he rise of populism in Europe—and here in the United States by way of Donald Trump—is a rebellion against postmodern weightlessness. Political commentators are right to point out voter concerns about immigration, economic distress caused by globalization, and the technocratic establishment that holds them in disdain. But underneath these concerns lies a metaphysical disquiet.
A nation is united by a shared loyalty. We read a great deal about income inequality and the growing wealth gap between today’s meritocratic winners and everybody else. But we’ve also been through a long season of cultural dissolution, or at least cultural loosening. The result has been an expanded lifestyle freedom (that mostly benefits the meritocratic elite). Yet it’s less and less clear what’s at the center of our common life. Although our tradition of individualism can blind us to this loss, it’s the dark center around which so many of our current concerns revolve.
Populism is a response to this vacuum more than a movement of economic grievances, or even anti-immigrant sentiment. It reflects a concern that our common life lacks metaphysical dignity: There’s no longer something greater than utility or some other bloodless good capable of binding us together strongly enough that the rich and powerful remain accountable.
In modern Europe, the nation superseded the Church as the source of metaphysical dignity for communal life. Since World War II, however, the nation has waned, not just because of the centralizing logic of the European Union, but also as a result of the hard lessons learned about the dangers of nationalism. Contemporary European populism reacts against that weakening. It seeks to reinvigorate the nation, not just legally, but symbolically as well.
I’m sympathetic. A man should be proud of where he’s from. We’re ennobled by our loyalties to our motherlands, which is why I think patriotism is something to be encouraged and cherished. But I don’t think European populism can succeed, at least not just as a revived nationalism. In fact, I’m not convinced supporters of right-wing populism actually want nationalism, at least not of the sort that thrilled earlier generations of French, English, and Germans. No matter what their views on immigration, they desire a future that participates in the pluralism that characterizes our time. The difficulty comes when one tries to harmonize that with an equal, perhaps more powerful, need to have a place to stand in our postmodern, dissolving world. The nation seems the natural fallback. Only someone with executive club privileges at international airports can be part of a “global community.” The old nationalist themes, however inadequate, at least offer hope for revived metaphysical density in public life.
The temptation we face is to denounce the inadequacies of nationalism while ignoring the deeper need for metaphysical density. In France, establishment figures regard the National Front with moral horror. It’s anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so forth. A few years ago in the Netherlands, populist leader Geert Wilders was charged with hate speech. Germans recoil from anything that has the real or imagined odor of Nazism, which populism often has, given the fact that Nazism made a god of German identity and thus can still discredit even moderate forms of patriotism.
In the United States, Donald Trump has unified a significant portion of the American right around his blunt and blustering populist gestures. He does not promise new programs or policies to meet economic needs. Instead, he uses the “we” word—“We will be great again”—and offers himself as a strong man who will revive national pride. Again, establishment figures often miss the profound political reality as they harrumph about Trump and his followers being anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant.
Criticism of populist extremism is needed, to be sure. But I fear our political establishments, here and in Europe, can’t or won’t address the deeper political crisis. In a world being transformed by economic globalization and a cultural revolution that exalts individual desires and choices, the driving questions are Where do I belong? and Who stands with me?
ne hundred years ago, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft, a shared community of meaning, and Gesellschaft, the marketplace and other modes of social organization we adopt to promote our interests and maximize utility. We can belong to a Gemeinschaft, but not a Gesellschaft.
Populism in Europe, and to a certain extent here in America, reflects the fact that in recent decades, our political cultures increasingly encourage us to see our common lives together as a form of Gesellschaft. All the major intellectual movements since the 1960s have been essentially critical, seeking to loosen the emotional claims an inherited Gemeinschaft makes on individuals. Postmodern culture in the West has redescribed traditional forms of belonging as bondage and subservience. At the same time, our political debates have become more technocratic, as if the great question of public life is which party will make us richer, healthier, and better able to satisfy our personal preferences.
All things being equal, most people want to be richer, healthier, and freer to get and do what they want. But they want more than what technocrats promise. Ordinary people are awakening to the decline in Gemeinschaft, which leads to a sense of isolation and vulnerability—and a suspicion, often accurate, that one’s betters are no longer loyal to a common project that includes them. These consequences drive support for Donald Trump, as well as populists in Europe and elsewhere.
We will fail if we only knock down the stupid, even dangerous answers offered by populist movements and leaders. We need to find a revived vocabulary of belonging that makes sense for our times. People desire inspiration that strengthens our bonds of loyalty to one another. That’s a rhetorical project, not a technocratic one. It involves a renewed social imagination, not well-designed social policies.
’m biased, of course, but to my mind religious convictions and religious communities hold the most promise for this revival. To belong to God! To stand with the people of God! This sacred Gemeinschaft transcends the political community. But it does not abandon it. As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in his observations of American democracy, there’s a superabundance of metaphysical density in religious community, so much so that it can infuse secular projects, including the nation-state, with more than instrumental, utilitarian meaning.
I see this donation of metaphysical density in the extraordinary witness of forgiveness given by family members of those killed by Dylann Roof in a Charleston church. A similar reparative gesture came during the many funerals and memorial services for those killed by Muslim terrorists in San Bernardino in November. The interfaith prayer services in the following weeks have done more to restore a sense of communal solidarity than have the many marching under the thin affirmation Je suis Charlie. When a Catholic priest, Muslim imam, and Protestant minister enter into a sacred place together, even the most secularized person senses that profound, often divisive convictions are at stake. Affirming freedom of speech is easy for a modern person in the West. Nothing is at risk, existentially. When men and women of different faiths venture the risks of embrace, everything is at stake, which is why the gesture is so much more powerful—and so much more effective.
he notion that we’ve become more egalitarian over the last two generations is hogwash. All of our presidents since Ronald Reagan are Ivy League graduates of one sort or another. Half of the men who lost to them in the general elections are as well. All the current Justices on the Supreme Court went to Yale or Harvard law schools. The same remarkable concentration is true in business, especially if we consider the greater Ivies, the top tier of schools that includes the University of Chicago, Duke, Stanford, and other highly selective institutions, as well as tony liberal arts colleges.
Gone are the Lyndon Johnsons and Tip O’Neills, men who ascended to power without assistance from establishment institutions such as Harvard or Yale. Gone are cigar-chomping labor bosses like George Meany, who started out as a plumber in the Bronx. The most powerful union head in recent years was Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
We’re told that these once WASP-dominated institutions and the elite they produce are multicultural, and that this demonstrates that our country’s leadership class is more diverse than it once was. That’s an illusion. A monoculture sits atop our society, more so than at any point in our history. We’re being ruled by post-ethnic, post-Protestant WASPs. And they’re now more powerful than the old WASP elite once was.
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was always a bit of a misnomer. Some of the richest and most powerful men of the early twentieth century were Scots-Irish, not Anglo-Saxon. People of German, Dutch, and French Huguenot descent were also prominent. Roosevelt is not an Anglo-Saxon name. But we live at a distance from Europe, so in the American context, all Protestants with Northern European backgrounds were viewed as WASPs. Well into the second half of the twentieth century, WASPs held the important positions in finance. They headed up the major companies, had top roles in government, and were university presidents.
The rest of society largely accepted this predominance. The Irish Catholics in Boston and elsewhere rebelled more than a century ago, continuing their tradition of anti-English solidarity. But American culture as a whole revolved around the WASP center. Joseph Kennedy sent his sons to Harvard, not Boston College. Jewish celebrities, and others with Eastern European or Italian surnames, adopted WASP stage names: Irving Berlin, George Burns, Rock Hudson, Dean Martin.
The Protestantism in WASP culture was not an afterthought. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Congregational churches were once important institutions. Collectively, they were called “mainline Protestantism,” a designation meant to signal the central, authoritative role that these churches played in shaping the Christian consensus in America. Mainline Christianity was liberal, not in the narrow, political sense we usually give to the word, but in its broader meaning. Being “liberal” in religion meant being open and flexible when it came to dogma, earnest and sincere in morality, and confident that the leading edges of innovation in America are part of God’s greater plan for all mankind.
oung people familiar with the political culture of the last few decades, in which religious conservatives have been at odds with secular liberals, often have difficulty grasping the fact that, until recently, all the progressive movements in American politics were promoted and heavily influenced by the mainline Protestant churches. This was not only true of the civil rights movement, but earlier movements as well. Abolitionism was a church-based political movement. More than one hundred years ago, the Social Gospel did much to prepare the American capitalist class to accept and support the modern welfare state. Liberal WASPs led the most ambitious effort of social engineering in American history, Prohibition. They also promoted pacifism, disarmament, and world government after World War I; after World War II, they got behind America’s Cold War role as defender of the free world. Today’s liberal internationalism and arguments in favor of “soft power” as a way to advance American interests are direct descendants of these influential Christian outlooks on foreign affairs.
In 1960, the influence of mainline Protestantism seemed all-powerful. But within a decade it was collapsing. Yet leading WASP institutions have not declined. To an unprecedented degree, they now have a near monopoly on what counts as elite. The vast majority of parents in America think like Joe Kennedy. As a result, for two or three generations, WASP institutions have socialized whites of different backgrounds, and non-whites as well, instilling in them the main elements of the evolved WASP worldview. The New York Times is owned by a Jewish family. The editors and reporters come from many different backgrounds. But it is an entirely reliable organ of the new WASP culture.
In short, over the last fifty years, WASP culture has reinvented itself as a post-ethnic and post-Protestant elite. Post-Protestant WASPs are not necessarily Anglo-Saxon, usually aren’t Protestant in any religious sense, and sometimes aren’t white, but they have been formed by America’s establishment institutions, almost all of which are historically WASP institutions. It’s a sign of the success of the WASP project of reinventing itself as a post-Protestant, post-ethnic ruling class that New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s mother is a Smith graduate, his father a Yale graduate, and he has a master’s degree from Columbia. The multicultural populists of our day have Ivy League pedigrees.
The old WASP culture justified its supereminence historically. The Daughters of the American Revolution and other organizations laid claim to hereditary title as the nation’s elite. The new WASP culture has jettisoned this ethnocentric approach, which in any event always ran counter to the American democratic ideal. It justifies its power by claiming to be an inclusive meritocracy. Yet the claim to title as the nation’s elite—a central element of WASP culture—remains firmly in place. They maintain a strong conviction that they rule by an almost divine right and that they should set the moral tone for the nation.
he ideologies of multiculturalism provide key concepts for post-Protestant WASP theology. With a word like “diversity” so often on their lips, post-Protestant WASPs disguise the remarkable cultural homogeneity of their institutions and communities, even as the specifically ethnic character of WASP culture has fallen by the wayside. (Thus the pseudo-paradox of widely self-enforced political correctness in a supposedly “diverse” community.) If we set aside the ridiculous idea that skin color or ethnic descent are all-determinative, we can see with clarity the enduring power of a now post-Protestant WASP culture.
People educated at the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, and Stanford dominate Barack Obama’s White House. Few look like WASPs, but nearly all have been shaped by WASP institutions. The president’s consigliere, Valerie Jarrett, had an international upbringing equal to that of Henry Adams and went to Stanford. Michelle Obama graduated from Princeton and Harvard. Obama himself is very much the WASP, all the way down to his cool demeanor, self-possessed manner, and presumption that he holds the moral high ground. This is not surprising. His mother was a post-Protestant WASP, as were the grandparents who raised him. He went to an elite progressive high school in Honolulu founded by Congregationalists, and then to Occidental College, a progressive liberal arts college founded by Presbyterian clergy. He transferred to Columbia University, then went to Harvard for law school. His heartfelt appreciation for his African roots and his work as a community organizer reflect the core values of post-Protestant WASP culture: an embrace of diversity that makes it “post-” and the noblesse oblige that makes it WASP.
Cal Berkeley history professor David Hollinger has written perceptive essays about the enduring influence of mainline Protestantism in secularized forms, but nobody does surveys of post-Protestant WASPs. For the most part, we lack a sociological imagination plastic enough to recognize the existence of a distinct ruling class culture that transcends race- and ethnicity-based categories. We’re so fixated on identity politics that we fail to see the larger post-Protestant WASP consensus.
This invisibility as a distinct culture provides the post-Protestant WASPs with a great political advantage. They are able to oversee identity politics without themselves appearing to be the superordinate social class. Post-Protestant WASPs pose as inclusive, while practicing a ruthless politics. Those who oppose them are labeled “extremists” and dismissed as “bigots.” Anyone who has dissented from post-Protestant WASP orthodoxies on a college campus knows how that works.
lthough our ruling class remains unstudied by sociologists, we do know the political and social attitudes of Nones, the people who check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. They’re not all post-Protestant WASPs, but they’re the growing cohort in American society, now accounting for more than 20 percent of all Americans. They are to the post-Protestant WASP ruling class what Evangelical churchgoers are to the religious right. The Nones have become cultural foot soldiers who provide post-Protestant WASPs with the political muscle they need to sustain their status as America’s establishment.
A 2012 Pew study reports that 72 percent of Nones support legalized abortion, as compared to 53 percent of the general population. Seventy-three percent support same-sex marriage, versus 48 percent of the public at large. The researchers for Pew didn’t ask about doctor-assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, and reproductive technology, but I’d be very surprised if the Nones don’t follow the same pattern. I’m confident that the same holds for attitudes toward legalizing drug use, the censorship of pornography, and other issues that pertain to our public culture. A simple survey of the opinions of the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in all likelihood will provide an accurate account of what Nones as a whole believe about morality, culture, and politics.
In 2000, 61 percent of Nones voted for Al Gore. In 2004, 67 percent went for John Kerry. The year 2008 saw 75 percent casting their ballot for Barack Obama, and 70 percent did the same in 2012. These overwhelming majorities strongly suggest that Nones are highly motivated by moral and cultural issues. They’re “values voters,” secular values voters, whose primary commitment is to affirm the freedom of each individual to define the meaning of life for himself. Under the leadership of the post-Protestant WASPs who run almost all our establishment institutions, the Nones are the most dynamic force in our cultural and electoral politics. They now drive the culture wars. They’re the twenty-first-century values voters who are altering the political landscape.
t the end of November, I had a scheduled surgery. It required a few weeks of recovery, which meant I had long stretches for reading. Three novels stood out. One was by Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind. The story revolves around Mevlut Karataş, who comes from a rural village to Istanbul in the 1960s to join his father as a street vendor. They sell boza in the winter months, a slightly fermented drink (around one percent alcohol) that traditional Ottoman culture allowed as an exception to the Muslim prohibition of alcohol. It was officially deemed nonalcoholic even though it’s not, a ruse known to everyone, yet endorsed by most.
This contradiction between what something is said to be and what it actually is serves as the leitmotif of the novel. Mevlut’s cousin, also in Istanbul with his father seeking an escape from rural poverty, marries a girl from the village. At the wedding, Mevlut is smitten by one of her sisters, and writes her love letters. However, another cousin has deceived him, saying that the girl Mevlut has fallen for is the second sister, not the third (whom the cousin hopes to marry). And so the letters are officially addressed to the second sister, but intended for the third.
The letters work. The second sister, the one whose name is on the letters, is persuaded to elope. Mevlut, though deceived, finds himself blissfully happy to be married to her. Like the boza that is officially nonalcoholic and nevertheless brings cheer, Mevlut’s love letters are both misaddressed and wonderfully effective for his happiness.
Mevlut, whose role as a boza street vendor becomes more and more archaic as the decades roll forward to the present day, clearly serves as an image of the Ottoman genius for life, at least as Pamuk sees it. He navigates toward kindness, happiness, and piety without insisting upon a perfect coordination of the official and the actual, what’s stipulated and what’s done. He exhibits a soft soulfulness, a desire for transcendence that forgives humanity’s all-too-worldly limitations. Mevlut’s lack of worldly success and his old-fashioned role suggest that Pamuk knows only too well that this sensibility has little chance in modern Turkey, where a grasping materialism competes with a rigid Islamism.
While Pamuk’s novel is a sprawling work with many voices that gathers up decades and generations, What Was Before, by German writer Martin Mosebach, is a jewel box novel focused on just a few months of life in Frankfurt. Matthew Schmitz provides a fine review in this issue, drawing attention to the way in which the smallest details, gestures, and intimations spark remarkable changes in the romantic, social, and financial lives of the characters.
Mosebach is a highly regarded novelist in Germany. This is his first novel translated into English. Even in translation, the language is intoxicating. There is a great deal of literary pleasure to be had in reading What Was Before.
And finally, Laurus, Eugene Vodolazkin’s exuberant, technicolor story of a fictional medieval Russian saint. A scholar of medieval Russian history and folklore, Vodolazkin has a Tolkien-like ability to bring his readers into a world alive with angels and demons, miracle and mystery. With sly skill he links this other world of sinners and saints to our own, giving this remarkable novel a spiritual immediacy that makes you want to pray when you put it down. We’ll have a full review in a forthcoming issue, but at this point I can say that for First Things readers, this is a must-read book.