Twilight of an Elite?

Twilight of the ElitesAs my regular readers know, I like Chris Hayes. He’s smart. He’s knowledgeable. And he’s cute as a button. If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like Chris Hayes, even though I know he would be much more like Ezra Klein. I was really looking forward to his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Alas, it was a disappointment.

I think that Hayes is fundamentally misreading the history of our country. There haven’t been more failures over the last 30 years because the elites are worse than they used to be. Rather, in the past, we had elites on the left and the right. As long as that was the case, they kept each other in check. But since Carter (and especially since Clinton) the left has largely joined with the right.

Hayes is part of this problem. In the final (and best) chapter, he talks about how the anger on both the right and the left can be harnessed to fix our political problems. But I think this passage is very telling:

In fact, the two most energetic and important political movements of the aughts draw their popular constituency from the upper middle class: people with graduate school degrees, homes, second homes, kids in good colleges, and six-figure incomes.

Hayes, and I dare say most of the staff at The Nation and MSNBC, has a skewed sense of what “upper middle class” means. I think in terms of quintiles—and so does Hayes. The bottom 20% are the upper class; the next are the lower middle class; the next are the middle class; the next are the upper middle class; and the last are the upper class. It doesn’t matter to me how you want to subdivide that last category, if you are in it, you are upper class. It makes no difference that even Bill Gates has problems admitting that he is rich, if you are in the top 20%, you are upper class. This means if your household income is over roughly $90,000 per years you are upper class. I’m sorry if this puts editors at large at The Nation into that category. Yes, Chris, you are upper class, and until you admit to this, you won’t be able to remove the very real blinders of your class.

The other thing that has happened recently is that people like Hayes have accepted the idea that we are a meritocracy. We are not. We never have been. The idea that we can create a society in which there is equality of opportunity is as absurd as the idea that we can create a society in which there is equality of outcomes. The dumb child of a rich man will almost always do better than the smart child of a poor man—at least as long as we have an economic system that looks anything like the one we now have.

This always reminds of Tevye in Fidler on the Roof singing “If I Were a Rich Man.”[1] He notes that all the men of the villiage would come to him for advice. Why? “‘Cause when you’re rich they think you really know!” And even though Hayes admits that many of the elite should be traded in for new models, he still holds onto this idea that the elites were and could be again the “best and brightest.” It is a shockingly naive, and self-indulgent, belief—very much like the rich and famous who discover libertarianism because it tells them just what they want to believe about themselves: that handsome devil in the mirror is the best!

Despite all of this, Twilight of the Elites is a well written and thoughtful book. If you can get past its basic assumptions, there is much to like. The biggest of these is Hayes’ solution that we must strive for both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. I don’t tend to favor middle-way solutions, but this one strikes me as rather good. Unfortunately, it is about as likely to be implemented in the United States as is socialism. I won’t be holding my breath, nor will I be expecting an intellectual awaking from the Tea Party.[2]

Update (24 June 2012)

I really like this quote from the first chapter of the book:

And sure enough, the military is now the most trusted institution in all of American life, according to every poll on the topic, having managed to gain confidence from the public over the course of the decade. In the 2009 General Social Survey, the majority of Americans reported “a great deal” of trust in the armed forces. The only other institution that has seen its reputation improve and also commands “a great deal” of confidence from most Americans is the police. So while our legislative branch, the foundational pillar of our republic, is the least trusted institution in the country, out standing army and police forces are the most. Increasingly, we trust the men with the guns, not the men in suits.

The sound you hear is the founders rolling over in their graves.


[1] The song by the master, Zero Mostel :

[2] Hayes has a strange believe that the Tea Party folk are starting to wake up to the dangers big business pose to personal liberty. I think this too is extremely naive. We really need to look at the psychology that drives people. There is a reason that people would watch passively while hundreds of billions of dollars were given to the banks, but who organized the moment a black president tried to give healthcare to poor people. That shows this is not that they are unhappy about elite failure.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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