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Rediscovering E. Digby Baltzell’s Sociology of Elites

With increasing income inequality and social stratification remi­niscent of the Gilded Age, talk of an “establishment” has re­turned to our political discourse. As in the past, the word is typically used as a pejorative describing an incumbent power structure that needs to be overturned.

Yet today’s sociopolitical regime is vastly different from the establishment that ruled a century ago, the so-called WASP or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. With that establishment most­ly gone from living memory, its chroniclers and scholars have largely faded from view, as well. That is unfortunate, because in some ways the travails of America’s current elite and their institutions cannot be fully understood without comprehending the previous establishment’s history, sociology, self-conception, and demise.

Thus the work of E. Digby Baltzell is due for a rediscovery. Baltzell, the now nearly forgotten sociologist who popularized the term WASP, helps illuminate not only why the previous establishment fell but also many features of today’s world, such as the shattering of norms, declining trust in institutions, and the emergence of charismatic populist leaders like Donald Trump.

Baltzell, the leading authority on the American upper class, was among the WASPs’ fiercest critics. He turned “WASPs” into a house­hold term in a book savaging them for their exclusion of Jews (and also Catholics) from society’s upper ranks. Baltzell believed that an upper class must reflect the ethnic makeup of the country as a whole in order to retain legitimacy. By failing to assimilate worthy new men of non-Protestant ancestry into its ranks, he argued that the WASP upper class had devolved into a caste. If it stayed on this path, the ethnically closed nature of the upper class would eventually cause its ruin. He quoted Aristotle in arguing that “Revolution may also arise when persons of great ability, and second to none in their merits, are treated dishonorably by those who themselves enjoy the highest honors.”

Baltzell, however, did not desire the WASP establishment’s de­struction but rather its reform. Heavily influenced by Tocqueville, he saw the existence of an aristocratic upper-class establishment as a bulwark against atomization and tyranny in democratic society as well as an enforcer of sociopolitical norms. An expanded upper class that, among other things, would bring non-Protestants into its ranks was something he hoped to see emerge. That was not to be, however, and Baltzell then became the WASPs’ chronicler and eulogist as the establishment dissolved.

A Gentleman and a Scholar

Born in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, Edward Digby Baltzell was a scion of the upper class that later became the object of his study—though he was, as he put it, among the “impecunious genteel.” He attended boarding school at St. Paul’s, but unlike his classmates he was unable to attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale because his father had lost employment at an insurance company due to alcoholism. Instead, he enrolled at Penn, where he paid for at least part of his own schooling by doing odd jobs. He also played sports and was captain of the freshman tennis team. Sport and the gentlemanly honor code of sportsmanship continued to influence his work throughout his life.

After graduation, Baltzell served as a Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II. It was in the service, where he saw men from several ethnic backgrounds serving together in one body, that he first had the idea of an integrated upper class. Discharged from the Navy, he enrolled in graduate school in sociology at Columbia during that school’s heyday, with professors such as Robert Merton, Robert Lynd, and C. Wright Mills.

He sensed that his upper-class background made him unusual in the sociology field, which was dominated by people of middle-class origins. He also realized that the upper class was an understudied area. He considered the work of the most famous analyst of that class, Thorstein Veblen, inadequate. Veblen, in his view, had given the world the mistaken impression that the upper class was a “leisure class,” not the functional class that Baltzell knew from lived experience.1 Balztell did his dissertation on the American upper class, and for the rest of his life remained the world’s foremost authority on it.

Rejecting a Marxist framework, Baltzell’s theory of class draws heavily from Weber and Tocqueville. His analysis leans on several related but distinct concepts: elite, upper class, aristocracy, authority, establishment, and caste, each of which has a specific meaning in his work.

Baltzell’s elite is the collection of people who occupy the most senior positions in the key domains of society: politics, business, the professions, science, the arts, religion, etc. Elites are individuals and elite status is based on achieved position and accomplishment, not on criteria such as breeding, high intelligence, moral character, “worthi­ness,” and the like.

His upper class is a collection of extended families at the top of the social status hierarchy who are descended from elites of one or more generations past. (The merely wealthy are not themselves a genuine social class, and are generally assimilated into the upper class at a lag across multiple generations). Children of the upper class are born into a secure, ascribed status, freeing them from the type of status anxiety and competition faced by other classes.2 An upper class is generally raised together, intermarried, and maintains unique folkways such as its own vocabulary or accent. (You might say tomayto, but WASPs of the era when that famous song was written said tomahto.3) The elite, the wealthy, and the upper class are thus related but distinct entities, rarely distinguished today within America’s declassed elite.

Baltzell defines an aristocratic upper class as one which justifies its status and privileges through service to the nation, both by assuming leadership roles and by being open to assimilating the families of new men of merit among the elite. An aristocratic upper class will also be a bearer of traditional values and authority.

Authority is legitimized, institutionalized power. Baltzell uses the term to specifically refer to traditional or class authority that pro­duces a popular deference to upper class leadership and respect for American institutions. That is, not only did the WASPs take the lead in public affairs, but the public also saw that as a right and proper thing and followed willingly. He wrote, “Class authority is a mysteri­ous blend of sentiment and myth, of love and loyalty, and the graceful charm of quiet leadership. It is, above all, a product of faith bred of ancient traditions and long continuing organic relationships between the leaders and the led.”

An establishment exists when members of an upper class hold a significant share of the elite positions in key sectors and institutions, and when their traditional values are dominant among the elite and society at large. An establishment is thus a ruling class, but one which governs through authority as defined above, not by force or through authoritarian methods.

An upper class becomes a caste rather than an aristocracy when it retains its social status and privileges but ceases to either provide leadership or to assimilate new worthy men into its ranks, especially for reasons of race, religion, or ethnicity. Baltzell thus follows Tocqueville’s description of the French aristocracy as a caste.4

Finally, the term WASP itself refers specifically to the American upper class, not just anyone who is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Jimmy Carter was not a WASP. George H. W. Bush, the scion of an upper-class Connecticut family, was.5

Thus, beyond distinguishing between the elite, the wealthy, and the upper class, Balztell also provides a guide for distinguishing be­tween well-functioning (aristocratic) and poorly functioning (caste) upper classes, and between well-structured (establishment) and poorly structured (declassed) elites. Throughout his career, he explored these concepts in analyzing the history of the American upper class.

An upper-class establishment was necessary, in his view, to a healthy and functional society. Without it, a democracy would de­volve into bureaucratic despotism, corporate feudalism, charismatic Caesarism, or some other undesirable state as a result of runaway social atomization. This upper-class role came from its status and wealth, to be sure. But it also arose, crucially, from the fact that—in contrast to economically or functionally defined groupings, such as the working class or the elite—it was an actual social community. As Balztell’s student and collaborator Howard Schneiderman summarized it, the upper class maintained “a sense of gemeinschaft-like solidarity.” This social solidarity is what made it a counterweight to social atomization and an independent power base that could act as a check against excesses in business, government, or a charismatic populist leader.

This sense of community also created powerful mechanisms of social con­trol, including the threat of class ostracism, to enforce standards and norms of class behavior. Thus, a man who repeatedly violated the Anglo-American code of the gentleman (by, for example, cheating at sports) risked painful social exclusion. As a real-life example of the WASP social code, divorce was heavily frowned upon. Until the 1960s in Philadelphia, anyone who was divorced and remarried was automatically excluded from receiving an invitation to the socially exclusive Dancing Assembly, no matter who he or she was. In contrast to the upper class, the elite “is not a real group with normative standards of conduct . . . there is a code of honor among thieves and [Boston] Brahmins that does not exist among people listed in Who’s Who or Dun and Bradstreet’s Directory of Directors.

In their day, the WASPs were a culture-setting class for America, meaning that many of their moral and behavioral codes were norma­tive, or at least aspirational, for all classes. In addition, because WASPs themselves held a substantial number of key elite positions in the era of the Protestant establishment, this allowed them to enforce les règles du jeu and to ensure that not just the letter of the law but also the unwritten rules and norms were followed by all. As Schneiderman put it,

A moral force within the putatively amoral world of politics and power elites, an establishment of leaders drawn from upper‑class families, is the final protector of freedom in modern democratic societies. Such an establishment of political, busi­ness, cultural, religious, and educational leaders succeeds in its moral function when it sets, follows, and enforces rules of fair play in contests of power and opinion. . . . Hegemonic establishments give coherence to the social spheres of greatest con­test. They don’t eliminate conflict, but prevent it from ripping society apart. . . . The genius of an establishment lies in its capacity to put moral brakes on power by applying an upper‑class code of conduct and responsibility to it.

But an establishment was also something of a contradiction in America. The idea of hereditary upper-class leadership was at odds with the country’s egalitarian and democratic aspirations—even if, without it, a successful, healthy democracy was not possible in Baltzell’s view. The country needed to live within that tension to succeed, perhaps even to survive as a society. Baltzell wrote, “No nation can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.” Only a genuinely aristocratic upper class, one that both served the nation through leadership and was open to new men of merit, was capable of sustaining this tension. Such a class could bring needed balance and prevent “the atomization of society, fostered by the fanatic forces of egalitarian individualism,” which he saw as “the greatest threat to political freedom in our time.”

Yet Baltzell also saw that the upper class was failing to meet that challenge, causing an emerging leadership crisis for the country. Increasingly, the WASPs were choosing to withdraw rather than to lead, and they categorically refused to open a number of their institu­tions to those outside of their own ethno-religious community, excluding Jews, Catholics, and blacks. Whether the WASPs could have survived the forces converging on them is debatable, but Baltzell believed their decision to act as a caste rather than as an aristocracy doomed them. During the 1960s, the establishment fell, and the upper class devolved into a hollow shell that receded from the public consciousness. The consequences of that fall continue to bedevil America today.

Baltzell authored three major books on the American upper class, each looking at it through a different analytical lens. Philadelphia Gentlemen described the formation and socioeconomic history of the upper class. The Protestant Establishment detailed how the WASPs failed the openness test of aristocracy. And Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia examined the roots of the WASPs’ failure to meet the leadership test of aristocracy. Baltzell continued returning to this subject in essays until his death in 1996.

The Rise and Fall of a National Upper Class

Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, published in 1958 (also published in paperback under the title Ameri­can Business Aristocracy), looks at the upper class through the lens of material or economic forces. Baltzell traces the transformation of the American upper class from roughly 1870 to 1890, then analyzes the development of the newly formed national upper class until World War II.

Prior to this late nineteenth-century transition period, the Ameri­can upper class had been local and familial. Each city or state had its own local upper class with its own culture. A national upper class, to the extent that it existed, was a federation of local upper classes. These local upper classes were familial: social status was determined almost solely by the family a person belonged to. Cities were growing rapid­ly at this time but still comparatively small. Philadelphia, for example, only had 121,000 people in 1850. Boston only had about 25,000 peo­ple in 1800. Thus, there was no need for upper class directories like the Social Register. Everyone knew who was upper class.

The upper class consisted of the descendants of personages of historic importance such as colonial-era leaders like John Winthrop of Massachusetts, military leaders like Revolutionary War general John Cadwalader of Philadelphia, and wealthy businessmen in various stages of status assimilation. In many cases, such as the Adamses of Massachusetts or the Harrisons of Virginia, multiple generations of these families became men of eminence in politics and other fields. It was through this type of multigenerational service to and leadership of the nation that the upper class justified its continued existence.6

The structure of the upper class began to shift in the 1870s, driven by several changes in society. The Civil War created a more cohesive American union. Large-scale industrialization, urbanization, and im­migration began to remake the face of the country. As Irving Kristol noted, “In 1870, the United States was a land of small family-owned businesses. By 1905, the large, publicly-owned corporation dominated the economic scene.”7 These firms created vast new wealth, with Gilded Age fortunes dwarfing any that had come before. There were more millionaires in the Senate in 1910 than there had been in the whole country prior to the Civil War.

A more centralized economy and government led naturally to a more centralized upper class. In this new environment, new upper-class institutions came into being, many of them national in scope. These included the elite boarding school—the number of which grew significantly after the Civil War—the country club, the summer resort town, and genealogical societies. The 1880s were a seminal decade in institution building, witnessing the establishment of the first country club in Brookline, Massachusetts (1882), the Groton School (1884), and Tuxedo Park (1885). Of particular note was the publication of the first edition of the Social Register, a directory of upper-class families and their affiliations, for New York in 1887.

Some key upper-class institutions like Exeter Academy, Harvard, and certain clubs predated this period, but they took on increasing importance at this time. Baltzell documents how upper-class families in Philadelphia were more likely to have attended Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and less likely to have attended Penn as generations passed. Similarly, the founders of upper-class families had originally hailed from a variety of religious backgrounds but largely converged on Episcopalianism over time.

Acceptance and participation in these institutions came to eclipse family in importance for defining social status, though obviously being from the right family was also a principal factor in acceptance. “It was, then, one’s club and educational affiliations, rather than family positions and accomplishment alone,” Baltzell wrote, “which placed one in a secure establishment position in the corporate and urban world which America had become by the end of the nineteenth century.” This was particularly the case with schools and the city gentlemen’s clubs. As Baltzell noted, “The circulations of elites in America and the assimilation of new men of power and influence into the upper class takes place primarily through the medium of urban clubdom.” We see this multigenerational assimilation via clubdom in the case of the Rockefeller dynasty. John D. Rockefeller Sr. was a member of the Union League Club of New York, Rockefeller Jr. a member of the more prestigious University Club, and Rockefeller III a member of the most exclusive Knickerbocker Club.

During the late nineteenth century, the upper class also began migrating to the suburbs or outlying neighborhoods. Where once the elite of Philadelphia had lived in Rittenhouse Square, they subsequently moved to places like Chestnut Hill and the Main Line.

Thus the life of a Philadelphia WASP might go something like this: He would start out being raised in Chestnut Hill, proceed through high school at a local elite day school like Episcopal Academy or a boarding school like St. Mark’s, then move on to college at Princeton, where he would join an exclusive dining club like the Ivy. Returning to Philadelphia, he would live in Ardmore, join a prestigious firm such as Drexel and Company or a family enterprise, assume membership in a city club like the Philadelphia or Rittenhouse Club, and be engaged in various charitable endeavors. He would play tennis at the Merion Cricket Club, attend annual Assembly dances, and spend summers in Cape May. He probably met his wife at her debutante, and would proceed to have a larger-than-average number of children with her, staying together for life. Their children would in turn marry the children of other upper-class families or the children of newly minted wealth as a means of assimilating them into the upper class.

Having chronicled this shift from a local and familial to a national and associational upper class, along with describing its social and institutional life, Baltzell observed several troubling developments that by 1940 were casting a cloud over the future of the WASPs. One was the managerial revolution.8 The country was shifting from a bourgeois (laissez-faire family firms) to a managerial (large publicly traded corporations interlinked with an expanded state) economy, run by professional managers rather than entrepreneurs. WASP heirs increasingly became trust funders rather than business runners. The public sector underwent a similar shift. Financial crises would hence­forth be managed by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury rather than by J. P. Morgan and his associates. This shift eroded upper-class clout.

America had also experienced ethnic and religious diversification during the waves of mass immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contrary to contemporary myth, America had been overwhelmingly British during the nearly three hundred years from its settlement up until the late nineteenth century. But as that changed, the upper class continued to reflect the old rather than the new demography and actually became more exclusively WASP during this time. In fact, the development of national upper-class institutions in this era can be a seen as a caste reaction to demographic rupture. This unrepresentativeness of the upper class undermined its long-term legitimacy.

Just as they had begun turning away from running historic family firms in favor of coupon clipping, the upper class was also increasingly not taking up the other leadership roles in society necessary to justify its position. Baltzell specifically contrasts the American WASPs with the British upper class, which did continue to embrace public leadership. While the American boarding schools were modeled on British public schools, the latter produced far more civic leaders and statesmen than the former, with some notable exceptions like Frank­lin D. Roosevelt (Groton School).

Finally, nationalization had disconnected the upper class from their local communities, while at the same time suburbanization had disconnected them from the other social classes that they had previously rubbed elbows with in the city center. This left them ill-equipped to lead either nationally or locally.

In Baltzell’s account, the heyday of the nationalized WASP upper class only lasted from 1880 or ’90 to around 1930—a mere forty to fifty years.

From Class to Caste

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America was published in 1964—the manuscript was submitted just weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination—and looks at the upper class through a moral lens, focusing on WASP bigotry towards non-Protestants and especially Jews. While this was Baltzell’s most famous book at the time it was written, today it is doubly anachronistic. The Protestant establishment is no more, and the anti-Semitism of the kind Baltzell described has all but disappeared. Anti-Semitism, in fact, has become one of society’s most powerful taboos.

Baltzell shows that anti-Semitism was not a major force in America until the 1880s. Prior to that time, wealthy and accomplished Jews were welcome and could be assimilated into the highest ranks of society. He notes that two Jews were charter subscribers to Philadelphia’s Dancing Assembly, America’s oldest dance organization found­ed in 1749 and representing one of the peaks of Philadelphia society. Jews were welcome as members of the Philadelphia Club, the city’s most prestigious, and a Jewish member even served as acting president of the club for a time. The children of the Jewish elite often intermarried with Christians and even fully assimilated through con­version to Christianity. During this time, anti-Semitism was only “sporadic and idiosyncratic.”

This acceptance of Jews was during the period in which the American upper class was local and familial. Anti-Semitism grew as the upper class was becoming more national and associational, and the demographics of the country were rapidly changing. Prior to this period there were only a small number of Jews in the country, and they were widely spread across America, with a presence in 173 com­munities spanning the continent from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Other ethnic communities were larger but still distinct minorities. Additionally, the Jewish community at that time was mostly of Sephardic or German origins, coming from the culturally advanced areas of Europe, and largely Americanized and assimilated.

The rapid industrialization and urbanization that created the Gilded Age fortunes and a national elite were fueled by massive waves of immigration from Europe. This included a large influx of peasant Jews from eastern Europe, as well as Catholics from backward areas like southern Italy. This migration radically transformed the size and composition of American cities. New York City’s population grew from 1.9 million in 1880 to 5.6 million in 1920, and from only 3 percent Jewish to 30 percent Jewish during that time.

It was in this environment that the WASPs began to raise barriers around themselves. The late nineteenth century was the era in which genealogical societies began to flourish; this period saw the founding of such organizations as the Sons of the American Revolution (1889) designed to burnish old stock pedigrees. Jews found themselves ex­cluded from the country clubs and resorts that emerged at this time, as well as from prestigious institutions like city clubs at which they’d once been welcome. This meant that Jewish fathers could see their sons denied membership to their own clubs. Over time, this development extended into a system similar to if not quite as extreme as the “one drop rule” for black ancestry. A Protestant with even a small amount of Jewish ancestry could find himself blackballed from cer­tain institutions on that account.9

Balztell did not believe that an all-Protestant club was wrong per se. If the members had no Jewish friends, it would be natural that there would not be Jews in the club. What he found appalling was that the Protestant upper class would live near, work with, dine with, befriend, and even sail with Jewish peers,10 but would not allow them to join their societies. He wrote, “There are few leaders in America today who do not have friends who have suffered indignities because of their Jewish origin. And most of them have remained bystanders while their friends, and even relatives, have been treated dishonor­ably.”

Social humiliations of this type are a powerful motivator in human affairs, as has long been known. But this social exclusion also had practical consequences. Significant business was transacted in city gentlemen’s clubs well into the postwar era. Membership in such clubs was part of climbing the corporate ladder. A Jew unable to join these prestigious clubs would find his career severely handicapped in many cases. Baltzell relates multiple examples of this. In one case, he notes that a Jew did manage to get appointed president of a company in Pittsburgh, which posed a local dilemma. The major firms in Pittsburgh had suites at the Duquesne Club and much of their important business took place there, but Jews were excluded from membership. The club decided that while it would not allow this CEO to become a member, it would make a special accommodation to allow him to use the company suite there.

If Philadelphia Gentlemen’s focus was on the development of the nationalized upper class, The Protestant Establishment’s was on that upper class at the precipice of a fall, and the various forces converging to create a crisis for the WASPs and American leadership generally. The book’s primary focus was on caste boundaries, and the increasing dissatisfaction of non-Protestants at being treated like second-class citizens after they had undergone significant assimilation and climbed the economic ladder to respectability.

But there were other problems as well. The transition from a majority rural to majority urban population around 1920 caused major social and political shifts. The Great Depression was a major crisis for the country. There was also a wider intellectual shift to a more naturalistic view of man, undermining traditional religious views and triggering profound shifts within the church itself as major Protestant denominations adopted a liberal theology that denied miracles and other key tenets of traditional Christianity. Social sci­ence began to move away from racialist ideas like social Darwinism, which treated WASP success as a sign it was a superior population. As generations turned over, heirs who were more removed from the creators of Gilded Age fortunes began to question their own class values and engage in reform efforts, with such divergent effects as the development of the Social Gospel and Settlement House movements. Eventually, the corporate community began to replace local and social community with the postwar “organization man.”

Each of these changes posed a unique challenge to the establishment, which by 1960 was well past its peak. But Baltzell saw the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as president as a hopeful sign that the WASP upper class might at last be ready for reform and renewal.

The Decline and Fall of the WASP Establishment

The establishment did not reform, and ultimately it collapsed without a fight during the crises of the 1960s. By 1970, Tom Wolfe could observe that “the Social Register’s annual shuffle, in which errant socialites, e.g., John Jacob Astor, are dropped from the Good Book, hardly even rates a yawn.”11

Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, published in 1979, seeks to understand what went wrong by examining the culture of the upper class. This is probably Baltzell’s most well-known and widely read book today, often seen as one of the all-time greatest works of urbanism.

A careful reader, however, will observe that Baltzell’s chief concern is not urbanism, or trying to understand why Philadelphia fell behind Boston economically or in prestige. Rather, Baltzell’s main focus is on diagnosing the crisis of leadership engulfing America in the 1960s and ’70s, which he had seen developing over the course of his entire career.

Baltzell observed that “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia are more alike in surface ways than any other two cities in America.” But this superficial similarity disguised deep differences between their cultures, resulting from two vastly different founding religious tradi­tions.

The Puritans were Calvinists, a highly intellectual strand of Protestant Christianity. Calvinism’s doctrines, such as that of elec­tion, promoted a strict and hierarchical view of authority, a deep respect for education, and a strong drive to achieve underpinned by a theol­ogy of vocation. Furthermore, because of the Puritans’ intolerance toward dissenting sects (including Quakers, who were rigorously persecuted, even executed), Boston was largely homogeneous in its early history.12 This promoted a shared set of values among all classes of society and an establishment possessed of traditional class authority.

Boston’s upper class came from families deeply rooted in the community through multiple generations of residence. They were encouraged to develop themselves (and their community) intellectually and economically, and took leadership positions in government and civic affairs. The validity of their leadership was in turn recognized by the other classes in the community. Boston’s upper class produced one of America’s greatest collections of statesmen, literary figures, scientists, and scholars. They invested heavily in public and community-wide institutions, with which they were deeply associated. The leaders of the city and state, for example, often attended Harvard, the country’s leading university since its founding as Ameri­ca’s first university. Boston residents were, and remain, extremely proud of their city. Even today, Massachusetts is America’s most educated state as measured by the share of the population with college degrees.

Philadelphia, by contrast, was founded by Quakers. Pennsylvania was a religious project but also a land speculation venture by William Penn. Penn himself spent little time in the colony, instead delegating leadership to others.

The Quakers who settled Pennsylvania were egalitarian, anti-hierarchical, and anti-intellectual. In contrast to the cold theology of Calvinism, Quakerism believed in the doctrine of “Inner Light” by which God guided man personally through the Holy Spirit within. This led to privileging experience over theology and valuing practical education over higher learning, of which they were skeptical. Quakers were also radical pacifists. This and other tenets of that faith led many to abandon Quakerism for Episcopalianism over time, especially dur­ing the Revolution, but Quaker values remained strong in Phila­delphia. Penn allowed non-Quakers to migrate to his colony, espe­cially Germans, who he believed held compatible beliefs, and from the start Pennsylvania was culturally pluralistic. But as it entered the era of the national, associational upper class, Philadelphia Society became extremely exclusive, even more so than Boston’s.

The Quaker elite and upper class, both in the United States and England, were often successful in business. They did not, however, take the lead in civic affairs. They ran their own sectarian schools but did not build up public education or public institutions to nearly the same extent as Massachusetts.

Like its most famous resident Benjamin Franklin (who was born in Boston), a large share of accomplished Philadelphians were originally from somewhere else. Philadelphia never achieved a record of literary or scientific achievements that compared with Boston’s, nor did it produce many first-rate statesmen at any level of government. Phila­delphia’s upper class became an almost purely business and social one with no class authority and limited involvement in civic affairs be­yond patronage of the arts.

For much of America’s history, the values of Boston were more dominant nationally. But over time, those of Philadelphia won out. Philadelphia’s anti-hierarchical egalitarianism was much more aligned with America’s democratic social currents, as was its anti-intellectual focus on practical knowledge and business success. As Baltzell ob­served, “Although America as a whole has been Puritan and Calvinist throughout most of its history, it has now moved—especially since the 1960s—far closer to the ideas of Quakerism.”13 In Baltzell’s view, this shift to Philadelphia’s Quaker-like values helps explain the de­cline in upper class leadership over time.

Aftershocks of the WASP Collapse

Baltzell would see the end of the establishment and the collapse of the upper class into an irrelevant rump as a significant underlying cause of many of today’s social maladies, such as the progressive collapse of norms in our political life. This is frequently bemoaned, often with a heavy dollop of blame heaped on one’s opponents, but it was an inevitable consequence of the destruction of an establishment whose values largely defined those norms and whose social cohesion allowed them to be enforced. As Baltzell observed, “What an establishment means is that a society is led by a class of men who act according to an agreed-upon code of manners. Certain things are not done.” Without an establishment, anything can, and ultimately will, be done in a country where “money talks, echoing in a moral vacuum.” Without class codes of conduct, only public scandal constrains, and often now not even that. He would see the loss of the establishment along with its class codes of behavior and social enforcement—not such presently popular notions as the weakening of strong political parties or the end of smoke-filled rooms—as decisive in the erosion of political norms. There is little prospect of recapturing a sense of political norms in the absence of the establishment that defined and enforced them.

This erosion of norms and standards goes beyond the political arena as well. Baltzell argued that “One of the major functions of an upper class is that of creating and perpetuating a set of traditional standards which carry authority and to which the rest of society as­pires.” In the absence of an upper-class establishment, those standards would inevitably decline. For instance, some conservatives bemoan the fact that men no longer behave as gentlemen. But our idea of a gentleman was defined by the Anglo-American upper class. When the values of this class were normative or aspirational in society, people sought to live up to them. With that class all but gone and now despised, their values are despised with them.

Many cultures, of course, have the concept of an upper-class gentleman. But our traditional American conception of the gentleman was quite different from, for instance, that of the French aristocracy that Tocqueville knew. One uniquely Anglo-American value was that of “fair play,” something that does not exist in the same sense in other cultures. In Sporting Gentlemen, a book on the history of tennis, Baltzell described how the French deliberately soaked their clay courts in Paris with water in order to disadvantage a British player, something an Englishman or American would have considered dis­honorable. Multiple other continental countries engaged in similar dodgy (to an American) practices.

Amateur and collegiate sport, Baltzell noted, in the past and even to some extent today, was a key transmitter of values like fair play. He told the story of a prisoner in England in the 1950s who informed on a fellow inmate who was plotting an escape because he planned to use a gun in the attempt, and using a firearm was “not cricket.” Baltzell wrote, “I have thought about how a class code of conduct, mythically developed on the playing fields of Eton before the Battle of Waterloo, could have penetrated the British social structure so deeply that it bound even an inmate of Britain’s maximum security prison in the second half of our increasingly anarchic century.”

While America was perhaps more freewheeling than England, the same codes once applied here as well. But that is less true, or perhaps not at all the case, today. The erosion of political norms is but one example of the decline of fair play, as people seek personal or partisan advantage wherever they can find it. America’s tradition of free speech, of letting everyone have his say in an open debate, was also in a sense a manifestation of that same value, and again is increasingly rejected. Cheating and gaming the system have always been present in America, but today they are practically an accepted way of life even at higher levels of society. For example, not only did seventy-three West Point students recently get caught cheating on exams, but they are largely being forgiven for doing so rather than expelled for violating the school’s honor code.14

While this prospect may be distressing to many older Americans, it seems likely that what remains of the ethic of fair play, in all domains of our society, will continue to erode away. A recent survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute found a steadily declining number of people who believed that “It’s more important to always follow the rules even if it means you may be less successful in life” across generations, and a rising number of people who explicitly believe “It’s more important to get ahead even if it means bending or breaking the rules from time to time.”15 Some of this may be stage-of-life related, but it’s more likely a secular trend that will profoundly affect the culture of the country, moving America ever further to­wards becoming a low-trust society.

The steady decline of trust in American institutions in recent decades is another example of this shift, and something also partially explained by the loss of an establishment. Baltzell keenly observed, “An informal institutionalization of an establishment is but an extension of institutionalization in general—that is, in all areas of social life. The lack of, or declining faith in, an establishment soon spills over into a lack of faith in, and antipathy toward, all institutions.”

And the loss of trust in institutions, in turn, helps explain the rise of conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories of history are a natural outgrowth of a rapidly declining faith in institutions in America.” Moreover, contrary to media obsession over such phenomena as QAnon and the various conspiracies emanating from it, it is the educated who are more likely to believe them. Baltzell wrote that after The Protestant Establishment was published, “conspiracy theo­ries of history have steadily risen among Americans, probably more among the educated classes than among the hardhats.” Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories are an early example. A more contemporary one is the belief that Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 presidential election.

Balztell also foresaw other touchstones of our contemporary era. The election of Donald Trump would not have surprised him. In the absence of an establishment, an atomized population falls easily under the spell of a charismatic populist. He wrote, “The absence of class authority inevitably leads to the rule of charismatic men on horsebacks, with their legions of personal followers.” The centrality of personal charisma, usually manifested through the mastery of TV and other media, has become part of our political landscape. But Trump represents a step beyond even this. He may be the first national figure in which his voters were followers of him personally, rather than of the standard bearer for a party or platform. There’s a good chance he won’t be the last such figure.

Baltzell would also have predicted our current elites’ increasing reliance on thinly disguised raw power to enforce their self-interested preferences, precisely because they do not meet his definition of an upper-class establishment. He observed, “Viable civilizations, are, almost literally, clothed in authority; and when the emperor’s clothes are removed his only recourse is the exercise of naked power.” When the legitimized, institutionalized authority of the establishment dis­appears, coercion is what remains. “Authority—a hated word in education, in politics, and in all areas of social life—has been more or less replaced by naked power veiled in manipulation and deceit if not downright fraud.”

And there is less ability for the people to resist that coercion in our atomized era. The upper-class establishment was an intermediary institution that could check or resist the power of corporations, the state, or a would-be Caesar. Baltzell argued, “A powerful, wealthy, yet declassed elite may be one of the greatest threats to freedom in modern American society. At the higher levels of corporate control, perhaps the existence of an upper class is a protection against the dangers of corporate feudalism.” And of government excess, he wrote that “Tocqueville would see the possible usefulness of dynasties like the du Ponts, as ‘secondary powers’ and guardians of freedom, in an age that has gone far beyond the Roosevelt revolution on the road towards the omnipotent state.” And rather than a free press, which Baltzell thought could only provide a demagogue like Trump with free publicity, “The final protector of freedom may well be a unified establishment from within which the leaders of at least two parties are chosen, who, in turn, compete for the people’s votes of confidence, from differing points of view and differing standards of judgment, yet both assuming the absolute necessity of using fair means in accusing their legitimate opponents of fallibility rather than treason.”

Our new environment, characterized by precisely the sort of atomized society, and the wealthy and powerful but declassed elite, that Baltzell feared, has led to just such a decline in practical freedom in the United States. Rather than political norms or standards of personal behavior or morals, we instead have constantly shifting and ever more coercively enforced ideological and policy lines from which no dissent or freedom of conscience is allowed, not to mention an ever more intrusive communications and surveillance infrastructure from which even the president of the United States can be removed at the discretion of a private company.16

Restructuring an Atomized Society and a Declassed Elite

The WASPs were undoubtedly a deeply flawed class. And Baltzell perhaps overstates their strengths. Social ostracism as a method of enforcing class standards sounds good in theory, but a number of WASPs like Alger Hiss17 betrayed their country to the Communists, apparently without class consequences.18 Baltzell followed his class code in declining to discuss specific instances of class ostracism, but with the result that he asks the reader to take his statements about this on faith.

Baltzell also puzzlingly never examined the inverse case of his explanation for WASP decline. That is, rather than because it was too closed off, the Protestant establishment might have fallen because it was too open. Baltzell claimed The Old Regime and the Revolution as a major inspiration, but one of Tocqueville’s key lessons in that book is that revolutions occur when reform is already underway and condi­tions are in fact improving. Non-Protestants had already achieved significant elite success in America, including in formerly WASP institutions like the Ivy League. The Supreme Court had already been opened to Jews and the presidency had been opened to Catholics just before the establishment’s collapse. Shortly after The Protestant Establishment was written, WASPs essentially surrendered control of many of their own institutions without a fight, something that is hard to square with any sort of passionate bigotry.

But perhaps it is doubtful the establishment could have survived in any case. Baltzell did not perceive the full implications of the managerial revolution or the rise of mass media (and the resulting shift from “society” to “celebrity”). Nor, perhaps, did he fully under­stand the consequences of the transition to a multiethnic society. This trifecta likely spelled the WASP establishment’s doom, whatever its own attitudes may have been.

Few people today mourn this establishment’s passing. But if today’s declassed elite lacks many of the WASPs’ defects, it possesses none of their virtues. One should not expect a society of honorableness, norms, fair play, institution building, and institutional competence—or even certain notions of freedom—in the absence of the class that created them in the first place. And indeed, we don’t.

The old establishment is dead and gone. America has retained a decreasing residual of its norms and institutions for quite some time, but they are progressively withering away. It was widely observed that the passing of George H. W. Bush in 2018 represented the end of the WASP lineage in public affairs.19 An upper-class establishment might possibly emerge again in future generations, but any such class would be radically different from what existed before. Baltzell himself wrote, “Perhaps it is best to forget about the WASP establishment and instead to cultivate an open but hierarchical society where all men aspire to be like Washington or Jefferson, rather than one in which all men must overtly ape the values of Everyman, all the while covertly coveting the shallow comforts of affluence and power.”

As Baltzell would have pointed out, our problems don’t stem from a deficiency of democracy but from a powerful yet declassed elite sitting atop an atomized society. For this reason, populism is not a solution. To correct its course, America will require a positive restructuring, reform, or even the replacement of the current elite, and some reduction in the level of social atomization.

What might cause a restructuring of the elite? While America’s elite appears strong at present, change or reform might result from external competition, such as geostrategic and ideological competition with China. Or it may come from some type of intra-elite conflict, perhaps between Silicon Valley and the East Coast media complex that wields immediate cultural power. It’s also possible that a crisis occurs that forces reform, similar to the crises of the Revolutionary era, the Civil War, and the Depression and World War II. Changes resulting from these or other forces, should they occur, might be bad as well as good. Perhaps the most optimistic short-term scenario is that competition from China forces the American elite to reinvest in building institutional competence.

As hard as elite reform may be, reducing social atomization is more difficult, and trends appear to be moving in the wrong direction. As Balztell ominously observed, “Every serious thinker from Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr to Hannah Arendt has seen the causal links between egalitarianism, individualism, and totalitarianism.”

But perhaps the answer may come from a more natural, organic adjustment over time. Baltzell said hopefully, “History never moves in one direction, and, as they say, the pendulum may swing back toward some sort of social order.” In the meantime, we’d do well to rediscover, and ponder, the implications of his work.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 1 (Spring 2021): 149–69.

1 Baltzell also suggests that Veblen’s ethnic status, as the child of Norwegian immigrants, may have created social marginalization and fueled resentment against the upper class.

2 Baltzell documented significant status competition and anxiety within the upper class, but this was different in character from that experienced by lower and middle classes trying to enter the upper class as well as from that of the arriviste.

3 “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” was written in 1937.

4 This is different from the Indian caste system. Interestingly, Baltzell says that his concept of caste makes an upper class unstable whereas India’s caste system has been extraordinarily stable.

5 To this day, the main Republican Party state event in Connecticut is named the Prescott Bush Dinner after George H. W. Bush’s father, a senator from that state.

6 The last prominent Adams, Charles Francis Adams IV, great-great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, a World War II naval officer, and former president of Raytheon, died in 1999, a mere twenty-two years ago.

7 Irving Kristol, “On Corporate Capitalism in America,” Public Interest no. 41 (Fall 1975): 124–41.

8 Julius Krein, “James Burnham’s Managerial Elite,” American Affairs 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 126–51.

9 A widely repeated if possibly apocryphal story has it that Barry Goldwater, half-Jewish but raised Episcopalian, said after being blackballed from an Arizona country club, “Since I’m only half-Jewish, can I join if I only play nine holes?”

10 J. P. Morgan once said, “You can do business with anyone, but only sail with a gentleman.” The WASPs thus recognized that their Jewish friends were gentlemen, but refused to officially accord them that status.

11 Tom Wolfe, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” New York Magazine, June 8, 1970.

12 Today, Boston remains by far the whitest very large metropolitan area in America.

13 As described in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (Oxford University Press, 1989), which looks at the folkways of four of the original British settler groups of the United States—the Puritans in Massachusetts, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Cavaliers in Virginia, and the Scots-Irish in the Appalachians—the Quakers are the only group remotely relatable to a contemporary American.

14 Mihir Zaveri and Dave Philipps, “Backlash over Leniency at West Point After 73 Cadets Are Accused of Cheating,” New York Times, December 23, 2020.

15 Daniel A. Cox, Karlyn Bowman, and Jacqueline Clemence, “Hopes and Challenges for Community and Civic Life: Perspectives from Indiana,” American Enterprise Institute, October 2020.

16 Regarding this shift, Baltzell observed, “In our post-1960s obsession with social justice among class, ethnic, and racial (as well as gender) categories, we have witnessed a steady decline in personal morality. Today, it is far worse to be accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-black, sexist, or elitist than to be known as a consummate liar or adulterer.”

17 Baltzell discusses the accusations against Hiss but treats them lightly, only acknowledging that Hiss was in fact guilty in a footnote in The Protestant Establishment.

18 Ethan Bronner, “Witching Hour; Rethinking McCarthyism, If Not McCarthy,” New York Times, October 18, 1998.

19 Individual WASPs like FBI director Christopher Wray remain active in public service, but no longer as representatives of a class or bearers of class authority and norms. It is notable that George H. W. Bush’s politically minded children consciously distanced themselves from any WASP affect. George W. Bush appeared as a folksy Texan and Evangelical Christian. Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism.

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