The Incredible Shrinking W.A.S.P. Domination In America

(CNN) -- Attention white Anglo-Saxon Protestants: Your days of running things are over. You have jumped the shark.

But there's no need to feel bad for WASPs.

They've had an amazing run. Every single president in our nation's history, except for John F. Kennedy -- a Catholic -- and Barack Obama, has been a white Protestant.

The End Of WASP-Dominated Politics

Just looking at Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, you might not think of them as cultural pioneers. But the Republicans make up the first presidential ticket in history not to feature a Protestant.


Romney is Mormon, Ryan, Catholic. That might not seem like such a big deal — especially when you consider they are running against the first African-American president.

But all of these individuals are emblematic of an enormous shift in both American demographics and political power.

Fifty years ago, the military, foreign service and top political offices were all dominated by WASPs — white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

"The minimal but unrelenting qualification was to be white, Anglo-Saxon in heritage and Protestant in religion," the cultural critic Joseph Epstein writes in his book Snobbery. "If one was Catholic, or surely Irish Catholic, or Jewish, forget about it; if one was black, don't even think about it."

Because of the country's changing population and shifts in educational opportunities, none of that is true anymore.

WASPs Lose Their Grip

There are plenty of white men with power in this country, but it's become harder to find a WASP holding onto one of the top rungs of the political ladder.

The State Department was once dominated by old-stock aristocrats but hasn't been led by a white man since 1997. Among the four top congressional leaders, only one is a WASP — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who happens to be married to an Asian-American.

The Supreme Court, for the first time in its history, does not boast of a single justice who is Protestant. Instead, there are three Jews and six Catholics — one of them Hispanic, one of them black. And since the 2009 confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor, the court also includes three women justices for the first time ever.

"Not a single group can hold onto power in any particular institution going forward," says Guy-Uriel Charles, founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics. "This reflects the fact that we are much more of an open society than we were previously, but we are also a society that by the numbers is increasingly diverse."

The Importance Of Merit

None of this would have seemed possible a half-century ago. Back then, Protestants composed three-quarters of the academic, military and business elites, according to contemporary academic studies.

The rules were so rigid that Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and 1964 GOP presidential nominee, wasn't allowed to play golf at a club outside Washington that was literally exclusive.

"I'm only half Jewish, so can't I play nine holes?" Goldwater quipped, according to E. Digby Baltzell's classic 1964 study The Protestant Establishment.

But the exclusion of religious minorities from the top ranks of government had already begun to give way with the Great Depression and World War II. Real expertise and individual merit started to matter as much as coming from the right families (at least for men).

"Franklin Roosevelt appointed more Catholics and Jews to his presidency than all previous presidents combined," says Andrew Preston, a Cambridge University historian.

The '60s Changed Everything

Change really began to accelerate during the 1960s, for a number of reasons. The election of the first (and thus far only) Catholic president in John F. Kennedy, along with the modern reformation of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council, precipitated shifts in religious alliances that have had profound effects on U.S. politics.

"Catholics, who used to be public enemy No. 1 for a lot of Americans, have been totally embraced, by the Republican Party especially," Preston says.

Civil rights laws began to break down barriers for black Americans, while the 1965 immigration law ended quota systems that had for decades heavily favored immigrants from Western Europe.

"All these immigrants started coming in from Latin America and Asia, many Catholic or not Christian," says David Hollinger, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley.

Help For Romney

These voting rights and demographic changes made the presidency of Barack Obama possible. Obama lost the white vote in 2008, but the share of votes cast by minorities haddoubled over the course of just five election cycles, from 13 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 26 percent in 2008.

Some of these cultural shifts helped pave the way for the Romney candidacy as well. Protestants who once wouldn't have considered voting for anyone but one of their own have grown accustomed to candidates from other faiths. There have been seven Catholics on national tickets since Kennedy, including Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as one Jew and a Greek Orthodox candidate. President Obama is Protestant.

"Romney as a Mormon is part of a group that used to be thought of as the outside, but they've become assimilated in ways not unlike Catholics," Hollinger says.

Not So Post-Racial

It's different with Obama. The president doesn't have to be black for millions of people to hate him — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both WASPs with WASP vice presidents, proved that.

But Obama's background — not just being the first African-American president, but having a Kenyan father and having spent part of his childhood abroad — makes him emblematic of changes that are altering the sense of what it means to be American.

In May, the Census Bureau reported that more minority children are being born in the U.S. now than whites.

"Some people say, 'Great,' others say, 'The country I've known is vanishing before my eyes,' " says Mark Smith, a political scientist at the University of Washington.

The anxiety that change always creates helps explain why there have been so many questions about whether Obama was actually born in America or might be a Muslim.

"He does seem kind of otherly, not just being black but having the international background," Smith says.

Straight Outta Cambridge

But in certain ways, Obama fits the standard profile of someone in power. There may not be as many WASPs holding positions of power, but there seem to be just as many Ivy League graduates running things as there ever were.

Obama got his law degree from Harvard — just like Romney.

"It did matter that Barack Obama was the product of Columbia and Harvard and did well at both institutions," says Charles, the Duke law professor. "That made him safe to a lot of people."

While none of the current Supreme Court justices are Protestants, every one of them holds at least one degree from Harvard or Yale. "We're all from the Ivy League," Justice Clarence Thomas said last week, when asked about the absence of Protestants on the court. "That seems to be more relevant than what faith we are."

Harvard students are no longer predominantly Protestant and no longer show up with their servants in tow — as many of them did as late as World War II. This fall, the freshman classes at both Harvard and Yale are made up of more than 40 percent nonwhite students.

"They find these guys like Obama who are clearly ready to go and take advantage of a place like Columbia or Harvard," says Hollinger, the Berkeley professor. "In earlier times, somebody like Obama couldn't get into Harvard and they wouldn't have had anything to do with him."

The Decline of Anglo–Saxon Domination

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal has admitted that the present tea party in the U.S. represented, to a large degree, the reaction of middle- and lower-class WASPs toward the loss of their status in society.

After Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fired by the White House for his “disrespect,” the focus of the American public and officials has turned to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. This is an important process of acknowledgment by Congress of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, a candidate nominated by President Barack Obama, to the Supreme Court.

This is because in the last few decades, within the institution of checks and balances, the Supreme Court — a key branch of power, along with the president and Congress — is playing an increasingly important role in the internal affairs of the American government. From the abolishing of racial segregation and the legalization of abortion to George W. Bush’s “winning” of the presidential election in 2000 — which started eight glorious years of the “conservative revolution” — there was hardly anything that was not a result of the Supreme Court’s “authoritative” verdicts.

The Decline of WASP Domination
If Kagan is confirmed by Congress, as most people expect, the U.S. Supreme Court will not only have set a precedent in becoming an all “Ivy League club,” but will also establish a new milestone that is no less important in meaning than having Barack Obama, a bi-racial man with a Muslim bloodline, as its president.

This is the first time since the founding of America that the Supreme Court actually has no white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant — WASP, for short — representatives. Out of the nine chief justices, six are Catholics, and three are Jews (including the rookie Kagan).

It was only five years ago that the Anglo-Saxons still made up the majority with five chief justices. Such a rapid change is the best indication of the decline of Anglo-Saxon domination.

Though the American Revolution was the Anglo-Saxons’ “rebellion” against their motherland England, everyone from “Founding Fathers” like Washington, Jefferson and Adams right down to the main population of the North American colonies were white Anglo-Saxons.

For the last 200 years or so, the WASPs have sustained America’s politics, culture and economy. Almost all the presidents before Kennedy, the elitist education and leadership grooming systems represented by the Ivy League institutions, and the Ku Klux Klan — which had been extremely powerful in the South Central region for a long time (West Virginia U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, who passed away recently at age 92, was a KKK member) — were all representatives and symbols of WASPs.

Such a long-term and absolute leadership status caused scholars to term American politics “WASP ethnocracy.”

This is especially so because the American judiciary is largely of an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Besides the fact that the Declaration of Independence and the American judiciary are a kind of inheritance from England’s Magna Carta, the jury system and habeas corpus represented the bright spot in the Anglo-Saxon’s tradition of judiciary independence and is the cornerstone of American civil and legal society. It is regrettable that America’s supreme judiciary authority does not have any WASP representatives now.

The fall of WASP domination is not limited only to the judiciary system represented by the Supreme Court. We can see the presidential chain of command stipulated by the U.S. Constitution regarding times when a president is deceased or unable to carry out his responsibilities. Should anything happen to Obama, the vice president would first provide the backup. Current Vice President Joe Biden is a Roman Catholic. Next would be current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, also a Roman Catholic. Following her is the current Senate president pro tempore, Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaiian of Japanese heritage. It is only the fourth in line who is someone who can be considered an Anglo-Saxon — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon, and House Minority Leader John Boehner is a Roman Catholic. Neither of them fit the WASP criteria.

The Key Factor: The Principle of Meritocracy

There are many historical reasons for the decline of American Anglo-Saxon domination, such as immigration and the mixing of races. However, Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor of Jewish descent, has recently pointed out that one of the key factors is the advent of the dominating principle of meritocracy in America’s upper strata before and after World War II.

Under this guiding principle, the American elitist education represented by the Ivy League institutions gradually opened up to ethnic groups outside of the WASP criteria, especially to the Roman Catholics and Jews who had been oppressed and discriminated against for a long time. This rapidly changed the ethnic composition of the American political and cultural elite. This is complemented by the economic success of the non-WASP, which has finally changed the ethnic structure of the American upper- and middle-classes, and especially the elite, in a little over half a century.

Of course, no ethnic group would willingly relinquish its dominating position. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal has admitted that the present tea party in the U.S. represented, to a large degree, the reaction of middle- and lower-class WASPs toward the loss of their status in society. This may be the WASP domination’s last gasp for air in the short term.

The development of history lies not in the will of man. The decline of the WASP following the gradual fall of elitist education and in the midst of economic competition is an unstoppable trend. This is especially apparent in the “blue-blooded” WASP families in the Northeast, where those who once were nobles are now starting to become commoners.

The Wall Street Journal cited a survey last month saying that among new converts to American Christianity, which includes the WASP, only 21 percent of the families have an annual income exceeding $100,000. The proportion of families of the same income level among Jews is 46 percent, and the proportion within typical Asian families was also more than 40 percent. In an America ruled by money, the implication of such an economic reality speaks for itself.


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Feb 9, 2013