No More WASP “Establishment”
American political leadership today is more religiously diverse than ever before. This reflects a tectonic shift that has occurred in the last half-century, but received very little analysis. For all the evidence of stagnation, partisanship, and elitism in American politics, the top offices in the country have become more open to religious minorities than ever before. With Representative Paul Ryan’s selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate this year, the New York Times (8/14/12) observes “not one person in a group of top political jobs - the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of both parties, the Supreme Court justices, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader - is a white Protestant.” That’s correct: not a single white Protestant male in the presidential race, on the Supreme Court, or in the leadership of the House or the Senate!
This world was completely unimaginable for Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. They had each witnessed the deep anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of mainstream American institutions, including universities, corporations, government offices, and social clubs. They had seen how national voters rejected one of the most skilled politicians of early twentieth century America, Governor Alfred Smith of New York, in part because of his Catholic beliefs.
In 1956 two of the most prominent writers in the United States, sociologist C. Wright Mills and journalist Richard Rovere, wrote scathing books attacking the narrow-mindedness of American leaders. They blamed the racism, inequality, and Cold War militarism of American society on what Rovere called an “Establishment” of like-thinking White male Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) who shared schools, churches, families, and ideas. Brothers of the “Establishment” promoted one another and a vision of the United States that benefited their kind disproportionately, Rovere alleged. In even more radical words, Mills diagnosed the “Power Elite” as a cabal to make democracy and capitalism serve the few, not the many.
One can disagree with the tone of Rovere and Mills, but they had evidence on their side. American political leaders looked nothing like they do today. They were, almost without exception, WASPs in the 1950s. The real question was whether one was Presbyterian (Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles) or Episcopalian (Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson). John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the first Catholic president was indeed a breakthrough, but he continued to surround himself with figures from the traditional Protestant backgrounds.
Why did this matter? Historians have analyzed that question in depth. Some of the best scholars on the subject (including William Inboden, Andrew Preston, David Hollinger, Seth Jacobs, and Robert Dean) have shown that mainline Protestantism encouraged a sense of national mission in the postwar struggle against atheistic communism. Historians have also analyzed how religious faith informed international networks of aid and support. It mattered enormously to mainline Protestants that the Chinese Nationalists were Christian and the Chinese Communists were not.
The social and political upheavals of the 1960s discredited the WASP near-monopoly on political power in the United States. A new generation of well-educated and ambitious non-Protestant Americans asserted a right to rule. A more international non-Protestant group of figures pushed their way into power by talent, money, and selective patronage. That is the story of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, and Paul Wolfowitz - all of whom would have been excluded from political power in 1950s America. No one in Eisenhower’s America could have imagined a presidential contest between an African-American incumbent and a Mormon challenger, each of whom has Catholic running-mates.
The end of the WASP “Establishment” has meant a more open American political system. Many are still excluded and money often talks louder than talent. Nonetheless, we should take note of this tectonic opening, as well as the evidence of adaptability in the American political system, and think about ways to enhance these qualities for better policy-making in the future.
Can we imagine new ways to open the system for less-monied interests? Can we imagine new ways to incorporate other non-Protestant, non-Catholic, and non-Jewish perspectives that would enhance the effectiveness of American policies around the world? The United States is an evolving political experiment, and as James Madison predicted, the continual evolution of a pluralistic society is messy but necessary. All we can do is take inspiration from our recent past to push for more openness and change, not less. At their core, Americans are an “anti-Establishment” people.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.