If the announcement of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s decision to “step back” from royal duties has reminded us of anything, it’s that Americans are bizarrely fascinated by the British royal family…
What is this WASP culture, its path and narrative? Ross Douthat in an op-ed honoring deceased President George H.W. Bush describes WASP virtues like a “spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going — a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success.” I would add to this a memorializing of certain middle-class traits of personal success (the “self-made man”); individualism and ambition; financial thrift; civic participation; civility; and intellectual acumen. Even if we don’t possess these traits ourselves (and Americans, sadly, increasingly do not!), a quick glance at the heroes of our TV shows and movies (e.g. Jack Ryan, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker) suggests we think those qualities epitomize the best of what it means to be American.
Moreover, for all the attacks on former President Obama, he is, as American academic Walter Russel Mead noted, “one of the neo-Waspiest men in the country.” Mead explains:
He is not a product of Kenyan villages or third world socialism. He was educated at the Hawaiian equivalent of a New England prep school, and spent his formative years in the Ivies. He has much more in common with Harvard-educated technocrats like McGeorge Bundy than with African freedom fighters and third world socialists of the 1970s.
President Obama’s vision of a strong central government leading the people along the paths of truth and righteousness has “New England” stamped all over it. Puritan Boston believed in a powerful government whose duty was to promote moral behavior and punish the immoral; by 1800 many of the Puritan descendants were turning Unitarian and modernist, but while they lost their love of Christian doctrine they never abandoned their faith in the Godly Commonwealth and the duty of the “virtuous” to make the rest of the world behave.
People like Obama are what Mead calls “neo-WASPs,” those whose personal family trees have no connection to Anglos or Saxons, and may not even be Protestant, but who are “steeped in and helped carry forward a set of ideas and values that were shaped in British history and the American experience.”