In general, your blogger tries to stay away from responding to columns and articles that don't deal with the core themes of the blog. However, this Brooks column in the Times paints a drastically edited vision of American History that obscures the interesting shades of gray. Since your blogger maintains that good decisions (and good policy) can only be made with good information, it is important to develop a more nuanced world view.
Earlier this week, David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times entitled “Why our Elites Stink.” He claimed that in that past, our country was led by a male WASP elite who had a leadership code, and that our current meritocratic elite does not, and this is the root of the lack of confidence in our institutions. My quarrel isn't with his conclusion, which is a separate issue, but on the purported historical facts.
Both of the main premises are inaccurate. First, the historical WASP elite were far from paragons of virtue. And second, and perhaps more important other, more diverse elites are not new, they are just more visible.
A quick survey of the 19th and early 20th century reveals scandals of every kind. From playboy Harry K. Thaw's murder of the architect Stanford White, to the custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt's inheritance, the WASP elite were engaged in all kinds of embarrassing and scandalous behavior in their private lives. However, their public lives could be equally problematic. William Randolph Hearst engaged in “yellow journalism” in order to increase sales and gain an edge over Joseph Pulitzer's publications and was involved in the notoriously corrupt New York political machine Tammany Hall. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil is the textbook example of a monopoly and the justification for anti-trust laws. Many other household names were also “robber barons,” including J.P Morgan, Andrew Mellon, and Daniel Drew.
Part of what Brooks is getting at when he references their code is that many of these men were philanthropists, who lent their names and their fortunes to colleges, hospitals, and other public institutions. And yet, biographer Ron Chernow explains, in his 1998 book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., that the two traits can coexist: “What makes [Rockefeller] problematic—and why he continues to inspire ambivalent reactions—is that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.” While he may be the archetype, many other similar figures also embodied these two contradictory traits, contributing large amounts of money to worthy causes while simultaneously engaging in questionable and unethical behavior.
So much for the vaunted code of the WASP elite. But Brooks' other premise is also flawed. He asserts:
“Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.”
True, a network of white Protestant men exercised a great deal of power, but they were not the only network at the time, they were simply the most visible. Brooks' completely disregards the role of non-WASP elites in American History, including African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, women, and various ethnic groups.
In parallel with mainstream WASP institutions, other groups established colleges and universities, hospitals, and mutual aid societies, and were able to reach positions of power in government, business and the media. When African-Americans, women, Catholics and Jews were not welcome or faced quotas in admissions, they created their own. These institutions gave them access to education and the accompanying social mobility. Additionally, at mainstream institutions where they were considered outsiders, these minority groups created support networks, such as the black and Jewish fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Epsilon Pi. Often, prominent men can be traced to these networks, similarly to the famous women, from Frances Perkins to Admiral Grace Hopper to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, until recently, were predominately graduates of women's colleges.
The non-Protestant elites who were able to rise to power despite the odds are certainly admirable. Today, there are fewer formal barriers to entry, though prejudice and discrimination continue to exist. So what point does Brooks want to make? He says:
“...as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.”
What promise does he mean? That diversity engendered by meritocracy in positions of authority would somehow magically make them function without difficulty? That everyone would be virtuous and trustworthy? I've established that they were not in the past, and that privilege did not guarantee probity. Our current system is not perfect, but no system will be. At least our current one has the benefit of being more representative of our country as a whole, and not shutting out eager and competent people based on their membership in less favored groups. Our problems will not be solved by a return to a mythical past. Brooks' Golden Age illusion is just that; an illusion.