Most American sociologists believe in the ideal of an “open” society in which equality of opportunity generally prevails—and equality of opportunity means, of course, the opportunity to become unequal as a result of personal talent, effort, and achievement. The doctrine of leveling—that is, of a fraternal commonwealth in which all social differences are seen as secondary and even accidental—has not played much of a role in the ideology of American liberalism, although it has been central to British and European socialist thought.
American liberals, accordingly, have tended to concentrate their efforts on removing the barriers to mobility represented by hereditary class and racial or ethnic differences, and American sociologists have demonstrated the existence of these barriers with muckraking zeal. Such a standpoint has readily associated the inheritance of status through family membership with racial and ethnic discrimination, which denies the right of access to high social positions and rewards to certain minority groups on the ground that they are genetically unfitted. In The Protestant Establishment,1 E. Digby Baltzell attempts to revise this perspective. Baltzell shares the liberal indignation over racial and ethnic discrimination—indeed his book is partly devoted to documenting and condemning the discrimination practiced against Jews since the 1880’s by upper-class white Protestants. Baltzell does not, however, share the concomitant liberal opposition to an elite recruited primarily by birth. Instead, he argues the traditional conservative idea (rarely found among his fellow American sociologists) that a complex changing society needs a stable upper class based on familial continuity as a training ground for responsible political leadership.
Turning the tables on the liberal critics of hereditarian theories of human nature, Baltzell contends that aristocrats are made rather than born. For this very reason, he insists, we should value and preserve the upper-class institutions and agencies that make them: private schools, colleges, clubs, and elite suburbs. But access to these sanctuaries should be open to all who merit it. When men of talent or wealth are excluded solely on the grounds of race, national origin, or religion, the aristocratic principle is corrupted by the opposing principle of caste, which appeals to heredity, rather than training and moral character, to legitimize the superior position of the upper class. The men of talent and wealth who are rejected retaliate by rejecting the political leadership of the upper class; minority ethnic groups set themselves against the establishment; and even a section of the elite itself defects, accusing its peers of betraying their own best traditions of civic responsibility. Thus, in a democratic society, the upper-class elite eventually finds itself bypassed by politics and history, even though it retains its wealth and economic power as well as its control over the exclusive institutions that are its primary habitat. This, according to Baltzell, is largely what has happened to the Protestant establishment in America over the past three decades as a consequence of the longstanding conflict within it between the principles of aristocracy and caste.
What makes Baltzell’s analysis of the evolution of the American elite superior to the accounts of earlier writers from Veblen to W. L. Warner, not to mention journalists like Cleveland Amory, is that he exposes the connections between high social status and political and economic power. In doing so, however, he leads one to question the relevance to contemporary America of his model of an aristocratic ruling class. Indeed, his description of the gradual loss of political power by the traditional Protestant upper class of the Eastern seaboard works to persuade us that the process is irreversible, despite the fact that this elite has produced leaders of the liberal wing of the Democractic party such as Franklin Roosevelt, Averill Harriman, Joseph Clark, and others who emerge as the exemplars of his model. Writing before Dallas, Baltzell also reads too much long-range significance into the Eastern private school-Ivy League ambience of the Kennedy administration, which is the same error that C. Wright Mills—attacking what Baltzell wishes to defend—made in The Power Elite with regard to the Eisenhower administration.
Although Mills’s “power elite” is not identical with Baltzell’s “Protestant establishment,” Mills attributed enormous importance to upper-class family bonds and old-school-tie loyalties. He was led to do so because he needed to find some plausible basis for the cohesiveness and community of interests he imputed to the small group of political, business, and military archons who, he claimed, directed American society. Baltzell knows better, and his book may be read as a refutation of at least this aspect of Mills’s theory, for he rightly maintains that the upper class has lost political power, although his conviction that its decline is the result of caste barriers erected to preserve its ethnic and religious homogeneity is open to question.
Be that as it may, the forces in American society working against the restoration to political leadership of a traditional aristocracy—even a liberalized one—are far too powerful to be arrested by the belated removal of caste barriers. Among these forces is the movement westward of population and industry, already reflected in shifts in the political center of gravity in both political parties. The new men of the West and the Southwest are Protestant and they certainly are not lacking in the crude caste impulses that Baltzell excoriates. (I understand that the expensive hostelry which served as Barry Gold-water’s Phoenix campaign headquarters on election night was until recently restricted to “Caucasians only.”) No doubt these new men will mellow in time, but it is hard to believe that the mellowing agents will be the tradition-bearing institutions created by the old Eastern elite. There are not enough Grotons and Harvards, which is why it is the California system of state colleges and universities that represents the future.
Yet even if the American upper class had behaved like the 19th-century British aristocracy that Baltzell, following Tocqueville, so much admires, would the outcome have been so different? Modern history is the graveyard of aristocracies, both those that have bent with the gale of egalitarianism and those that have resisted it. The real value of Baltzell’s book as social criticism, therefore, lies less in his argument for a stabilizing upper class and against the advocates of a dead-level egalitarianism, whom he labels “Marxists,” than in the over-all perspective which he summed up for a Newsweek reporter: “I think it’s a lousy situation in this country when the Protestants control business, the Catholics politics, and the Jews intellectual life.” This is, of course, an over-simplification that applies mainly to the big cities of the East and Middle West. Even so, Baltzell’s sense that there is a real trend in America toward ethnic-religious separatism is accurate, and it is this that makes his protest against continuing “WASP” exclusiveness more than merely another reminder that a few pockets of anti-Semitism and religious animosity still exist in American life.
One can also sympathize with Baltzell’s insistence on the value of preserving the traditional upper-class schools and colleges. If it is quixotic to see them as nurseries of future statesmen, they are nevertheless indispensable as centers of resistance to the vocationalism, present-mindedness, and pallid middle-class conformism of a public education which is subject to all the bureaucratic and political pressures of our mass society. Edgar Z. Friedenberg has recently argued that the cause of educational diversity and cultural variety is served by maintaining schools and colleges created by the old elite, provided they are not discriminatory. And indeed, Baltzell’s review of the changed admissions policies of these schools and his discussion of the extra-curricular interests and political sympathies of Andover and Exeter students, shows that they have ceased to be caste institutions.
The heart of Baltzell’s book, however, is his account of modern American history from the point of view of the struggle between aristocracy and caste within the Protestant elite. He tells of the coming of the immigrants and of the ideological response of those “brahmin intellectuals” who embraced Social Darwinist and racist theories; of the creation in the Gilded Age of exclusive suburbs, resorts, and schools; and of the solidification and extension of these caste barriers against Jews and other ethnic groups in the 1920’s. This is, of course, a familiar tale, and Baltzell draws on the familiar historical, biographical, and literary sources—the opinions and careers of Henry Adams, John Jay Chapman, and A. Lawrence Lowell; the scholarship of Hofstadter, Handlin, and Schlesinger, Jr.; and the literary evidence of Fitzgerald, Mencken, and Marquand.
The more interesting facet of Baltzell’s narrative is that he counterpoints each chapter on the rise of caste barriers with one on the opposition to them by members of the Protestant upper class. Thus the anti-Semitic John Jay Chapmans and the racist Madison Grants are contrasted with Charles Eliot (President of Harvard and foe of the Immigration League), Woodrow Wilson, and the two Roosevelts. Baltzell also emphasizes the contribution to the intellectual attack on racist doctrines of old-stock scholars like Dewey, Beard, and Charles Horton Cooley, and the important role of patricians who defected from the Republican party in the Wilson administration, the New Deal, and the Kennedy administration, as well as of those who participated in the municipal reform movements of New York and Philadelphia. This reading of recent political and intellectual history is, to-be sure, a highly selective one: the rise of ethnic minorities and organized labor as a major force in American life recedes into the background, while the New Deal, the debate over American entry into World War II, and McCarthyism are seen as episodes in the struggle for the soul of the old elite. But Baltzell does not pretend to be writing a comprehensive history; and his evidence that American liberalism, together with the environmentalist and anti-racist perspectives of contemporary social science, are indebted to the Protestant patrician tradition, provides a necessary corrective to interpretations which treat both American politics and intellectual life exclusively in terms of conflict between classes and ethnic groups.
Baltzell goes on to show that if the aristocratic principle today is embodied in the old Eastern colleges and private schools, the caste principle remains entrenched in the suburban country clubs and the metropolitan men’s clubs. “Country club anti-Semitism” has become something of a joke among Jews, now that they are so heavily, and to all appearances permanently, concentrated in the upper reaches of the occupational and income hierarchy. Perhaps Baltzell takes it a bit too seriously; but then he is concerned over anti-Semitism as a blot on the best traditions of the establishment rather than as a social problem or an actual hardship for Jews in its own right. His outrage also diverts him from any discussion of the tendency of Jews and other minorities to create parallel structures of ethnically homogeneous resorts and clubs, thus perpetuating the kind of separatism he deplores.
The metropolitan clubs, however, are another matter altogether. Baltzell demonstrates that their denial of membership to Jews is closely related to the almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon composition of the top leadership of our largest corporations. His chief horrible example is the Duquesne Club of Pittsburgh, which is the informal meeting place for executives of the steel industry. Since the major corporations have not yet adapted to the ethnic diversity of the white population and to the economic and educational rise of the children of immigrants, it is small wonder that they have not made the slightest contribution to winning full civil rights and equal job opportunities for Negroes. Baltzell quotes a Coca-Cola executive who, when asked about his company’s stand on the racial issue, replied: “Our problem is to walk a very fine line and be friends with everybody. I’ve heard the phrase ‘Stand Up and Be Counted’ for so long from both sides that I’m sick of it. Sure we want to stand up and be counted, but on both sides of the fence. For God’s sake, why don’t they let us go on selling a delicious and refreshing beverage to anybody who’s got a gullet he can pour it down.”
The genteel anti-Semitism of the metropolitan clubs frequented by executives is further reflected in the college recruiting policies of the corporations. In turn, the executives who enter politics give local Republican organizations their predominantly Anglo-Saxon cast, though after each GOP debacle at the polls Republican leaders fill the air with demands that the party “broaden its base” by attracting other ethnic groups. Baltzell wants the corporations to reform themselves: “Top managers must be ‘uncommon men’ and take the lead rather than wait to be pushed by FEPC legislation, the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, or the American Civil Liberties Union. Moreover, if management waits until the state takes the initiative, it will have the statism it deserves. The national corporation must now be seen as a moral community whose duty it is to set standards on a national scale.”
The trouble with this demand is that today’s corporate elite overlaps, but is not identical with, the old Protestant establishment. There is little likelihood that the best civic traditions of the latter will spread throughout the business world. The aggressive and politically retrograde role of Western business communities in backing Gold-water and financing radical-right causes is no transitory phenomenon. Even the radical right, to be sure, strives to avoid the appearance of anti-Semitism, but this is hardly reason to believe that it can provide responsible moral and political leadership on a national scale. Baltzell is surely right to treat anti-Semitism as evidence of caste irresponsibility; however, it does not follow that its disappearance will insure the flourishing of the aristocratic noblesse oblige he extols.
Baltzell is most illuminating when he confines himself to the Eastern elite, which he knows at first hand and whose Philadelphia branch he has previously studied. He has a particularly good eye for crucial generational differences. The Wilsons and the Roosevelts were patrician reformers who never quite overcame their upper-class reserve and distaste for members of the ethnic minority groups politically allied with them. The great divide separating them from the Kennedy generation, Baltzell suggests, was service in the armed forces during World War II. This experience most nearly realized “the American ideal of equality of opportunity and a hierarchically organized social structure. . . . It is hard to believe that down in Washington on the New Frontier the accidents of birth meant much to leaders of men who shared a common war experience, a common educational background and common ideals about our democracy.”
The “common educational background” to which Baltzell refers is, of course, the elite private schools and colleges. Both the faculties and the student bodies of our major universities have during the years since World War II transformed themselves into “ethnic aristocracies drawing on a truly national pool of talent.” The kinds of contacts between Jews and non-Jews that now prevail in academic, professional, and intellectual circles may very well prefigure future relations in widening upper-middle-class circles. Although the trend toward ethnic-religious separatism is a reality, there is also, as Baltzell notes, a counter-trend toward greater employment of Jews in some of the newer industries (especially in technical positions), and toward increased participation by Jews in politics, civic groups, and community-wide voluntary associations. It is probably too early to say which trend is likely to predominate, although one may doubt whether the attitude of the patrician elite will be quite as decisive as Baltzell believes.
Yet even in university circles, relations between Jews and non-Jews are not as free of frictions and covert animosities as is suggested by the remark of a professor whom Baltzell quotes: “It is not that some of my best friends are Jews—as a matter of fact, most of my best friends are.” The old caste attitudes and stereotypes of the Jew as parvenu have little to do with these newer relations and the particular tensions they breed. Baltzell is so concerned with the residue of classic genteel anti-Semitism that he provides scant guidance on this score. For example, he cites numerous instances of social discrimination against prominent men of Jewish origin who have attended the best schools, married non-Jews, and have even converted, or had fathers who converted, to Christianity. (He even repeats a few stories of slights suffered by Barry Gold-water.) These incidents dramatically underline the irrationality of surviving caste barriers, but one wants to ask: What about men who haven’t converted, who still value their Jewish heritage, whether in religious or secular terms? Are there not subtle differences in character and style between Jews and non-Jews that the former may wish to maintain? What about the whole issue of preserving Jewish identity in prosperous middle-class America?
This is not Baltzell’s subject and it is perhaps unfair to tax him for ignoring it. The Protestant caste attitudes he examines have little to do with the kinds of relations between Jews and non-Jews that are now developing. Undoubtedly, the group images formed in present academic, professional, and intellectual circles reflect the subtle realities of ethnic differences more closely than the standard stereotypes of Jew and goy of an earlier period. More or less accurately, non-Jews in these circles are apt to attribute to Jews such traits as intellectuality, political liberalism, intense parental solicitude with close bonds between mothers and sons, strong attachment to the extended family, a liking for food and physical comforts in general, volubility and emotional expressiveness, fear of violence, and ironic humor. These traits obviously will be perceived only where there is considerable intimacy in informal social contexts. And they may be evaluated either positively or negatively—either “anti-Semitically” or “philo-Semitically,” to use labels that are perhaps too strong in this connection.
Jews living in such environments, for their part, perceive certain distinctive WASP traits that also have little to do with formal religious affiliation or with traditional hostile stereotypes. Again more or less accurately, they often see Anglo-Saxons as emotionally reserved, prone to attach greater value to formally correct manners, inclined to resist contemporary fashions and innovations, loyal to institutional ties but less so to kin, less permissive in child-rearing, and touched with residual asceticism, if not puritanism. These traits, too, may be evaluated positively or negatively.
Thus each group tends to develop new stereotypes of the other as a result of closer contact. The new images, whether favorably or unfavorably evaluated, are far more accurate than the older ones, which are long outdated and were always distorted by projective thinking. Such new contacts between Jews and Anglo-Saxon Protestants in upper-middle-class circles perhaps have little relevance to traditional anti-Semitism or to the character of the dominant elites in American society. Yet they may well be opening a new chapter in the relations between Jews and non-Jews in America.
1 Random House, 429 pp., $6.95.