Was the WASP Establishment Better?

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Was the country better off when WASPs ran it? That's the question lurking within David Brooks's Friday New York Times column. Though he's careful to say he's not advocating a return, Brooks sees disadvantages to displacing the old elite in exchange for today's meritocratic elite. This is partly because "meritocracy," Brooks argues, "is based on an overly narrow definition of talent." Meritocracy also leads to its own kind of stratification, with bankers marrying bankers and academics marrying academics. At the same time, "solidarity" among today's "leadership class" has weakened, and the meritocratic elite have have moved away from the "long-term thinking" enabled by generations of inherited wealth.

Brooks shies away from concluding with any hard advice on where to go from here. That's been left to Patrick Deneen, a blogger at Front Porch Republic who says we need to confront "placelessness, deracination, atemporality and selfishness" head-on: we need "a different way of being in the world." Another blogger, Samuel Goldman of Commentary, retorts that "the suggestion that we can simply choose our way of being in the world is too existentialist for my taste." Instead, "if we're to restore any of the old humanity, it must be with the intellectual and cultural materials we've been given historically," while retaining our gains in terms of social justice. Meanwhile, Chris Lehmann at The Awl unreservedly trashes Brooks's argument. He argues "ghastly inequalities" persist, and Brooks pining for the Boston Brahmins will only steal momentum from more important causes.

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