On George H.W. Bush, Ross Douthat, and the fictions of conservatism

The problem with the overarching theme of Douthat’s piece is that it is wrong. It is not just a little wrong, but confidently and arrogantly and self-assuredly wrong. Douthat takes it as certain that WASP is synonymous with competent and competent is synonymous with the upper crust, and that faith, of the specific sort that our leaders are forever dancing over like waterbugs scuttling over a pond without breaking the water’s surface tension, produces better results than secularism because it just does. There is no evidence for any of this—it is hokum.

As a central premise, the notion that the WASP era was the last competent era of government, and George H.W. Bush its last stalwart, makes a hash of history; and the notion that the nation trusted its government more during periods of that past era, whether it be the one of Jim Crow or civil rights battles, say, or the one that saw American soldiers sent to Korea or to Vietnam, because by God we could all agree they knew what they were doing, is true only to the extent that you whittle away all the rabble-rousers that most emphatically did not think those things. More to the point, the notion that the stuff Douthat and others wistfully mourn the loss of, things like noblesse oblige, and competent leadership, and the sort of basic decency that can allow you to glide through public forums without most of the audience fantasizing about punching you square in the face, was lost because of meritocracy or diversity or the secular is not just without evidence, but also bigoted in its premise.

There was a sense of public duty, Douthat suggests, back when women were at home, white protestant men were in power, and individuals sporting z‘s somewhere in their names were few and far between in the top schools. The downfall of that sense must therefore have been, purely as coincidence, due to the same people that make New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat upset in every other setting, the (ticks down the list) Meritocrats, and the Diverse, and the Secularists.

Nonsense. It was the WASPs that killed those things. It was the WASPs of conservative monument-building that killed those things dead, without any help from the common rabble, and that is even if you accept the premise that any of it was “better” in the before times, rather than just “better” because those that objected would get their comeuppance at the business end of a water cannon. It was George Herbert Walker Bush, the last American aristocrat, who helped the upper caste discard unpleasantries like noblesse oblige in favor of a new, more brutish era of I’ve got mine, and you’ve got nothing. It did not happen because we began letting the Ethnic People into our Harvards.

If America rebelled against sending its sons and daughters to war, a generation after George Bush had willingly volunteered himself, it was because America was infinitely more skeptical of the WASP-promoted, WASP-planned Vietnam conflict as worthy of bloodshed than they were of the battles against Nazis or those that killed Americans at Pearl Harbor. And it was the WASPs of America who were both granted sweeping exemptions from bearing the cost of the new wars and who eagerly, and frantically, sought them.

If America began to lose faith in government as force for good, or as guardian of top knowledge, and top architect of our grandest national plans, it was because Ronald Reagan and his then-sidekick, in an obsessive effort to relieve the true American aristocracy of tax burdens that their parents could pay willingly, but they themselves chafed bitterly at, stood on public stages and insisted that government was not good, and government was not competent, and government could not be the force behind moon landings and megaprojects, both civic and scientific, or pave the roads or deliver the mail or do the slightest bit of anything else.

It was George Bush, patriot, who went from objecting to notions of unshackling the rich from their obligations as nonsensical voodoo economics to championing the same, even as the sweeping negative effects became apparent.

It was Bill Clinton who attempted to return the federal budget to something resembling competence again; it was the WASPs, and in particular George, son of George, and the same conservative aristocracy that met those attempts with tantrumming outrage. It is not the government’s money, the younger Bush and his aristocratic underlings bellowed in response to the dangers of a plan to whittle away at deficits. It is your money! And with that, they cut taxes on the WASP aristocracy still more steeply.

It was Nixon who demonstrated that our elites were self-obsessed and corrupt. It was Reagan and his allies who made it clear that the laws the little people might live by, the laws the little people assumed to be sacrosanct, were little more than passing irritants to the governing upper class. And it was Ford and Bush who made clear that consequences for criminality among the upper class were a wound that, according to the upper class, could not be suffered lest it bring all of America down around us. It was the would-be aristocrats that sang the praises of imperialism and interventionism, and would-be aristocrats that botched each such attempt at the expense of other people’s children. It was the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Arabists and China hands and their self-self-evident expertise who wrote white papers and appeared on television shows to explain the Diverse portions of the world to us all, and how the natives would, in the end, celebrate our carpet-bombings and greet us as their white Protestant liberators.

The Diverse and the Secular were not prominent in those decisions. The Diverse and the Secular were not invited onto those television shows. Presuming that faith in government eroded because the Diverse showed up, uninvited and with too many consonants, or that governmental competence dwindled not because of white Protestant demands to sever the federal arteries and let each program bleed out in agonizing public fashion, but instead because the public sphere began to see churchgoers and non-churchgoers intermingle in an unhealthy manner, is not an argument. It is not sincere.

Douthat knows the inherent absurdity of the premise that diversity made a mess of these things, and that the old guard, the very ones who did all this, would have found a way to set things right. He knows because he massages the hell out of the argument, shoring it up with timbers of no-true-Scotsmanism and other tropes in an effort to redefine each good and each ill to be precisely what he needs it to mean in order to balance the whole thing upright.

By diverse, he means not just the Ethnics, but the “baby boomers storming the universities, all that demographic change sweeping away white Protestant America.” For the collapse of WASP authority, he blames WASPs themselves, but more for their presumption that “the emerging secular meritocracy would be morally and intellectually superior to their own style of elite” than for being not a third as clever or as competent in governance as the members of their class-given New York Times editorial positions were forever asserting.

And by WASP itself, he means not White, Anglo-Saxon or Protestant, but the general whiff of virtuousness that includes “Jews and Catholics [who] imitated WASP habits in the 1940s and 1950s” and their “admirable influence” in “figures as different as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.”

There is something off, in that inimitable conservative way, about the casual inclusion of Barack Obama as honorary virtuous white man, or positing the polite public decency of the Mormon fellow as evidence of the historic influence of his Protestant betters. But from this we can glean that what Douthat means by WASP is “virtuousness,” and what he means by not-WASP is a lack of that, and the rest of the details do not particularly matter. You are a WASP or a successor if you are virtuous, decent, or have a sense of public duty, regardless of the White, the Anglo-Saxon, or the Protestant part. You are not a WASP if you lack those virtues, because you are just not.

And that, and nothing else, is the extent of the argument. When Douthat mumbles about the dangers of meritocracy, he sets it against the alternative of an elitist ruling class that is agreeably put to the task whether it shows merits or not. When Douthat grumbles, opaquely but at length, about diversity, it revolves around a particular grievance at the sort of people being let into Harvard these days. It is not that Douthat is recommending bigotry, mind you; it is just that the diversity should have been accomplished by the elites, according to the timeframe and particulars they themselves might have agreed upon.

[I]t’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.”

It is not that there are too many blacks and Jews and Catholics and Hispanics (and women) in our elite schools these days, mind you, but would it not have been better if the elites themselves picked which blacks, Jews, Catholics, and Hispanics (and women) they felt would best represent the aristocracy, rather than having such candidates foisted upon them?

And it is not that Douthat or other conservatives are bitterly, self-consciously resentful of a meritocracy in which academic achievement is valued over family name and family fortune, but Goddamn It, would it not have been better if the old families had stood firm? “[A] WASP establishment that couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard was never likely to maintain its hold on a mass political organization like the G.O.P.” Douthat laments, a serious statement printed in the serious opinion pages of one of the pre-eminent papers of today, and surely a demonstration that whatever other havoc it has wreaked, we are in no apparent danger of meritocracy invading the nation’s op-ed pages in the foreseeable future.

The problem with allowing individuals from the masses to join the elite families on the basis of merit is, as near as we can decipher, that including the meritorious dilutes the elite and aristocratic bloodlines, which we are to take as a bad thing by definition. No longer can the dullard son of a wealthy family be assured a lifetime post in the ranks of the elite by virtue of birth if there is a danger that that legacy slot might instead be filled by one of the blacks, Jews, Catholics, or Hispanics (or women) who have proven themselves, via leadership and academic rigor, the dullard’s better. It is … diluting. It is a haphazard mixing of the classes in a way that, for some reason, they simply ought not to be mixed. It suggests that the whole premise of aristocracy, of a ruling class that is by definition more capable than the rest of you lot, is a fiction that has been maintained solely through rigorous exclusion of everyone else.

If the meritorious among the diverse can waltz into a classroom and achieve success equal to the chosen scions of the elite Old Guard, after all, that would give the whole game away. It would make the Old Guard look a bit less like our supercompetent governing betters, and a bit more like inbred royals peeking out from fortified homes and wondering who among the lower ranks might someday put a dagger to their throats.

My regret here is that, by taking Douthat’s commentary on Bushian merits seriously, I am implying that it is weighty. It is not. On the contrary, it is petty. It is agonizingly petty. Douthat’s thesis is that George H.W. Bush was of a past better class, a past better time of noble patricians, of faith and white-upper-class competence that collapsed conspicuously upon the end of Jim Crow and the new inclusion of the meritorious, the diverse, and the not-as-faithful. There is not a stick of truth to any of it, only the usual gauzy wistfulness upon which all of modern conservatism has perched itself, sans evidence, sans argument.

George H.W. Bush loved his country deeply, by all available evidence; he also acted as conspirator against it when that better suited his patrician instincts. Barack Obama led the government with class and competence; he almost certainly did not do so as paean to his past white betters. The wealthy class has always had noble sons who would go off to war of their own volition, and a much larger percentage of the poorer classes have always had the same; the upper classes have similarly forever housed relentlessly greedy criminals who have been willing to sabotage governance itself, and certainly any government program not of direct benefit to them personally, if doing so would gain them so much as a few thin dimes. The aristocracy of the “better” times of memory enforced their social status via actual violence against their own workers when necessary, and outright murder of the diverse as matter of course. The ranks of the WASP class include those whose piety was painted-on at best; if the faith of a member of the non-Protestant class is strong, it is not strong in homage or as monument to theoretical Protestant betters who had to teach them such things. They are not dogs or zoo animals, learning the rote behaviors of piety and dignity only as clever imitation of their upper-class keepers.

Douthat’s thesis is that the good points of George Bush, and none of the bad parts, are evidence that meritocracy is worse than aristocracy, diversity is worse than elitism, and secularism is bad for reasons that do not rate even a plausible attempt at explication. The Bush corpse is merely the base upon which the rest of the ornamental piffle is set.

The whole thing wraps up with an ode to aristocracy outright, and at length, just to make sure the nub of what Douthat is getting at is firmly stated without him having to fully commit to saying it himself. It is here we get to the crux of it, the central objection: that an aristocracy is, after all, either a necessity or an inevitability, but one that should admit only as many “worthy newcomers” as “is compatible with their sense of continuity.” Such things as “ethnic balance” or “geographic diversity” could be accomplished via the required engineering, admitting new blood as necessary while still achieving the agreeable end of excluding everyone else. Why? Because the aristocracy is a superior class, that is why. It needs to be superior; we on the outside of it need it to be superior.

The alternative brings us the Barack Obamas, competent and intellectual but off-putting to the white op-ed class that decides who and what is off-putting. The alternative is the bumblings of George Bush, as opposed to the patrician sensibilities of the other George Bush. The alternative is Diversity, and non-Protestants pretending to have faith equal to that of Protestants, worthy of the same respect. All of this is bad, and we know it is bad because Ross Douthat and other conservatives know in their hearts that it is bad, and because people with odd last names have been getting into Harvard, which is also bad.

It makes sense only if you accept, at face value, the premise that government before 1960 or so was good, and that it has gone to hell since then. It makes sense only if George Bush was an honorable man, and those that followed him are not. It makes sense if you pretend that the reason for new government incompetence is the loss of a (white, conservative) aristocracy who would set all these things right, like they did before the Troubles, and is not in fact the product of an aristocratic ideological movement to force government into incompetent acts by starving it of the ability to do otherwise. It is mean, and petty, and unrelentingly bigoted in the way that fully half of all our opinion columns cannot help but be, and it is probably as good an epitaph to scrawl onto the George H.W. Bush version of conservatism as anything else.

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