Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment has many virtues that lift it above the level we have come to expect in works of contemporary social and cultural analysis. It is clearly and convincingly written in plain English, rather than journalese or the jargon of social science. It is a real book: neither a collection of miscellaneous essays jostling one another between the same covers nor the mistaken result of an editor’s advice to inflate a magazine article. Perhaps most admirable of all, Baltzell does not hide behind the conventional mask of “objectivity.” He tells us at once what he is doing and how he feels about it.
A crisis in moral authority has developed in modern America largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant establishment’s unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks…I have focused on the problems of anti-Semitism largely because the present position of the Jews in this country best illustrates the nature of the conflict between the social forces of caste and aristocracy, which is my central theme.
This statement, or something like it, recurs at regular intervals throughout Baltzell’s book. (I might add that a tendency to repetitiousness and an occasional lapse into the banal are its only faults of style or presentation.) Perhaps such reiteration is even wise at a time when readers and reviewers skim rather than read, and careful distinctions are often lost in the process. Baltzell wants us to know that he does not preach ordinary egalitarianism: he approves of aristocracy and an establishment and believes them necessary to a well-functioning democracy; what he does not like is caste in the sense of an elite closed off by criteria which no longer apply to the realities of contemporary society.
Thus his historical chapters—which occupy more than half the book—are largely devoted to tracing how a once open establishment became a closed one.
From the nation’s founding and roughly through the first half of the nineteenth century, positions in the establishment were open to all white men, regardless of ethnic origins…And this same pattern of accepting men on their merits and manners and assimilating their families into the establishment was followed…in the case of the Jews.
Because the change occurred only a century ago, the problems Baltzell is dealing with are relatively new, and have become acute only in the past generation. He finds that the decisive decade was the 1880s, when the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps) reacted to the threat of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe by establishing the protective associations that have since characterized our social landscape—the exclusive preparatory schools, the “restricted” suburbs, and the ubiquitous clubs which serve so many other purposes besides the ostensible ones of playing golf in the country or eating lunch in the city. In the 1920s this sort of thing was at its height: the gin decade was also the classic era of the social blackball and Wasp barbarity of manners. Then the Depression, the “class traitor” FDR, the War, and a wholesale secession of the intellectuals began to erode the barriers that had been up for half a century. Most notably in the 1940s the Jews made their decisive breakthrough into nearly all the national elites. But one fortress of resistance remained, and has remained to this day—the interlocking world of club and industrial corporate leadership. Here the maintenance of the Wasp hold has more serious effects now than it had a generation ago; for social status has become “less a matter of family standing in a local community and more a matter of one’s affiliations in associations” carrying “prestige on a national scale.”
To put the argument simply, if a Jewish boy of talent and “elite” education still can’t get into the best golf and lunch clubs, he is debarred from access to the top of the national corporate hierarchy. If he can’t meet his peers in the places where the big deals are made, then he is of no use to his company. This situation Baltzell finds shocking, and I agree.
Almost exactly Baltzell’s age and of similar Wasp origins, I share his sense of outrage. We feel shame at the behavior of the people among whom we grew up and guilt for having once been accomplices in practices we have long since repudiated. To judge from the conversational data he offers, Baltzell has remained in closer contact with the Wasp business community than I have. I am so far out of touch that I have to take at second hand his evidence of continuing anti-Semitism in America today; for one whose immediate acquaintance is limited to activities where no such exclusions apply—scholarship, literature, politics—it takes an effort of imagination to appreciate that Baltzell’s data are contemporary fact rather than nightmares recalled from childhood.
Yet for all my emotional solidarity with him, for all the shared moral passion of our special marginal position, I cannot refrain from raising a series of further questions. Baltzell has certainly been severe with his own kind; I wonder whether he has been severe enough, or, more precisely, whether he has distributed praise and blame in the right places. To me, the problem is not so much the barbarous folkways of the corporate executives. With the country’s political, moral, and intellectual leadership now firmly set against their exclusive practices, they are bound to give way before very long—their dogma of social conformity accelerating the process—or to find that it is they rather than the Jews who have become the contemporary ghetto-dwellers. The present situation among corporation leaders is both bizarre and cruel—but it is surely temporary. Already, according to Baltzell’s own findings, the younger generation is experiencing a “disenchantment with anti-Semitism.” Sooner or later the great executives will discover that it is “bad for business” to exclude Jews and other “ethnics,” and that will be the end of the matter.
The real problem lies, rather, in that “open” elite or establishment by which Baltzell sets such store. It is reassuring to learn that I teach at the institution—Harvard—which best exemplifies aristocratic openness in its faculty and students and which has provided in the two Roosevelts and in Kennedy presidents who have guided our national mores in a similar direction. Yet seen from close up, some of these relationships do not appear quite so idyllic as Baltzell depicts them. His idealization of the New Frontier (which even includes the cliché about Camelot), his portraits of contemporary enlightened aristocrats, suggests a blindness to, or tolerance for, the most important thing they have in common—the possession of money.
At one point Baltzell remarks of President Kennedy that he had “one of the greatest assets for freedom of action in a democracy” in being “independently wealthy.” He refrains from adding that this very statement implies a criticism of our democratic processes. Similarly in listing Douglas Dillon’s six places of residence, Baltzell’s tone is bland and even laudatory: there is no hint of inappropriateness in someone’s having quite that many. It is only in an apparently casual aside that Baltzell refers elsewhere to the “democratization of plutocracy.” Yet surely this is a matter of more than passing concern. If nearly everyone whom Baltzell mentions in a favorable context turns out to be quite rich, then it is at least as much a plutocracy as an aristocracy with which he is dealing.
Even in the university faculty community—Baltzell’s model of openness, where one professor can say to another: “It is not that some of my best friends are Jews; as a matter of fact, most of my best friends are”—money does not play a minor part. We who dwell there are familiar with the subtle social distinctions between those who live on their salaries alone and those who have outside sources of income, between those who can’t and those who can afford to entertain handsomely and send their children to private schools. These may seem to be trivial matters. But they suggest that the absence of anti-Semitism is no guarantee that people will be classified solely according to their talents.
I agree that it is a fine thing that our establishment or governing elite is more open than it used to be. And I am more hopeful than Baltzell that the remaining caste walls will soon come tumbling down. But I think that is only half, or less than half, of the contemporary problem. How much in fact is gained by throwing open the doors of exclusive clubs if their dues and initiation fees remain prohibitively high? So long as a private fortune is nearly indispensable to high office—so long as money limits in any way the free contact of gifted individuals—then we do not have the elite based on talent, and talent only, which is central to the concept of aristocracy and democracy alike in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
December 17, 1964