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Paul Heise: The fall of the WASP elite has thrown us into chaos

Posted 9/25/12

The white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) elite that governed our country since its founding has collapsed. The social and political structure of our country is in chaos, with no replacement elite in sight. This change is strange for how little it …

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Paul Heise: The fall of the WASP elite has thrown us into chaos


This election is a clear marker of the end of WASP hegemony. No WASPs are on either the Democratic or Republican presidential tickets nor are they the leaders of the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. Nor
is any member of the Supreme Court a WASP. It is a clean sweep from power.

However much we might wish otherwise, every country needs a governing elite: a social class of people who represent, guard and implement a country’s shared value system.

The monied Eastern Establishment, with its base in New England, its prestigious Ivy League schools and its bedrock Protestant principles of frugality, hard work and moderation served as our governing elite. These WASPs were allowed to govern because they set the country’s good above their own and thereby kept our society on an even keel, most of the time. And it was bipartisan, including a Franklin Roosevelt and a George H. W. Bush.

All of the political turmoil of the last 30 years can be explained in terms of the lingering loss of the core WASP positions on race, wealth and religion. The Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants fought the establishment for 100 years but they assimilated and and accepted WASP standards.

America continues to think of itself as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant country but this time the immigrants did not face as solid and entrenched an elite. There is no longer a shared value system, WASP or otherwise.

The white, non-college, working-class was declining in numbers and status at the same time that their leaders were losing the political clout and the social position necessary to protect the public interest. There is no one nor any group anywhere in the leadership of our government who can represent their need.

If the white working class had a reasonable expectation of government recognizing their needs, they would not have to organize into a Tea Party. But the WASPs had lost control of the Republican Party and could not function as a governing elite. For good reason, the white working class became “the most pessimistic group in America.”

From their point of view, they see a world where government attention and assistance flow to black welfare queens, illegal Hispanic immigrants and threatening Muslim terrorists. Government, they believe, now serves them and not us. In the absence of honest WASP brokers, there was no way to implement shared values in behalf of anyone.

The consequences have been profound. This remnant of the once dominant white working class is angry and frustrated.

These people are the “silent majority” of the 1960s, the “forgotten middle class” of the 1970s, the “angry white males” of the 1980s, the “soccer moms” of the 1990s and the “NASCAR dads” of the 2000s.

They resent what they see as a disrespect for American institutions. They do not consider Obama to be American because he is not a WASP, not one of us. It has been a long, losing battle for people who have very little left to lose.

Their numbers are declining absolutely and relative to the total population. They are losing ground politically and economically. They are being relegated to junk jobs that don’t pay a living wage, have no benefits, no training, no security.

As they are going down, they see the immigrants rising. They have reason to be alienated and pessimistic.
America lost a lot when the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant elite collapsed. America will go on in the next 40 to 50 years to become another country but it will be difficult and contentious.

Without a governing elite to enforce shared moral principles and promote the general welfare, corporations shipped our manufacturing base abroad, the financial sector scammed the entire monetary system and income distribution was skewed to serve the rich. No one was there to tell Harvard and Yale graduates they should go into government and not big-bucks investment firms.

The president and the Congress need someone to tell them that bailing out bankers must be balanced with bailing out home mortgage holders. There is no one to make the quiet phone call instructing the Attorney General that it is time to prosecute criminal bankers.

And in the meantime, the working white guy lost his job, his house and his hope for the future.

America is in need of a serious, quiet, profound discussion.

It will take decades but it will identify a new elite who will provide a new vision of what America will be to our descendents and the world.

Paul Heise, of Mount Gretna, is an emeritus professor of economics at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, and a former economist for the federal government.