The Magazine

The Dispossessed Elite


As I've been rereading Professor Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison's three-volume Oxford History of the American People from 1964, I've been thinking about the old Protestant Establishment.

Morison (1887-1976) was himself a leading member of the Protestant Establishment (liberal Boston Brahmin wing). His extraordinary career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian (for his biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, for which he had organized a research expedition by sailing ship from Spain to the New World) turned middle-aged fighting naval officer exemplifies how an old-fashioned Establishment that self-confidently viewed itself as holding its country in trust for its posterity felt it ought to behave.

Of course, you aren’t supposed to think like that anymore. Hence, the top people now treat America like a short-term transaction rather than a long-term investment.

I was reminded of Morison when I read neoconservative David Brooks’s thoughtful February 18th New York Times column, The Power Elite, about the historic shift in clout from what he calls the“inbred” Protestant Establishment to what he somewhat deceptively designates as the new“meritocratic” elite:

Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. … Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups.

(As I wrote at the time, what Brooks is really talking about is the rise of the Jews. For example, Jews make up a mere 2 percent of the population, but 35 percent of the 2009 Forbes 400 and half of the 2009 Atlantic 50 ranking of the most influential pundits. That’s a lot more “inbred” that the Protestant Establishment -- perhaps 60 percent of Americans were white Protestants in 1910. Indeed, even as late as the 2008 Presidential election, white Protestants cast some 42 percent of the votes. They went overwhelmingly for McCain.)