Is America disintegrating into anarchy and civil war among races, religions, and regions? Is the country more divided than ever before? The answer is no. The social and economic divides among white Northerners and white Southerners, Blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants and Jews were much more intense in 1920 than they are today in 2020. What has happened is that the formerly unified, mostly Northern mainline Protestant American establishment has—perhaps temporarily—broken down, allowing the actual diversity of interests and opinions in the United States to be expressed rather than suppressed. If the emerging woke national establishment has its way, however, that diversity of viewpoints and values will soon be suppressed once again, in favor of an intolerant and exclusive doctrine that greatly resembles the old-time Social Gospel from which it is derived.
With the exceptions of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, every American president between 1861 and 1933 was a Republican mainline Protestant from the North or Midwest. The Republican Party, still the Lincoln coalition of Northern industrialists and Yankee Protestants, dominated Congress in the same era. Industry and finance were in the hands of a small number of Northeastern financiers, many of them old-stock Northeastern Protestants like J.P. Morgan. While there were some important Jewish financiers, Jews along with Catholics were kept out of many snobbish Wall Street firms until well after World War II.
The New Deal revolution of the 1930s is badly misunderstood, both politically and culturally, when it is treated as a left-wing rebellion against right-wing capitalism. Fundamentally it represented the partial overthrow of Yankee Protestant hegemony in American society by a coalition of outsiders, chiefly provincial Southern and Western whites and European-American immigrants in the North, many of them Catholic.
The Democratic Party that dominated the United States between the 1930s and the 1980s had a few Yankee progressive members, but it was essentially the old Jacksonian alliance of white Southerners and non-British “white ethnics” in the North. If Harry Truman is understood correctly as a cultural Southerner from Missouri, then with one exception every Democratic president between Roosevelt and Obama was a white Southerner—Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. The one exception was John F. Kennedy, from the other wing of the Jacksonian anti-Yankee alliance of Southerners and Irish Americans. Meanwhile, the Solid South combined with the seniority system ensured that Southerners, many of them segregationists, dominated Congress and the Senate throughout the New Deal era.
Most New Deal Democratic politicians were not anti-capitalist or opposed to industry. They often represented socially conservative local business elites who resented the fact that Northern bankers often would only finance infrastructure projects in the South and West that locked those regions into their assigned roles as resource colonies for factories in the Midwest and Northeast.
To break this neocolonial pattern of Northeastern economic domination, New Deal Democrats used federal state capitalism to industrialize and modernize the Southern and Western periphery, by means of rural electrification cooperatives, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other hydropower projects, defense production plants assigned to the South and West during World War II, and the interstate highway system (a favorite project of FDR which was only enacted under Eisenhower). In short, Southern and Western politicians and their Northern white ethnic allies who dominated the federal government in the New Deal era deployed federal state capitalism to do an end run around unsympathetic Yankee capitalists, not to advance toward socialism or social democracy.
The New Deal era also witnessed the downfall of the post-Civil War New England/Midwestern hegemony in American literature and culture. Following World War I, advanced intellectuals ridiculed the Puritan tradition in New England and its offshoot, the upper Midwest, home of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. As Kenneth Rexroth notes in American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971), after World War II Southern writers and professors of literature like Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks infiltrated Ivy League literature departments, which Jewish Americans were also beginning to break into:
[The Southerners] had in the days of “Humanist controversy” [in the 1920s and 1930s] staked out a number of influential book-reviewing claims. (It should be explained that “Humanism” was a drive on the part of conservative and academic critics under the leadership of Irving Babbitt, teacher of French at Harvard and disciple of Maurras, to capture book-reviewing jobs from the followers of H.L. Mencken and the Midwesterners) … As the years went by, they formed an alliance with the ex-Communist militant anti-Stalinists …
The postwar literary world underwent an ethnic succession, in which many white Southerners—including Willie Morris, Tom Wolfe, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote—together with Jewish writers and intellectuals like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and many others shouldered aside Northeastern WASP professors and novelists and purged the American literary canon of New Englanders like Longfellow, Whittier, and the Fireside Poets. The poet Robert Lowell was one of the few Mayflower types of his generation in the post-1945 American literary intelligentsia, and he was a protégé of the Southern poet Allen Tate.
Meanwhile, another faction loosely affiliated with the New Deal Democrats tried to break the control of rich Northeasterners over the fine arts. Holger Cahill, an Icelandic immigrant who headed the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, was inspired by the revolutionary Mexican muralist movement to subsidize murals showing local history or themes in federal courthouses in the South and West. Just as the New Deal tried to decentralize political and economic power away from the Northeast, so it repudiated the idea that the fine arts were luxury goods produced for rich snobs by a few galleries in New York and Boston. Robert L. Dorman’s study of New Deal art is entitled Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920-1945 (2003).
Driven from the White House for half a century after 1932, marginalized in Congress and circumvented by federal state capitalism, the Northern mainline Protestant elite managed to preserve its dominance in three areas: The “Deep State,” the major nonprofit foundations, and elite prep schools and universities. In the movie The Good Shepherd (2007), Joe Pesci’s Mafioso says to Matt Damon’s WASP CIA agent: “You know, we Italians have our families and the church, the Irish have the homeland, the Jews their tradition, the [Blacks] their music. What do you guys have?” Damon’s character replies: “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
In addition to the “Deep State,” other national institutions that the neo-Jacksonians of the New Deal coalition never conquered in their revolution against Yankeedom include the major nonprofit foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and the Ivy League universities. The culture of what might be called the NGO-academic-spook complex remained deeply rooted in the Social Gospel wing of Northern mainline Protestantism of the early 1900s.
The Social Gospel progressivism these institutions have long embraced is a Janus-faced tradition. One face is technocratic, holding that social and global conflicts, rather than reflecting the tragic nature of human existence, are “problems” which can be “solved” by nonpartisan experts guided by something called “social science.” The other face of Social Gospelism is irrational, and rooted in post-millennial Protestant theology convinced that we are on the verge of a world of peace and prosperity, if only wicked people at home and wicked regimes abroad can be crushed once and for all.
This mentality with its bizarre synthesis of science-inspired technocracy and millenniarian zeal, was shared by many turn-of-the-century Progressives, including Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born Northern transplant. As Dorothy Ross points out in The Origins of American Social Science (1990), Wilson, like many leading American Progressives, was the child of a mainline Protestant minister.
Shedding its specifically Northern mainline Protestant cultural attributes, a version of Social Gospel Protestantism has mutated into the secular religion of wokeness, the orthodoxy of the universities and the increasingly important nonprofit sector. Its converts include many of the affluent white secular children and grandchildren of members of mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists, which are hemorrhaging membership to the category of religious “nones.”
By evolving from an ethnoregional culture into a crusading secular creed disseminated by the universities, the public school system, the corporate media, and corporate HR departments, post-Protestant wokeness is capable of assimilating anyone, of any race or ethnicity, native-born or immigrant, who is willing to conform to its weird rituals and snobbish etiquette. The Long Island lockjaw accent has been replaced by the constantly updated “woke” dialect of the emerging American elite as a status marker. You may have an Asian or Spanish surname, but if you know what “nonbinary” means and say “Latinx” (a term rejected by the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American origin) then you are potentially eligible for membership in the new national ruling class.
The recent conversion to wokeness of the legacy media and big business can be attributed to the increasing reliance of both sectors on a few prestige universities to recruit their top staff. In living memory, if you wanted a job in a prestigious law firm or company in Dallas or Atlanta, you would do well to attend the local state or elite private university, to make connections with the offspring of the local gentry; being an Ivy League graduate, far from being a plus, might well be held against you. The nationalization and globalization of American business, however, has produced a new, increasingly homogeneous managerial elite filtered through a small number of Ivy League schools and high-status public universities, which serve as finishing schools for the woke overclass.
Although the woke managerial culture in the United States has lost most of the vestiges of its Yankee mainline Protestant origins, the emerging American national oligarchy has the same enemies as the old New England-Midwestern WASP oligarchy: white Southerners, Catholic white ethnics and observant Jews. This became clear in the summer of 2020. The woke left not only demanded the removal of statues of Confederate traitors—a perfectly reasonable demand—but also targeted Columbus, the icon of Italian Americans, and Spanish Catholic saints and conquistadors. Democratic liberals warned, in the tones of 19th-century Yankee Protestant nativists, that papists were taking over the Supreme Court. At the same time, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, Italian American by ancestry but woke by culture, exhibited a striking double standard when it came to public gatherings by left-wing protesters on the one hand and, on the other, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.
The increasingly powerful and intolerant woke national overclass justifies its cultural iconoclasm in the name of oppressed minorities. But this is just an excuse for a top-down program of cultural imperialism by mostly white, affluent, college-educated managers and professionals and rentiers. Woke attitudes are much less common among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans than among the white college-educated elite.
What we are witnessing is a power grab carried out chiefly by some white Americans against other white Americans. The goal of the new woke national establishment, the successor to the old Northeastern mainline Protestant establishment that was temporarily displaced by the neo-Jacksonian New Deal Democratic coalition, is to stigmatize, humiliate and disempower recalcitrant Southern, Catholic, and Jewish whites, along with members of ethnic and racial minorities who refuse to be assimilated into the new national orthodoxy disseminated from New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the prestigious private universities of New England. Properly understood, the Great Awokening is the revenge of the Yankees.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.