The debate over ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is just another cover for power dynamics
Is the phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’ racist? Across the pond, a Republican Party policy document defending ‘Anglo-Saxon political traditions’ has re-ignited this argument. But it’s less about race than an increasingly hotly-contested front in America’s intra-elite class war.
For many liberal Americans, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ today connotes white supremacy. In England, though, the story is somewhat different — and inflected more by class and culture than clear differences of skin colour.
When the late Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, was asked by a journalist what advice he’d give someone seeking to become rich today, he replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”
The closest thing the British Isles has to an ethnic subgroup with a stranglehold on political power is arguably this residual Norman aristocracy, not the Anglo-Saxons. Descendants of the 1066 invaders remain overrepresented in positions of wealth and power, even as Norman-origin names predominate in England’s middle and upper classes.
But this dimension of class is largely absent from arguments about ‘Anglo-Saxon’ across the pond. American law and politics does indeed incorporate many traditions with antecedents in England. Heavily represented among the founders and subsequent administrators of this regime, is a group that was until recently the equivalent of America’s Normans.
This group, still often synonymous with America’s ruling class, are the WASPs or ‘white Anglo-Saxon Protestants’. It’s this caucus whose political outlook and institutions are, for good or ill, identified in the US with the phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
But just as with the once-Norman aristocracy, this has over time become more a caste than a clearly defined ethnic group. And in any case, this heritage isn’t even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ properly speaking. Such common-law practices that were adopted by America’s English founders largely date from the post-1066 Norman era, when the Norman invaders from France (in fact ethnically Scandinavian) installed a new aristocracy over the heads of the Germanic tribes that then dominated mainland England, after themselves displacing the Celts.
In other words, there are no ethno-nationalist conclusions to draw from those elements of America’s political heritage that are English. But this is irrelevant in a setting where the meaning of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is totemic. Instead, we find the complex early history of European tribes, invasions and counter-invasions flattened into a generic idea, either of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in a positive sense, or ‘whiteness’ in a negative one.
The upshot of all this is a discourse that struggles to comprehend power operating on any axis other than skin colour. And yet this is precisely the framing that makes the debate over ‘Anglo-Saxon’ intelligible. That is, it’s less about race than it is about the fact that the WASPs are losing their hegemony, and a new liberal elite seeks to replace them with its own people and values. Traducing WASP institutions and values is a crucial part of that project.