The Death of the WASP

In Politico, one of their top posts of the day is “The Death of the WASP” by (ahem) Ben Schreckinger.

We all know that white anglo saxons (the earliest settlers of which were Protestants) are an evil, evil bunch.

And while his focus is on Yale-educated blueblood politicians as a class, remember, the decline in these folks is a corollary with the decline of white protestants in general.

There’s a relish to Schreckinger’s tone:

In a collapse slower but no less dramatic than that of the North American honey bee, the New England WASP has all but disappeared from its natural habitats—gone, almost, from the region’s 12 Senate seats, vanished from its six governors’ mansions…

It’s an ignoble end for a proud people. Once upon a time, climbing to the top of New England politics practically required membership in a mainline Protestant church, the remnants of an old shipping, banking or textile fortune, and your family’s name on either a nearby town or a building at the local Ivy League campus, preferably both (as in the Lowells, the namesakes of the Massachusetts municipality and the Harvard hall, among many other things). As Richard Brookhiser wrote in his 1990 book The Way of the WASP, “They wrote the rules; everyone else played by them.”

Writing of former MA governor Bill Weld:

Indeed, Weld’s reign may well have represented the high-water mark for WASP rule in New England. His political career came to an end in 1996 when he lost his bid to unseat incumbent Senator John Kerry, a Roman Catholic who nonetheless seems WASP-y through and through. But the “Kerry” moniker was actually an invention of his Austrian Jewish grandparents, who changed their name from “Kohn” and converted to Catholicism at the beginning of the 20th century. His irrepressible WASP-ness was inherited from his mother, a member of the Forbes family and a descendant of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Now, to liberal analysis of the WASP demise:

Should we be surprised it’s come to this for the WASP? Their dominance—a feature of New England politics since the Puritans established the region as a Protestant theocracy and began training their clergy at Harvard College—showed signs of cracking as early as the end of the 19th century, thanks to European immigration. Not long after, Bostonians were electing Irish Catholic mayors and the well-heeled newcomer families, like the Kennedys, were sending their kids to schools once reserved for the Yankees.

According to Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont who is preparing to present at a conference in Vienna on “the end of America’s political WASPocracy,” the 1952 Massachusetts Senate race, in which the Catholic John F. Kennedy ousted the WASP Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., was something of a turning point in the region. “It’s quintessential because it’s two Harvard guys going toe-to-toe,” said Nelson of the race. “Why is Kennedy more acceptable than some others? Because he has the credential that allows the transition to take place.” New money has been encroaching on old politics and mores in New England ever since (In the ’90s people even began bringing Hummers to Nantucket—like they’d never seen cobblestone streets before.)…

In New England, there are now more people of French or French Canadian descent than of English descent, not to mention Italians and Irish. Nationally, mainline Protestants make up only 18 percent of the population, according to Pew. For sure, mainline Protestants will not stop holding office in the U.S. and there are few tears to be shed for the seeming decline of well-heeled, white politicians of any stripe. But the fact that WASP families can no longer produce shoe-in senators and governors is emblematic of a shifting political landscape.

Since the Civil War era, when New England WASPs by-and-large supported abolition and opposed the power of the immigrant-heavy Democratic Party, they’ve been a Republican lot. But the national party has, of course, evolved away from the New England moderates. “For years, New Englanders elected moderate Republicans of well-born status,” says MacKay. “With the Republican Party being taken over by these old Confederacy people, there doesn’t seem to be any room.” That’s what former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, a WASP who left politics, concluded when he defected from the GOP in 2001. Chafee, after losing his Senate seat as Republican in 2006 and winning the governorship as an independent in 2010, became a Democrat last year.

In perhaps the most revealing paragraph, we see that suicidal impulse among whites in general, ceding their own marginalization without any resistance:

“It’s heartbreaking in a way,” says Birnbach, though not everyone is heartbroken. In 2010, taking note of the fact that the Supreme Court was on the brink of going from majority WASP to WASP-free in the space of five years, Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman praised the transition noting that the WASP ruling class had willfully sewn the seeds of its own destruction, letting Catholics, Jews and others into Ivy League schools and other powerful clubs, like the federal bench, if slowly, then ceding authority without violence. Indeed, the WASP-ocracy has wound down with stereotypical civility, says Garrison Nelson, the University of Vermont professor, who says that as far as political overlords go, New England’s WASPs had class. “They were polite and kind,” he told me. “And they didn’t thump each other.”

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