“One of the few things that both left and right can agree upon nowadays is that both the “establishment” and the meritocracy ought to be overthrown. But in all of these discussions, there’s little awareness that there is a history and a scholarly literature behind these concepts. And all of that in one way or another draws upon the work of the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who was born in 1915 and died in 1996 and spent most of his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania.”

Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has dug deep into the scholarship of Baltzell and the larger question of how the “establishment” has impacted American politics. He chats with Geoff Kabaservice about his findings.


Aaron M. Renn: That continuity of leadership in America, or that organic upper-class, from the founding of the country to the 1950s, is now extinct. And there are still WASPs around; I guess they still publish the Social Register. But whatever it looks like in the future, it’s not going to look like what it looked like in the past.

Geoff Kabaservice: I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the mighty, muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography and current events. In what seems like a lifetime ago, I was a graduate student in American history studying what seemed to me to be the critical question of how and why our system of meritocracy came to be. This became, in a way, the subject of my first book, The Guardians, which focused on Kingman Brewster Jr., who was the president of Yale University during the 1960s and 1970s, and the men in his circle who were described as constituent members of what then was called the establishment.

Now, the establishment is a term that everybody more or less is familiar with, but nobody quite agrees on how to define it — or who was, or is, part of it. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the establishment, whatever that means, and its successor sociopolitical regime of the meritocracy, whatever that means. And one of the few things that both left and right can agree upon nowadays is that both the establishment and the meritocracy ought to be overthrown. But in all of these discussions, there’s little awareness that there is a history and a scholarly literature behind these concepts. And all of that in one way or another draws upon the work of the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who was born in 1915 and died in 1996 and spent most of his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was Baltzell who coined the acronym WASP, for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and Baltzell who did the most to anatomize the concept of the establishment in books like Philadelphia Gentlemen and The Protestant Establishment. I’m always on the lookout for articles and discussions that relate in a serious way to the concepts that Baltzell wrote about. So I was delighted when I saw, in the new spring of 2021 edition of American Affairs, the article by Aaron M. Renn entitled “Rediscovering E. Digby Baltzell’s Sociology of Elites.” This is, I think, the most serious and the most interesting treatment of Baltzell’s ideas that there has been in decades. So I wrote to Mr. Renn — whose name, incidentally, is spelled R-E-N-N, not like the architect or the bird — to ask if I could talk to him on The Vital Center Podcast. And I’m glad to say that he agreed and is with me today. So, welcome, Aaron.

Aaron M. Renn: Well, thank you for having me and thank you for that kind introduction. I appreciate the kind words there.

Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you, Aaron. And Aaron is a former Accenture partner and Manhattan Institute senior fellow. He’s a columnist for Governing magazine and an urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer with a particular focus on urban economic development and infrastructure policy in the greater American Midwest. Aaron, perhaps we can start with you telling me how you came to be interested in Baltzell and these big questions of the establishment and its related terms.

Aaron M. Renn: Well, it’s interesting. I’d never heard of him and a friend of mine, who lived down in Philadelphia, handed me a copy of his book Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia and said, “You got to read this book. It’s very fascinating.” And I read that book many years ago and my mind was blown by how good it was. I’m like, this is the best treatment of two cities I’ve ever read. And over the course of the years, several other people have recommended that, “Hey, Aaron, there’s a great book I’ve got for you that you need to read. It’s called Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. You’ve probably never heard of it.” It occurred to me: this is an underground classic.

That this is a book that people really like and is highly respected. And I didn’t really connect the dots at what Baltzell was getting at in that book until 2019, when I was doing a project for the American Enterprise Institute on how the culture of cities affects economic development. I said, “Well, I’m going to go back and reread Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia,” because I wanted to use that as one of the case studies. And as I read it, I said, “Wow, this isn’t really about Philadelphia and Boston and the economy. This is about leadership and America. This is much bigger.”

And I started reading more about him. And then I decided to undertake a project to read his entire corpus of books and articles and see what they had to say. And I promised Julius Krein, the editor at American Affairs, I’d write a piece for him and a year later I delivered it after that. But it was really just fascinating to undertake because he talks about things like social class, properly understood, that we just don’t even think about today. We tend to equate social class with essentially your economic status in society. And so that was really the genesis of it, was somebody giving me a copy of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia.

Geoff Kabaservice: And what can you tell the person who is not familiar with Baltzell’s works about who he was?

Aaron M. Renn: Well, he was a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and he was actually born in Philadelphia. He was born in Rittenhouse Square, which is one of the four downtown squares around downtown center city Philadelphia. It was where the elite, the upper-class, of Philadelphia originally lived before they suburbanized. So he was born there, moved out to a neighborhood in the city called Chestnut Hill, and went to school at St. Paul’s boarding school. He went to college, I think he went to Penn, he went to Penn to undergrad because his family, although they were from an upper-class background — he came from an upper-class background himself — they really didn’t have a lot of cash. Now, they weren’t broke, because they had a servant that lived with them in the pre-war era, which was not uncommon in that day. But he didn’t have a lot of cash. He couldn’t afford to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

So he ended up going to Penn. Worked his way through school in part doing odd jobs. Then it was in World War II, where he was really struck by what you also alluded to in The Guardians, this generation of people from the upper class who went into this military where they served with people from all different classes of society, side-by-side, in one force. And it really transformed how he and that generation saw America and saw class in America.

And so he developed this idea that, What if we could have an integrated upper class and not just this upper-class Episcopalian white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper-class? And he ended up going to do his Ph.D. studies at Columbia in sociology and did his dissertation, I believe, on the structure of the upper class — and the book, Philadelphia Gentlemen, I think basically came out of his dissertation work. And for the rest of his career really was the foremost scholar of the American upper class. Again, he popularized the term WASP, maybe played a role in popularizing the term establishment. And so he was really a very influential person for a very long time. Again, he’s fallen off the radar a little bit as the establishment in the old WASP sense faded from view. But his way of analyzing it, coming from an upper-class background with the insider’s view but the sociologist’s tool set and a historian’s mindset, I think was very powerful and still has a lot to say about our world today.

Geoff Kabaservice: He was both an insider and an outsider in that sense.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. So yeah, he was the insider to the upper class, but he had that scholarly lens that he was applying to his own people. And I think it’s very obvious that he was very upset that the WASPs excluded Jews, especially from clubs and from many of the professions like the elite law firms. And so I think like many of his generation of upper-class people who were several generations… I don’t even know how his family originally became upper-class, but many of them were essentially divorced from the original source of their wealth or their prestige. And they were starting to ask questions about, “Wow, is this really fair? Is this really right?” And I think in that regard he did have a lot of criticisms of his own class. And I think his criticisms of his own class helped give him a little bit of a detachment from it as well.

But I think what is unusual about him is… Usually when you break away from something, whether it be the small town you grew up in, or the religion you were raised in, or something of that nature, you often become extremely hostile towards the thing that you left. You really have a particularized animus towards it. He seems to have avoided that. He recognized that the WASP establishment had a lot of positive qualities at the same time that he heavily criticized it. So I think he was able to take a balanced perspective as well, which is pretty rare.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. You wrote in your article that Baltzell’s analysis leans heavily on several related but distinct concepts — elite, upper class, aristocracy, authority, establishment, and caste — each of which has a specific meaning in his work. Can you take us through those terms?

Aaron M. Renn: Today we talk about the elite a lot, or we talk about the upper class and we talk about the rich or the 1%, and we throw all these terms around. And I think in a lot of ways we basically view them all as referring to the same sets of people. But in Baltzell’s work, he really defines them very specifically and distinctly. So the elite are essentially the set of people who occupy the senior-most positions in the key domains of society. So the fact that you are a Senator, for example, or that you are the CEO of a company, or that you are the president of a university, or that you are, say, a Cardinal in the Catholic church, for example, makes you elite. The mere fact that you occupy that position is what makes you elite. It has nothing to do with any other qualifications or categories. And an elite is also an individual. It’s an individual status: I hold this role.

The upper class, by contrast, is a set of families, extended families, who occupy the highest rung of the social status hierarchy in the country, and they are typically descended from elites of a generation or more past. And so the upper class occupies this high social-status rung, and it’s a family-based thing. In general, you are born into the upper class, you don’t become upper-class. So someone who is born into one of these old WASP or Boston Brahmin families, they have that status secured for them at birth — unlike, say, someone like myself who grew up in rural southern Indiana, who has had to claw my way to the top. They already started out at the top. Now there was a lot of gradations and status jockeying within that upper class, but you ended up essentially born into the ranks of the nobility. You could think of it as being an aristocrat versus being a commoner. There’s something there.

Now, there is a transference between the elite into the upper class in that in each generation a certain number of the elite are essentially assimilated (or their children are assimilated) through intermarriage or for other things into the upper class. And so it’s constantly (at least it should be) taking in new blood from each generation of the elite over time. But they are two distinct concepts. And you could also layer on that the wealthy… In Baltzell’s telling, they aren’t really a social class, in a sense; there’s not really this community of the wealthy as an actual social community. And you might think of probably heavily overlap with the elite. But someone who’s being merely rich — being, say, new-money rich — does not necessarily make you a member of the upper class. Some of the rich people, again, are assimilated into the upper class over time, or their children are assimilated into the upper class. Typically this process of being assimilated into the upper class could take two, three generations to do it.

What a lot of the old literature or films or things in the country deal with is this idea of social class and anxieties around it. You could think of The Philadelphia Story, which is a great example of that. Or the book The Magnificent Ambersons is another one: the old-money family, the new-money family, and the standoffishness. A lot of these dimensions of social class maybe are lost on us in today’s world. I think the key thing about the upper class, in contrast with the elite or the wealthy, is it really was a social community. If you were part of the upper class in Philadelphia, you were raised with all the upper-class kids and all the upper-class institutions, all the traditions. You often intermarried with each other, you were related to these people. And so you were really in a true community with them. And it was a community that had normative standards of behavior. There were social rules, etiquette rules, expectations about what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to behave etc., often inculcated through boarding schools or elite day schools and things of that nature.

Again, I was very struck in The Guardians when you talk about Kingman Brewster, McGeorge Bundy and all these guys. They grew up together, they knew each other from Martha’s Vineyard. They weren’t just five or six people that you pick to happen to be at the top of the pecking order in various domains. But these were people who had known each other for a very long time. Their families knew each other, they were part of a community. And so that’s really the distinction.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, and this is the sense in which Baltzell is talking about a national and associational upper class.

Aaron M. Renn: Yes. So in his first book, Philadelphia Gentlemen, he really talks about how, with the post-Civil War industrialization where you had the development of these large scale corporations like railroads and then later on the big industrial corporations, the upper class underwent a transition. Whereas in the past essentially every city had its own independent upper class, the upper class became essentially nationalized. Somebody like Brewster, who was a descendant of Elder Brewster of the Mayflower, his family would have been the big shots in Boston. But maybe in Charleston, South Carolina, it would have had a completely different hierarchy. And they just didn’t necessarily have a lot to do with each other in that pre-Civil War era. After the Civil War, things became much more nationalized. The country was more centralized economically, politically. And these institutions — like these boarding schools, like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, like the metropolitan clubs, like the country clubs — came to substitute for place of birth, or family of birth, as sort of these markers and things that connected people nationally. Wherever you were from, you might send your children to Harvard, for example, or to Yale. And so that’s one of the ways they got interconnected. The resorts were another example — Martha’s Vineyard, for example.

Geoff Kabaservice: Would it be fair to call this national, associational upper class of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century an aristocracy?

Aaron M. Renn: Yes, in a sense it would. In fact, Baltzell’s first book, Philadelphia Gentlemen, was actually published in paperback under the title An American Business Aristocracy. I think one of the characteristics of it is it really was a business-based aristocracy, in that it was a lot of the Gilded Age fortunes sort of married into these old-stock, Plymouth Rock kind of family lines. Whereas I think pre-Civil War it was probably a little more diverse ,in that it may have been people who had come from a military background, for example, because aristocracy was often based on a military, kind of a military ethos. There may have been some of that, like a Revolutionary War general may have been upper class, or people who had been prominent leaders in the early Colonial Era. And again, after the Civil War — really when these stunning Gilded Age fortunes that dwarfed anything that had ever been seen in America before, in the world before — that really kind of became, this business aristocracy concept became very dominant.

Geoff Kabaservice: If I’m remembering the Greek origins of the word correctly, “aristocracy” means rule by the best.

Aaron M. Renn: Yes, I think so.

Geoff Kabaservice: So there was some way that they had to defend their rule, so to speak, some qualities or achievements they had to point toward.

Aaron M. Renn: Right. Yeah. So I mean, certainly in the first generation. And then again, in what you saw… It just gets to some of those other concepts between how aristocracy is defined by Baltzell. He really looks at upper classes as aristocratic if they serve two functions. Function one would be kind of justifying their privileges and their status through service to the nation, often in terms of taking up the leadership positions in society. That is, by taking up these elite positions in society, as a member of the upper class, you are sort of justifying all the social cachet that you have. Then the second thing is that they would assimilate kind of new men, new families, into the upper class, out of each generation that proved themselves worthy of entry. So that aristocratic process not only required the people who had essentially inherited status to take up the mantle of leadership, but it also required them to assimilate the actual aristocrats that emerged naturally from the lower classes of the country in each generation into their ranks. So those were the two characteristics that made somebody upper class aristocratic.

He referred to an upper class as a caste if they failed to carry out those functions, if they did not take up the leadership and serve the nation, and especially if they failed to assimilate new talent into the ranks — and especially if they did so for reasons of some sort of ethno-religious bigotry, as in the case of Jews. So he basically… And that was the subtitle of his book The Protestant Establishment: it was Aristocracy and Caste in America. The idea was that there was a sort of, in theory… We had this aristocratic upper class, but Jews who sort of earned their way in were not allowed to get in. So he said, “That’s a problem.” That was why he saw the upper class getting into trouble, specifically because they were not taking up leadership and they were excluding others in this post-Ellis Island era demographic change of the country. Large sections of the country were simply categorically excluded from their ranks.

Geoff Kabaservice: Someone like J. P. Morgan, the banker, would sail with a Jewish friend and business associate, but he wouldn’t let him into his club.

Aaron M. Renn: Yes, that’s right. The one thing I do regret… I did talk about how these things could affect your career, because these clubs were where a lot of business was done. But it was much more than just not letting them into the clubs. I mean, for example, the white-shoe law firms — you are not going to get into the elite law firms if you were Jewish. So there were Jewish law firms, just like there were Jewish investment banking houses. But kind of the WASP law firms and such — you just couldn’t get into them. You couldn’t get to them. So you kind of had to create your own thing on the side. So a lot of professions and elite organizations, besides clubs, they were sort of excluded from. And then I think the last and the key term to define for Baltzell is the establishment. His definition of the establishment is that an establishment is when members of the upper class hold a significant number of the elite positions in society and when the values of the upper class are normative within the elite and within society.

So, in essence, an establishment occurs when there is heavy overlap between the elite and the upper class. And he thought this was actually a very good thing and a very important thing, because he felt that this allowed the upper class’s code of conduct, the code of manners that they had in the upper class, to essentially put a moral box around the behavior of the elite. And if you didn’t have this upper-class kind of domination of the elites, then you would have what he might call a declassed elite, where it’s just a collection of individuals sort of atomized from each other, and they have no shared moral codes, no shared rules of the road, rules of the game. And it would create a lot of negative outcomes for the leadership of society if there were not some agreed-upon gentleman’s code that these people were all living under.

Geoff Kabaservice: And also key to this concept would be that this establishment and this aristocratic upper class would also be seen as what you said, as a bearer of traditional values and authority, with authority here defined as “legitimized, institutionalized power.”

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. So you can think of authority in the sense that people… The upper class, the WASPs, essentially were running the show in the era of the establishment, but the people saw that as kind of a right and natural thing to do, and they kind of went along with it. And they were in a sense bearers of community values and authority that had been inherited down from the generations. This authority concept, of course, was something that was very much being rebelled against in the sixties.

Geoff Kabaservice: Right, the sixties really spells the end of the establishment in most tellings of the tale. And it’s interesting, because Baltzell published his book The Protestant Establishment I guess in 1964. He had to slightly update the manuscript to account for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But he hoped for a more open kind of establishment that would draw from different quarters of society, that would drop its prejudices not just against Jews but against minorities and different races, and would not be limited just to WASPs. I don’t think he was quite visionary enough in 1964 to foresee women being welcomed into the ranks of the establishment. But he really had been influenced, as you say, by the democratizing experience of World War II and the way in which the whole country came together in common service. And so had members of his class, certainly the people that I wrote about. So they really had this idea that the establishment could retain its traditional authority but come to mirror the country. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way.

Aaron M. Renn: Right. I think it’s interesting… I have to look at it and say… I come from Catholic peasant stock on both sides of my family, so I’m not someone that was ever going to get invited into any of their clubs, I can assure you of that. It was in a sense right when they opened up everything and said “Come on in,” and went to this more meritocratic approach, that I think things really started to disintegrate. One thing I really was puzzled at by Baltzell, because he was really influenced by Tocqueville, especially in his concept of an aristocracy becoming a caste and not assimilating new people, which he saw had happened in France. He’s like, “Look, the English aristocracy were never too proud to assimilate these new-money guys and bring them all in.” And I think there were even Jews assimilated into the English aristocracy back in the 19th century and even Disraeli, who’s a convert to the Church of England, but was Prime Minister. That would never happen in the United States, for example. And he’s like, “Look, Britain has been able to… They’re getting the upper hand because they’re letting all these people in.” On the other hand, his analysis of the French Revolution is that the revolution occurs when you start reforming. When things are improving… Things are actually improving generally when revolution revolutions occur, because it’s at that point where people now begin to see things that… The bad that had happened before, people might’ve seen as something they couldn’t do anything about. Now there’s this sense of possibility, and it’s like the remaining injustices become perceived as intolerable. That was sort of Tocqueville’s take on revolutions.

So I do think it goes along with Tocqueville, this idea that when you’re reforming, that is when it is the most delicate balancing act to kind of reform things without triggering a revolution. Now, that’s not to say that someone like Kingman Brewster, that there was anything he could have done to stave off the revolution. I think there were much bigger forces out there. But it was something that did happen. We can debate why that was. But certainly the post-WASP elite has really shown not much interest in embracing the values of the old establishment. I mean, I would say that. They really never… They might’ve wanted into Yale, but they didn’t really want to be like inner party.

And I think you see this well in William F. Buckley. They bring this Irish Catholic upstart to Yale, they invite him into Skull and Bones, and what does he do? He writes God and Man at Yale. He takes a big dump on them. It’s like, what is up with that? “What an ingrate!” you would think of a guy like Buckley when you’re thinking about that. So I do see that as a little bit interesting. It was shortly after that, that all the clubs, all the city clubs, kind of went into decline. Many of them have closed now. Most cities only have one city club left and maybe some of them don’t even have any. And so maybe there was an element of, “I refuse to be a member of any club that would have someone like me as a member.” It’s like once it’s no longer exclusive, nobody wants to be in. I don’t know what happened, but I do think it’s interesting to look at.

Geoff Kabaservice: So there’s a phenomenon that, again, I’ve been wrestling with for a long time, which is that meritocracy as someone like Kingman Brewster conceived of it in the 1960s was a way of democratizing an aristocracy by bringing into some of these elite institutions like Yale people who never previously had been there, or hadn’t been there in a long time in great numbers. So initially, of course, that meant dropping some of the anti-Semitic quotas that were applied starting in the 1920s at many of these elite universities. But then broadening to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, people from different ethnicities, people from different races. And then eventually co-educating institutions like Yale and Harvard that had been all-male, and then eventually also bringing in people from all over the world to what had been, like you were saying, really institutions of a particular upper class and mostly East Coast culture.

And yet now meritocracy is seen as one of the major villains in American life. I have actually sitting here on my desk a book by Christopher Hayes, the well-known TV analyst, called Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy where he kind of blames every bad thing in America, circa 2012 — in other words, midway through the Obama years — on meritocracy, this terrible thing. And yet again, meritocracy was all about identifying talented outsiders and bringing them into these establishment-forming institutions. So there’s a certain irony there. And yet someone like Michael Sandel, who also is very critical of meritocracy, does look back with some nostalgia to the values of the old elite — partly, I think, because he feels the elite had a guilty conscience and therefore acted differently from modern meritocrats who feel that they’ve earned everything they’ve got, they owe nothing to nobody, and therefore they don’t feel the need to act in such a way. Does that seem more or less an accurate summary to you of some of the debate?

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah, they think they earned it. Now, I think we certainly don’t have a meritocracy in the sense that people talk about, that literally the best person gets the job. And even when Kingman Brewster was creating his meritocracy at Yale… I mean, you noted that he really did want to essentially curate his class because he wanted to have — maybe he didn’t use the word “diversity,” but he wanted diversity at Yale. He wasn’t just saying, “Give me the people with the top test scores and top grades and let everybody in.” And so in essence, we still do that today. We still essentially curate a little bit. And I think a lot of people get a leg up from their parents or from connections. I mean, there’s no doubt about that.

So, I mean, if you look at, for example, movement conservatism, it’s highly nepotistic. I mean, it just really is. So you’ve got to admit that a lot of these people didn’t necessarily earn their way in. That doesn’t mean that they’re dumb people or they’re no good. But there’s a ton of people today who have parents who were in high-level, elite positions that were able to get them a leg up, get them in. It’s amazing. I used to love reading the New York Observer, when the New York Observer was still published in hardcover, because it always told you… When it talked about someone, it would always give you a little bit of who they were and their backstory, and would tell you, “Oh yeah, this person’s father was this, this person’s mother was that.” And so you would start to get a sense of who these people are.

And we don’t talk about these things today. I mean, I bet if you went and polled the staff of the New York Times — how many of them had parents who were prominent people in sort of elite domains of society? A lot. So you start looking at that. Journalism is essentially an elite field in the sense that we use elite today. That is, you already come from… You’re already from a made family, in a sense. So I think we still have the situation where, if you’re the children of a prominent politician or a prominent business, wealthy person, your kids are getting in — and yet we talk about merit. And so I think that the things that the WASP establishment had is no one was under any delusions that these people were… They were to the manner born.

Now we have a lot of people who are sort of disguising their origins, if you will. And you don’t really know. It’s not really said that these people had massive, massive legs up from the social capital that their family had that enabled them to be able to get their way into these different institutions. Jared Kushner’s dad bought his way into Harvard. We can’t call that meritocracy. I think that’s the case for a lot of this. I think we’re less meritocratic than we might believe.

Geoff Kabaservice: I think you’re right. And I think that is largely because the meritocratic class is very fiercely working to tilt the playing field in favor of its own offspring.

Aaron M. Renn: Yes.

Geoff Kabaservice: And to ensure that they are the ones who get to monopolize these advantages. So there’s a lot of benefit that comes from democratizing an establishment or an upper-class. But then eventually you actually get inbreeding, really, and the monopolization of opportunities.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. Well, I think it’s interesting, if you think about this… If I become a billionaire and I want to pass along opportunity to my kids, I essentially have to manipulate the system in order to get them into the right schools and all these things, so that they get the right job. Whereas with the old upper class, if you were born upper-class, you were sort of already in, right? Even if you didn’t go to these elite schools, in essence you were still from an upper class family. I mean, Kingman Brewster still would have been a descendant of Elder Brewster. He would have been part of all these things.

So in a sense, the status that we have today cannot be directly passed onto your children biologically the way that it was before. And so you have to essentially ensure that your children navigate the meritocratic system, which is why we all have all this gaming of the system, like this whole scandal in Southern California — it creates a very negative incentive set. 

And so I think what Baltzell really got at is that you need a blend of both. If you have a pure inheritance, you end up with caste. That’s bad. But if you end up with essentially pure democracy, pure meritocracy, you lose something too. And it creates a lot of negative incentives and structures in society, which is, for example, you have to spend a lot of time jockeying for status and position. And you have to spend a lot of time trying to make sure that your kids… There’s no secure status to pass to your children. You have to manipulate them into the right positions. And then, of course, they can pretend that they earned it on their merit.

So I think it’s like you need this blend of both. You need to have the democratic and the aristocratic, in the sense of familial offspring-based ascribed status.

Geoff Kabaservice: Something very interesting to me about the period from, I guess, the 1920s through even into the 1950s, was that a lot of members of this establishment did perceive it to be a time of stagnation. And that certainly was true of people like Kingman Brewster and McGeorge Bundy when they’re looking around at their college classmates.

And I found actually in doing research on this, that there was a lot of truth to that. I looked at the class of 1916 at Yale and a few other Ivy League institutions compared to Brewster’s class of 1941 a quarter century later. And during that period of 25 years, there really was a sort of caste dynamic going on. All of those places were much more open in 1916, before World War One. You had far more African Americans in these classes at universities — other than Princeton, which was always much more Southern and therefore excluded Blacks as a policy.

You had more people from working-class backgrounds. You had more people whose parents had not been to college. By the time you get to 1941, not only do you have the considerable majority — in fact, almost a near monopoly – of people whose parents had been to college, you even have more than half of the class with somebody who has a relative who already had a Yale connection. And you even start to get people who are the third and the fourth and the fifth person by that name to attend Yale and places like that.

And there was a real feeling of stagnation to the period. I was really struck by that passage in J. P. Marquand’s novel The Late George Apley, which was about this, and which was a best seller. Where this sort of upper-class Harvard graduate and scion of Boston society is reflecting that “Many of the men I know today are only feeble reflections of my father and his friends. Most of us have obeyed the older generation so implicitly that now that they are gone, there is nothing left but to continue in the pattern they have laid down for us.”

And certainly that was the feeling that came along with the Depression as well. And I feel that the analogous thing there is the 2008 financial crisis, which really has made a lot of people feel that the system is rigged and that this explosion of new talent that came into power with the rise of the meritocracy now has rigidified and become really a caste that you’re talking about.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. I think there’s something to that. People talk about the crisis of the sixties and stuff for the establishment. What I found interesting about Baltzell is his Philadelphia Gentlemen goes up through 1940. And even by 1940, he’s like, “Look, we already see the signs of decay.” So he’d actually seen this sort of post-war fifties, early sixties establishment, which we think is the high watermark of the establishment — he actually called it “the Indian summer of the establishment” — that essentially the establishment was already in decline before World War Two. Because I think, as you say, with the Depression some stagnation had occurred.

And I think because this… I can’t prove this. I’m sort of a little bit speculating here. Because it had been a business aristocracy, the national WASP establishment was developed in this era of essentially a bourgeois, laissez-faire capitalism by the sort of entrepreneurial titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. And after the twenties, I mean, basically we came to this corporate form where we essentially have publicly traded corporations. The CEO is a manager. He’s not an entrepreneur. And the passage of the income tax and just changes, anything, there were no more new fortunes to be made. It was much harder to get rich starting around 1930, so they weren’t minting new billionaires. We’ll get more to it later.

But this idea that there were constantly new, huge corporations being founded by new family founders, that sort of came to a halt with the Depression. And again, he talked about essentially the estate tax and the income tax really eroded the value of existing holdings and then made it much harder for people to accumulate large new fortunes, to essentially create new families and maybe inject some new dynamism into that establishment through a sense that you would have new people coming in who’d built a huge equivalent of US Steel, for example, which no one was. So I think there was sort of a stagnation caused by essentially the shift to a more managerial democracy coming out of the Great Depression.

Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe. Let me give you a slightly different take on it. In the Wall Street Journal last week, I saw a review of a new book called The Anointed, which is a history of the main white-shoe New York law firms that you were talking about earlier. And these are firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Davis Polk & Wardwell, and Sullivan & Cromwell, which really invented corporate law as we know it.

And these people who were at the firms were part of what we’re calling the establishment. And some of them actually had fairly socially liberal ideas, but at the same time these law firms were deeply socially exclusionary. None of them hired Jews, let alone ethnic minorities or African-Americans. Catholics hardly ever were hired to these places. Women, of course, were not hired. And they were clubby. In other words, these people did a lot of their business at the social clubs of New York that you’re talking about. And they also had connections to the Wall Street banks, where you would find their investment banker equivalents in the establishment.

And the author of this review, this is Roger Lowenstein, points out that once these law firms had mastered the intricacies of the things that the big companies dealt with — railroad and utility financing — they got repeat business. They had billings working on reorganization of their own failed deals. And there was a strategic arms limitation idea that you weren’t going to poach one another’s clients, you weren’t going to poach one another’s associates. You’ll pay everybody by seniority rather than merit. And, as the author put it, the firms “operated with all the smugness of a legal cartel.”

And so eventually what happens is that the free market system, which is a merit system, erodes the dominance that this cartel had been able to exercise. Those Jewish firms actually are doing a better job than the white-shoe firms in terms of just the law. And this forces those firms to either take in new talent from other groups or to collapse, as eventually some firms like Lord Day & Lord did.

So the question maybe isn’t how is it that the ethos of the establishment wasn’t passed along — more like how was it able to survive so long through these anti-market operations that they were able to keep in place?

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. I mean, I could certainly see that having an impact. Things can go on maybe a lot longer than we think they will. Was it Adam Smith who said, “There’s a lot of ruin in the nation”? People were talking about the decline of Detroit in the early 1960s, and yet it didn’t go bankrupt until, what was it, 2013 maybe? Something like that. And only then because essentially the governor of the state decided to force it into bankruptcy. So I think things in…

Geoff Kabaservice: Baltimore’s problems, which I’ve spent a lot of time on, they go back to the 1950s. Baltimore has been in constant decline since the 1950s.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah, but Baltimore is still a big city, too. There’s still a lot going on in Baltimore. And so I think it’s like these things, you think, “Well, it can’t go on forever.” The national debt, we can’t keep borrowing more money. I’ve been hearing that my entire life, and yet we keep on borrowing more money. And that’s not to say that eventually borrowing money is not going to catch up with us, but things do have a tendency to people to go on sometimes a lot longer than we think they can.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, this is true. Again, I referred earlier to Chris Hayes’s book, The Twilight Of The Elites, and he has a passage here that I think gets at a lot of the discussion nowadays of the establishment and the problems with meritocracy. And that is what you pointed out right at the beginning of your article, which is that we are in a time of extreme inequality. And during times of inequality, you get populism and you get people talking about the need to overthrow establishments and authorities.

And Chris Hayes writes, “There are numerous reasons for the explosion of inequality” — some of which are the usual ones we refer to like globalization and automation and the decline of manufacturing. “But the philosophical underpinning for all of this, the fertile soil in which it is rooted, is our shared meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule, we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be a member in good standing of that select few. It is precisely our collective embrace of inequality that has produced a cohort of socially distant, blinkered and self-dealing elites. It is those same elites who have been responsible for the cascade of institutional failure that has produced the crisis of authority through which we are now living.” I just wonder how you respond to that critique.

Aaron M. Renn: I think that’s probably right. And one of the things that, again, I really find interesting about Baltzell and how this maybe applies to today… We talk about our institutional decline, our institutional decay coming out of some of these forces. That old establishment really did feel a sense of identification with an obligation to those institutions, and as sort of a public service ethos and a set of norms. And I thought it was an interesting selection that you had in your book of the people, because they weren’t all perfect. You could probably say McGeorge Bundy made a lot of failures, but if you look at someone like Cyrus Vance or Elliot Richardson…

Geoff Kabaservice: They had a lot of responsibility for Vietnam.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah, yeah, John Lindsay. You talk about how incorruptible these people were and about their… I think it was Cyrus Vance in the Carter administration who’s like, “I’m going to give the President all the options on what to do about the hostage situation. I’ll just bring all the data to the President and let him make the decisions.” Whereas his National Security Advisor was trying to make back-channel communications, maneuver, do all this stuff, and so using duplicity to advance his own agenda.

Geoff Kabaservice: Brzezinksi.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah, Brzezinksi. And so I think that was really a contrast. What you see is when you have somebody playing by the old set of rules in an environment where the old set of rules don’t really apply anymore, it just doesn’t work. But in an era when the values of the Guardians, as you called them, were normative, there’s just a different functioning. That’s where the idea was that we had norms, that there were norms that you had to follow, and if you transgressed the norms to some extent — like say, Joseph McCarthy did — there would be a consequence. It would be like a foreign virus, because the body would expel the virus. Although I think there was some ethnic aspects to McCarthy as well. He was an Irish Catholic upstart. So there was definitely some… Baltzell had some interesting things to say about that.

But I think today, the fact that we don’t have this upper class with a kind of normative codes of behavior that is setting the tone in society, that really means all the bets are off in sort of the norms, the behaviors, et cetera. Today it’s like, whatever you can grab, whatever you can get. And I think that’s one of the big reasons we see just, again, the norms eroding in all of our politics. There are certain things people like Elliot Richardson would just never do. He’s just like, “I’m not going to do it.” And today it’s like, well, anybody will do anything, it seems like.

Geoff Kabaservice: And that’s not what we want in our leaders. From my book, The Guardians, I, of course took that concept from Plato’s Republic. And one of the critical abilities, he said, that the ideal Republic or Commonwealth should have in its leaders is that they must look upon the Commonwealth as their special concern, the sort of concern that is felt for something so closely bound up with oneself that its interests in fortunes for good or ill are held to be identical with one’s own. And that simply is not what we have nowadays.

Aaron M. Renn: Right. No, I agree. And it’s like there’s the old… I think about John F. Kennedy, who was not a WASP, obviously, but he tried to some extent to embody and publicly display some of those values. He would say, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Or you can think about the famous, “I always thought what was good for General Motors was good for America, and what was good for America was good for General Motors” — like this identification. There’s pros and cons to identifying your own interest and the country’s interest being together. But I think today, especially with globalization, the idea is you can get rich while your own country is sold out, ultimately. And I think that’s what we’ve had in a lot of ways.

Geoff Kabaservice: This is the $64,000 question. Obviously we are happy that the country has come a long way since the 1950s in terms of the opportunities that are available to people who never had them before, and the kinds of discriminations that have been lifted and the barriers that have been broken down. And yet this upwelling of liberationist ideas has gone against the order and established authority that was part of what kept the country together in the past. And with this has gone a decline of trust in every institution except the military, which is a bit ominous when it comes to thinking about the survival of our democracy. So I guess the question partly then is, do you have any ideas from your study of Baltzell as to how one might go about reconstituting trust in our institutions?

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. I speculated a little bit about that at the end of the article. And I don’t really have a great answer to it, but I think one of the key lessons of Baltzell is that our problem — I think he would have said our problem today is that we have an atomized society and a wealthy and powerful but de-classed elite. So I think the key is… Solutions that have been advanced like populism, the idea that we need more populism, I think he would reject. He would say that the medicine for what ails the country is not more populism. In fact, one of his lines in his books was something like, “No true conservative could ever be a populist.” Baltzell was a conservative of a sort — not a modern, movement conservative today, but he certainly had an old-school conservatism about him.

But I do think we need to have some refactoring of the elite. So there has to be some change in the character of the American elite in order to really change this. And it may well be that, for example, pressure from China forces us to shape up, in a sense. I mean, during the Cold War, having a geostrategic competitor really forced us to elevate our game in terms of science and technology, in terms of our organization. It even put pressure on us… The Russians would, the Soviets would constantly talk about, “Hey, well, you’re complaining about our human rights. Well, what about your own human rights? Look at how you treat Black people, for example.” And so I think this idea that there is pressure from the outside kind of forces you to shape up in. In a sense, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve essentially been like a monopoly. And like all monopolies, we’ve gotten soft and we’re exploiting our customers and we’re not providing very good customer service and our product’s kind of degrading.

So I think maybe some external competition might well force us to shape up and say, “Our institutions have to be competent because [otherwise] we’re not going to survive this competition and we’re certainly not going to win this competition.” So I think that’s one. And then I think there is just the possibility that the pendulum could just swing back. Nothing ever continues in a straight line forever. I always like to say from my corporate consulting days, that every company is either doing one of two things. It’s either centralizing or decentralizing. Because you do one until you run into problems and then you go to the other, so the pendulum swings back and forth. 

It’s been argued that the 1820s were this great liberationist era, an era of weak authorities and social norms. It was a disintegrating era, the early 1800s. But by the late 1800s, we’re getting into the Victorian era, the pendulum had swung back. You can think about authority… So in France during the revolution, they essentially very, very heavily liberalized divorce. They created essentially no-fault divorce. Post-revolution in the early 1800s, they re-instituted controls on divorce. So we think that these things only go one direction, but maybe there’ll be a swing back in other directions as well. I think the ’20s and the ’50s weren’t the same. And so I think it’s going to be dynamic. We’ll just have to see what happens. But I don’t think that we’re ever going to recreate an upper-class establishment in the sense that it existed in the country prior to the ’60s when things sort of unraveled.

I was really struck by Kingman Brewster, eleventth generation from the Mayflower that his family had been in leadership. Or I think about Charles Francis Adams IV, who died in 1999. And essentially the Adams family, which had been like 200 years of service to the country — these ancient lineages of our land have essentially gone extinct, if you will, from the standpoint of public leadership. So I don’t know that it’s ever possible to resurrect something. There is a — I don’t know the right word — primordial authority that comes from having those deep, longstanding, multi-generational roots in a place. I think that is one of the things that contributed to people’s willingness to come along. And that is now gone, that continuity of leadership in America. That organic upper-class, from the founding of the country to the 1950s, is now extinct. And there are still WASPs around; I guess they still publish the Social Register. But whatever it looks like in the future, it’s not going to look like what it looked like in the past.

So we have to think about… I think the key is how do we impose, how do we create the codes of normative conduct and respecting of norms within the elite? How do we promote some sense of giving back to the country and an obligation that comes with success? But we’ll have to find a new vehicle for creating that.

Geoff Kabaservice: I think you’re right. I do think that something you’ve touched on in some of your articles for Governing magazine is the perceived decline in institutional competence. And one of the ways back, I think, would be to demand that our elected representatives meet a higher standard of institutional competence than they have, and pay less attention to whether they’re part of “our tribe,” politically speaking, in terms of Republican, Democrat, or so forth.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. And it’s unfortunate. I mean, I have to say, the people… I mean, I do think our problem is a problem of the elite, but I also think the people of America have to take some responsibility. We vote for these people. So it’s our job to make sure that we care about competence and delivering results, which unfortunately we’re just not doing. I don’t pretend to fully understand why, but I think delivering results counts for a lot. That builds credibility in the system quickly when you’re actually delivering results.

Geoff Kabaservice: Aaron, your focus is on government, particularly urban government, and you don’t necessarily dabble with academic issues. But I notice that universities don’t seem to play a huge role in your analysis of maybe the way back toward reconstituting some kind of elite, or even just the education that leaders get nowadays. Do you have feelings on this subject? Are universities perhaps part of the solution going forward?

Aaron M. Renn: Well, it’s interesting. Again, you mentioned this in your book that when Kingman Brewster was the president of Yale, he was on the cover of Time magazine and stuff like that. These college presidents, much like the religious leaders of the countries, played a very prominent role socially in setting an agenda for the country. And just that — I mean, most people can’t name any college presidents today. So I think there is a sense in which colleges are now, they’re no longer run by people like Brewster, who saw himself as “Yeah, I come from a line of leaders, I could lead. I can actually lead this institution and lead in the country.” I don’t know that that level of ambition really exists in the college presidents today.

And I think the same thing is true of religion. The idea that these churches, these big mainline churches which have also dramatically gone into decline, that the level of moral authority that they have and the level of agenda-setting that they have is not what it once was. I’m living in Indianapolis today. The largest Presbyterian church here, Second Presbyterian Church, it was one where… The library system here exists because one morning in the late 1800s, the pastor of that church got up and preached a sermon about how we need a library in this community. And all the movers and shakers were sitting there in the pews, and we got a library. One of the former mayors of the city, a guy by the name of William Hudnut, he’d been a Presbyterian minister prior to going into politics.

So I think of all the people that you talked about in your book, the religious leaders, the William Sloane Coffins and the Paul Moores, they did the worst job in the sense that their institutions essentially have been badly diminished from the past. And so I think the universities and the churches are not what they used to be in terms of setting an agenda for our society. I think the ideas that come out of universities are still very powerful in our society. But the idea that they’re agenda-setting or that they have this role in society that they did previously — I don’t know that that will happen. I think universities themselves are in a catabolic phase, if you want to call it that.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. I don’t know the answer to this either, but I do sense that one of the good things for universities in the 1960s was they were able to reach new constituencies that had not had a whole lot of experience with either elite universities or universities generally. And I wonder if part of the solution in the future would be to try to do a similar kind of outreach, even if that meant displacing some of this increasingly ossified aristocracy of the meritocracy, if that makes sense.

Aaron M. Renn: Yeah. I mean, how do we do that? I don’t know, but I think that would be a good idea.

Geoff Kabaservice: This is terrific. Thank you so much, Aaron Renn, for joining me today.

Aaron M. Renn: Oh, thank you for having me.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at contact@niskanencenter.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingeneeri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.