A Mild Defense of Ross Douthat

In three columns (one, two and three), conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, for the most part, merely repeats what has been empirically shown by social scientists and liberal journals for years: the aristocratic system based on bloodline, dominated by WASPs in the 19th and 20th centuries, has over the past half-century been gradually overthrown. Rising in its place is a class of meritocrats–individuals who, through the divinations of standardized tests and college degrees, breached the stone walls of elite institutions under the banner of a new golden rule: your capability, not your last name, should decide your station in society.

A nice sentiment, and one that has become central to our conception of democracy. But it is increasingly at odds with observable reality. “On the evidence we have,” Douthat writes, “the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition, and it forges an elite that has [the old aristocracy’s] vices (privilege, insularity, arrogance) without the sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige that WASPs at their best displayed.” This is from his second column, which acts more as a qualifier to the first column, which received a significant amount of attention, much of it negative, very little of it serious.

“Consider me a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who believes Ross Douthat is a massive, white supremacist tool who should not be offering his opinions for a living anywhere, let alone in the New York Times,” tweeted one critic, a representative sample of thousands of others. Jeet Heer at New Republic wrote a quick missive arguing we still live under WASPdom and implying that there is still not enough meritocracy in our ruling class. He points to growing inequality and slowing social mobility as proof that there’s still an old elite; he doesn’t consider the possibility that the meritocratic mechanisms of the new elite are precisely what are causing these worrisome trends.

Most of Douthat’s critics focused on his weakest points, e.g. that the WASPs demonstrated a “distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship.” Many critics very obviously didn’t understand what a WASP is. A WASP, despite it standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, is chiefly defined by what the acronym omits: class. This is why Bull Connor yesterday and Donald Trump today–despite both being white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (at least by upbringing)–are most definitely not WASPs. Yet Catholics like William F. Buckley, Jr. and John F. Kennedy were. Each letter of the acronym is, to varying extents, negotiable. What wasn’t negotiable was having a particular kind of education and, therefore, cultural values. (Donald Trump may have money, but the kid from Queens has the opposite of class. The queer atheist Gore Vidal had no college degree, but he attained for himself quite an education and became an exemplary of the old patrician class.)

The key piece of Douthat’s argument, and the one most critics struggled to competently argue against, is this: unlike today’s fledgling aristocracy, the old one knew what it was and owned up to it. It had a defined set of organizing values–and some of those values are worth keeping.

This, in an age of identitarian chauvinism, didn’t go over well with the infinitely self-regarding Twittertariat. Much of which, ironically, is populated by new aristocrats.  

In some ways, the vitriolic reaction to Douthat’s columns vindicated its target. This response is expected from a class that is determined to deny its own existence. This response is expected from a class woefully miseducated and more attracted to moral posturing and sloganeering than to pondering the possibility that the most effective political radicals have been the ones most steeped in the same values today’s Twatters scoff at.

“I want to make it clear that the origins of my work and my thoughts are to be found in Western European literature, Western European history, and Western European thought.” Hardly the words of a progressive bogeyman, they are C.L.R James’s, the 20th century black Marxist intellectual, political activist, and one the greatest historians to grace the English-speaking world. In a brilliant essay about James and his skepticism of what we would today call identity politics, Benjamin Schwarz writes:

As James happily acknowledged, the West’s — really, Britain’s — influence on him was at least as much ethical as intellectual … Those values that his [elite British boarding school] inculcated in him, especially on the cricket pitch, allowed him to attain “a mastery over my own character.”

James himself described that character as “a discipline for which the only name is Puritan. I never cheated, I never appealed for a decision … I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent … My defeats and disappointments I took as stoically as I could. If I caught myself complaining or making excuses I pulled up … this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me. I learnt it as a boy, I have obeyed it as a man.”

Douthat’s thinking is obviously influenced by another brilliant essay (he quotes it in his first column), this one by the conservative writer and editor Helen Andrews in the Hedgehog Review. “The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it,” she writes. But the crucial thing is that the new aristocrats have to own up to being aristocrats. “Unlike meritocracies, aristocracies can put actual content into their curricula—not just academically, but morally. Every aristocracy has an ethos, and a good ethos will balance out the moral faults to which that aristocracy is prone.”

By refusing to own up to what it is, the new aristocracy can continue to do what it currently does: it can simultaneously direct society’s winnings to itself and use them for no identifiable purpose outside of self-advancement, and take absolutely no responsibility for the society it manages. This is what the populists are rebelling against. Considering what they came up with in 2016, it might be worth taking a hard look at what Andrews once said, and what Douthat is saying now.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.