+“I’m not calling to revive WASP culture. Just to learn from it.” | The Washington Post | Fareed Zakaria | 12/06/18
“For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.
But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.”
The AXis-> Aristocracy Vs. Meritocracy
The only way to assess and then critique Fareed Zakaria’s analysis of the differences between the old American aristocracy and the new American meritocracy is to examine their track records.
By “old American aristocracy” I mean the people who ran or influenced American foreign policy, domestic politics, and finance from the end of World War II until about 1975. By “new American Meritocracy” I mean the people who have been running or influencing American foreign policy, domestic politics, and finance from about 1975 to the present. Which particular individuals belong to either group and whether other groups of elites (media, industrial, tech, etc.) should be considered are interesting discussions, but they would also slow down what’s supposed to be a quick and general analysis of a few broad historical trends.
It’s obvious that the old American aristocracy had a much better track record. It’s not even close, really. The old American aristocracy was in control during an unparalleled period of American ascendance. It presided over the greatest economic expansion ever, the creation of a massive and growing middle class, the spread of democracy to other parts of the globe, general peace in its spheres of influence, institutions such as the Marshall Plan, United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bretton Woods Monetary System, and the creation of “the liberal world order.”
And though this group of elites came close, they didn’t blow up the world.
However, determining just how much credit the old American aristocracy deserves for these developments is tricky. It’s very important to understand how “in the right place at the right time” they were. At the end of World War II and the beginning of their rise many modern industrialized economies were in ruins. Meanwhile, America was producing the largest percentage of global GDP. It enjoyed vast fossil fuel reserves and held most of the world’s gold. The dollar was on the verge of becoming the world’s reserve currency. America’s industrial might supported a strong social safety net, as well as an education and a chance for homeownership for most World War II veterans. Writing for Marketwatch, Howard Gold summarizes a level of American growth we can hardly imagine today: “Real GDP rose 169% in this period. Employment increased by 75% and manufacturing jobs by 30%, while per capita personal income almost doubled.”
The conditions for such staggering national power and prosperity were so naturally in place for “The Thirty Glorious Years” from 1946 to 1975 that it’s worth wondering if a bunch of chimps could’ve replaced the old American aristocracy and achieved similar success. (OK—let’s say a bunch of chimps and John von Neumann, probably the smartest man in the world at that time.)
By contrast, the period from 1975 onward has been poorly managed by the new American meritocracy. A (s)hit parade of their blunders and miscalculations includes: a globalization scheme that transferred American middle class wealth to the American upper class and the Chinese lower class; deregulating the financial sector in ways that brought on a Financial Crisis for which only one banker went to jail; eroding the social safety net (they even considered privatizing Social Security); killing fairness in media by deregulating telecoms; put more people in prison; bombed Yugoslavia though they stood by as Rwanda became a hellhole; implemented the Patriot Act and shredded fundamental aspects of personal privacy; went to war against Iraq though it had no weapons of mass destruction (there were no worldwide terrorist networks, either); and droned American citizens without due process.
Worse, the new American meritocracy has hardly ever admitted that any of these or other schemes (such as massive wealth inequality and crippling austerity measures) were poorly planned blunders and miscalculations, or just simply wrong, sometimes unethically so. Tony Blair dances around a real apology for Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War even after the Chilcot report exposed that war as the result of horrible lies.
Such behavior is common among the new American meritocracy for a very crucial reason. Any admission of truly flawed decision-making raises doubts about the meritocracy’s belief in itself as a true elite legitimized by talent, brains, and hard work. Even George H. W. Bush’s Andover/Yale nexus, aware that its place at the apex of American society was an accident of birth, was still capable of acknowledging mistakes and bad policies. But no one in the Clinton/Blair cohort, had he been in the elder Bush’s place in 1990 when it was clear that raising taxes was a must, would’ve admitted that his presidency was over because of a necessary but unpopular decision. Bill Clinton is still defending his Presidency, and Hillary Clinton is still making excuses for the worse Democratic Presidential campaign since 1988.
That said, it’s also true that the old American aristocracy left challenges for the next generation. The new American meritocracy had to deal with fallout from the end of the Vietnam War, an overhaul of American monetary policy, the birth of international terrorism, growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of America’s industrial age, China’s rise as a world power, and a growing dependence on other countries for oil. These issues were of a structural nature and likely inevitable stages in long, once successful processes.
Still, were the challenges of the end of The Thirty Glorious Years of such a degree of difficulty that we should therefore grade the new American meritocracy on a curve?
Something tells me that all the people who never fully recovered from the meritocracy’s recessions and financial crises, all the people who are living through punishing austerity schemes, all the people whose lives were ruined by the liberalization of global capital and financialization, and all the people who died or had their lives destroyed because of senseless and perpetual war would scream “No!”
And still, the new American meritocracy and their comrades in other limping democracies whimper about weakened belief in established values and norms as if no one told them their slick spin and crass gaslighting laid the groundwork a long time ago. They want us to believe that the millions who voted for Donald Trump, Brexit, and other authoritarian populists did so because these characters weakened our faith in tenets of Liberalism and modernity that go back 300 years. They do this because blame for incompetence and bad judgement must always be placed elsewhere. Never upon them. Otherwise, their special status as technocratic whizkids with the best experience and training is just another cynical con job providing cover for the latest and lamest power grab.
This cynicism is at the heart of my claim that “elite failure” isn’t a failure of technique or expertise. It’s an ideological failure, a systemic collapse of how the new American meritocracy and its global brethren think the world works. On the Left, globalization protests in the 1990s and anti-war protests in the 2000s were just the beginning, followed by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. On the Right, these breakouts of protest were followed by the rejection of Clintonism and the rise of Global Trumpism. What we’re living though now is the failure of failures, a failure that looks like business as usual to elites who dare not consider any alternative or the possibility that their time is short.
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