Establishment's standard with a meritocratic one based on academic performance and aptitude-test results was one that Jews joined in wholeheartedly, because they believed that the "character and moral standards" test was prejudiced, and the meritocratic measurements inherently fair. So what Baltzell saw as the abandonment of moral standards by universities and employers, most Jews saw as the adoption of moral standards. The rise of the meritocracy was for Baltzell what the rise of the plutocracy was for Henry Adams: He couldn't see any good in it.

Today the struggle over affirmative action and multiculturalism has a similar structure. What Jews (now joined by Asians) see as a personnel system in keeping with the highest ideals of American society, many of the post-World War II wave of ethnic new arrivals in metropolitan America, notably blacks, see as a way of rigging the race so that only people born in fortunate circumstances can win it. The reason these issues stir up such strong passions is that universities, in addition to educating people, have become the most reliable distributors of success in America; decisions about admissions and hiring are decisions about who gets to be in the establishment. The elite universities realize this full well and have been brilliant at hedging their bets during the current American power struggle. The Protestant Establishment still has disproportionate power in the Ivy League, partly owing to its astute use of its capital to make gifts to alma mater in return for slightly cased admissions standards for its children; the meritocrats are essentially in the catbird's seat; and the universities are also careful to make special efforts to include people of color," the new claimants to membership in the ruling class.

The advocates of affirmative action (and opponents of the meritocracy as it's now run) are engaging, then, in a time-honored battle: the struggle of rising ethnic groups to revise the personnel system in such a way that it will reward more of them. Although this process takes place under the banner of the Left, it can be justified on conservative, de Tocquevillian grounds: Inclusion is the best means of self-preservation for the Meritocratic Upper Class, and changes in the composition of the elite almost always involve altering the standard of admission. Unfortunately, the case for affirmative action is usually made in a rhetoric of fairer distribution of outcomes, rather than of equalization of opportunity; America is much more sold on the latter than the former. It is still worth asking Baltzell's question about the Meritocratic Upper Class, however: Fair, open, and efficient though it may consider itself to be, is it in fact on its way to becoming a caste, and weakening the country through the tenacity of its hold on power?

Ivy League isolationists

In favor of the Meritocratic Upper Class, it can be said that it is not nearly as prejudiced and cosseted as the Protestant Establishment was. Its social life is carried out in restaurants more than in private clubs (and to the extent that private clubs are still important, they're the more meritocratic ones, like the Century in New York and the Cosmos in Washington); some of its children go to public schools (though only in the suburbs, and even there, the number is probably decreasing); and it isn't mono-ethnic. Access to it is probably more open than access to the Protestant Establishment was, and its children's ultimate place in life is determined at birth to a lesser extent. On the other hand, at this fairly early point in its history, the Meritocratic Upper Class is more Darwinian, more convinced of its own superiority, than the Protestant Establishment was-the meritocrats made it by running the educational gauntlet and therefore qualify as self-made, don't they? Also, the Meritocratic Upper Class is fairly isolated from the rest of the country, and becoming more so. Many of its members, as Robert Reich has observed, have engineered an Ayn Randian exodus from any involvement with the public sector, through the use of security guards, private schools, and Federal Express. They don't serve in the military. Their taxes have been cut while everyone else's have gone up. They mostly live in enclaves in only a couple of small slices of the country. Because of their taste in way of life, they have very little spare time or money. All this breeds a lack of familiarity, empathy, concern, and responsibility with respect to everybody else.

Another flaw of the Meritocratic Upper Class is that it is concentrated in careers that don't promote economic productivity. Even its members who go into business are usually advisers and transaction-arrangers, not managers or entrepreneurs, who tend to come instead from the Lifer and Talent classes, respectively. To the extent that the Meritocratic Upper Class really does replenish its ranks by seeking out the talented from every nook and cranny of the country and bringing them together in the best universities, it then substantially wastes the talent by channeling it so heavily into the professions. Because of the meritocrats' avoidance of the Lifer track, government service, which is an acceptable career path for graduates of elite European universities, doesn't attract the Meritocratic Upper Class, and neither do big corporations.

With any established upper class-especially if it becomes a caste-there is a danger that it will use its power to protect those aspects of the society from which it derives its position. In America today, this would mean keeping an excessive share of our resources tied up in the legal, medical, and financial worlds, while business and government wither.

Class dismissed

Even for those who don't believe there should be a coherent, quasi-hereditary upper class of any kind, rectifying the shortcomings of the Meritocratic Upper Class should be seen as a noble cause, since to do so would be to make the Meritocratic Upper Class less coherent and less quasi-hereditary. Its isolation is the easiest of its problems to address, at least partially, because instituting a compulsory national service would help so much. The problem of restricted access to the class could be solved in part by trying hard to find ways to make big personnel decisions later in life and on the basis of performance rather than credentials. Lifer and Talent venues like the military, the corporate world, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley tend to have more varied leadership groups than do the meritocratically controlled professions, because they don't have to decide who makes it and who doesn't before the age of 30, when inherited advantages are at the peak of their potency. If we can move the professions in this direction, it will help solve the Meritocratic Upper Class's economic productivity problem, too: If a six-figure income were no longer virtually assured for everyone who enters an elite law school or medical school, and became instead merely a possibility, then we'd immediately stop seeing more than half the graduates of our best colleges becoming doctors and lawyers.

All this would certainly help stave off the Meritocratic Upper Class's metamorphosis into a caste-and it might even, dream of dreams, broaden access so much that the country would be well led by an ever-changing group of people who were not members of a discernible class, or establishment, at all.
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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