A powerful and original argument that traces the roots of our present crisis of authority to an unlikely source: the meritocracy.
Over the past decade, Americans watched in bafflement and rage as one institution after another – from Wall Street to Congress, the Catholic Church to corporate America, even Major League Baseball – imploded under the weight of corruption and incompetence. In the wake of the Fail Decade, Americans have historically low levels of trust in their institutions; the social contract between ordinary citizens and elites lies in tatters.
How did we get here? With Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes offers a radically novel answer. Since the 1960s, as the meritocracy elevated a more diverse group of men and women into power, they learned to embrace the accelerating inequality that had placed them near the very top. Their ascension heightened social distance and spawned a new American elite--one more prone to failure and corruption than any that came before it.
Mixing deft political analysis, timely social commentary, and deep historical understanding, Twilight of the Elites describes how the society we have come to inhabit – utterly forgiving at the top and relentlessly punitive at the bottom – produces leaders who are out of touch with the people they have been trusted to govern. Hayes argues that the public's failure to trust the federal government, corporate America, and the media has led to a crisis of authority that threatens to engulf not just our politics but our day-to-day lives.
Upending well-worn ideological and partisan categories, Hayes entirely reorients our perspective on our times. Twilight of the Elites is the defining work of social criticism for the post-bailout age.
Calling the decade of the 2000s the "fail decade," Hayes, editor at large of the Nation and host of MSNBC's Up w/ Chris Hayes, highlights the implosion of trusted American institutions Enron, Wall Street, Congress, the Catholic Church, and Major League Baseball tracing the origins of the present crisis of authority to our elite meritocracy. While the WASP establishment emphasized "humility, prudence and lineage," the current meritocracy celebrates raw ambition, achievement, and brains, and it's learned to embrace the alarming inequality that keeps its members near the top. The result, Hayes notes, is a society with extremely high and rising inequality, without social mobility, presided over by overachievers who enjoy tremendous financial and political clout, yet face no actual punishment for failing at their duties. The lively and well-informed Hayes warns that if we ignore our extreme inequality, those at the top become more prone to corruption, social isolation, and failure. As examples, he pinpoints the devastating effects of social distance that led to recent scandals and catastrophes: the fundamental gap between priests and the parishioners whose children were victimized; the disproportionate distance between the civilian elite and our soldiers; and during the financial crisis, the distance between those who were bailed out and those were not. Offering feasible proposals for change, this cogent social commentary urges us to reconstruct our institutions so we can once again trust them.
Insightful look into institutional disfunction
Over the last few years, Chris Hayes has emerged on the political punditry scene as a cogent and analytic liberal voice. The brand of analysis that is making him famous is on full display in this book, and it makes for thought provoking reading.
At its heart, this book is a long-form argument that increasing inequality (both financial and political) are corrupting our governing institutions and leading to repeated disasters. These disasters are happening because those who wield the greatest power over governing institutions are so far removed from the majority of peoples' experiences that they become almost incapable of seeing how their actions affect those below them. Interestingly, Chris takes great pains to show how this dynamic cannot be captured in our usual left/right political debates - the Tea Party and Occupy movement may both be outraged by similar issues like the financial industry bailouts, but tend to focus on different, and predictable, villains. In fact, I would imagine this book would be of great interest to open-minded conservative readers, who will find a lot with which they agree (although I doubt many will read it).
Chris makes a very persuasive case about the causes of our institutional failures. Where the book falls short is the too brief chapter on how these problems can be solved. The solutions end up being remarkably similar to the usual liberal redistributive policies (ones with which I agreed even before reading this book, but am not sure would persuade an open-minded skeptic), and a seemingly simplistic series of assertions that the Internet will help by allowing easier organization to promote this agenda. The Internet argument is among the least persuasive since these tools have existed for a long time now, and if anything, they've become just as useful for extending the problem of elite corruption as solving it.
In the end, it seems like the logical direction in which Chris is arguing would lead one to conclude that the political problem would best be solved moving more toward parliamentary democracy - since that system, which does not electorally punish narrower political parties, would allow for creating the kind of temporary populist left/right coalitions that seem necessary to combat self-dealing among elites. Chris does not make this argument, but it seems like a more genuine and direct answer to the problem he has identified than the ones he offers.
Chris is an excellent writer and a clear thinker. This is not the typical partisan political book that have become depressingly common. This is a very smart book on a centrally important topic, and the world is better off for it having been written.
An engaging read
Never slow or dry, always interesting, Chris Hayes presents a crystal clear case. What a book!
A way forward
While the author has a liberal slant, this writing is fair and doesn't take the liberal side over the conservative. Chris Hayes hits the nail on the head with what is wrong in American society and how it can be fixed. Mr. Hayes is a brilliant journalist and this book is an absolute must-read for anyone who is wondering how america came to the current mess of everything in society.