Ross Douthat comments intelligently on just how much the passing of George H.W. Bush makes Americans regret that times have changed and the Old American Establishment that George Bush was a part of no longer rules America. Its “diverse” and meritocratic replacement possesses neither the same kind of class nor the same legitimacy.
The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bushâ€™s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.
But two of the more critical takes on Bush nostalgia got closer to the heart of what was being mourned, in distant hindsight, with his death. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart described the elder Bush as the last president deemed â€œlegitimateâ€ by both of our countryâ€™s warring tribes â€” before the age of presidential sex scandals, plurality-winning and popular-vote-losing chief executives, and white resentment of the first black president. Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described â€œthe subtextâ€ of Bush nostalgia as a â€œfondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it werenâ€™t.â€
I think you can usefully combine these takes, and describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesnâ€™t really any more â€” a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs â€” because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well. …
However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.
Not only that, but you even end up with an elite that literally uses the same strategy of exclusion that WASPs once used against Jews to preserve its particular definition of diversity from high-achieving Asians â€” with the only difference being that our elite is more determined to deceive itself about how and why itâ€™s discriminating.
So if some of the elder Bushâ€™s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishmentâ€™s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion â€” and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.
Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going â€” a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country.
The WASP virtues also included a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety â€” a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white manâ€™s burden racism but also sometimes transcended it, because for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of todayâ€™s shallow multiculturalists.
And somehow the combination of pious obligation joined to cosmopolitanism gave the old establishment a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship â€” one that from the late-19th century through the middle of the 1960s was arguably unmatched among the various imperial elites with whom our establishment contended, and that certainly hasnâ€™t been matched by our feckless leaders in the years since George H.W. Bush went down to political defeat.
So as an American in the old dispensation, you didnâ€™t have to like the establishment â€” and certainly its members were often eminently hateable â€” to prefer their leadership to many of the possible alternatives. And as an American today, you donâ€™t have to miss everything about the WASPs, or particularly like their remaining heirs, to feel nostalgic for their competence.