Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
by Christopher Hayes
Crown Publishing, 304 pp

Nine months after the first protests erupted, Occupy Wall Street can claim at least one unambiguous triumph: the restoration, (after years of misuse by the right), of the true meaning of the word “elite.” For too long, elites were Hollywood celebrities, tenured radicals, and the nattering nabobs of the press. Meanwhile, the upper crust whose income exploded over the last three decades—and who, not coincidentally, also ruled economic policy—escaped opprobrium. Occupy Wall Street changed that. The real elites, they reminded us, were right there, in the epicenter of our economic misery. And the protesters hung a pithy label around their necks: the one percent.

But the titans of Wall Street aren’t the only ones whom the public has come to distrust.. The “fail decade,” as Nation editor at large and MSNBC host Christopher Hayes calls it, overflowed with debacles: the intelligence failures that led to 9/11 and the Iraq War; the collapse of major firms like Enron and Lehman Brothers; the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina; the Catholic Church abuse scandal; even the steroid controversy in Major League Baseball. As Hayes argues, the cascade of failures by our most trusted institutions has produced “the crisis of authority through which we are now living.” And the theme that unites them all is the malfeasance and corruption of elites.

Hayes’s new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy comes at a time when American decline has become axiomatic. “America feels broken,” goes the first line—and it only gets more dour from there. Hayes sets his sights on twin problems that now occupy the progressive consciousness: inequality and influence. Recent works by Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Larry Bartels, Daron Acemoglu, and James Robinson have foregrounded the yawning gap between the rich and the rest. As the wealthy get wealthier, they gain greater control of the levers of policy, leading to even more wealth—all at the expense of broad-based prosperity. Echoing Acemoglu and Robinson’s concept of “extractive elites,” Hayes sees elites who have increasingly used their wealth and power to “insulate themselves from sanction, competition, and accountability”—and, I would add, risk. The result? “As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites.”

Twilight of the Elites traces the problem to a bedrock American institution: meritocracy. Hayes here revives an old critique. The 1990s saw the emergence of a progressive assault on our meritocratic faith. Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test scrutinized the SATs and the false sense of merit they inculcated. In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch wrote that meritocracy offered an opportunity to advance for the talented—in theory. In reality, it only solidified the influence of elites “by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit.”

Hayes himself is a product of that meritocratic ideal. A graduate of Brown University, Hayes’s path was essentially paved by sixth grade when he passed the entrance exam to attend New York’s Hunter High School—one of the best public schools in the country, and one in which only a standardized test determined admission. But as he points out, one test score hides much—including an entire test-preparation industry that only the wealthy can access. Hayes quotes at length the remarkable 2010 commencement address by 18-year-old Justin Hudson, who laid bare the lie of merit that Hunter perpetuated: “I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds.”

In targeting meritocracy, Hayes isn’t denying that the cream should rise to the top. “You certainly wouldn’t want surgeons’ licenses to be handed out via lottery, or to have major cabinet members selected through reality TY-style voting,” he writes. What he does argue is that our faith in meritocracy has made us blind to its costs. For if the people at the top got there on the merits, then it stands to reason that the people left behind deserve to be where they are. It is through such complacency that deep social and economic injustice becomes acceptable, and the meritocratic order becomes, in Lasch’s words, “a parody of democracy.”

In the 1960s, a generation raised comfortably under the shade of consensus nonetheless saw much to be dismayed by. The system had produced unprecedented prosperity—and hid unacceptable injustice. Taking their cue from C. Wright Mills’s dissections of the managerial class and the power elite, the New Left mounted an assault on expertise and authority that left both greatly diminished. The assault continued in the 1970s, but against a different type of elite and from a different kind of insurrection. The rise of Nixon brought with it a culture war, pitting “real Americans” against the media, cosmopolitans, and the intellectual class.

Our trust in elites has never recovered—nor have they seemed eager to win it back. There has been a fundamental change in the elite mindset. Where once there was an unspoken compact between elites and society—they would take responsibility for the nation’s safe passage in exchange for status and wealth—there is now only the regnant logic of narrow self-interest. Lasch touched upon this in The Revolt of the Elites, whose title was a play on Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega y Gasset saw in cultural elites the qualities that made civilization possible: “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us—by obligations, not by rights.” The masses, on the other hand, had little use for obligation, and took for granted civilization’s bounty “as if they were natural rights.”

Writing in the last decade of the twentieth century, Lasch shared a gloomy epiphany: “All these habits of mind…are now more characteristic of the upper levels of society than of the lower or middle levels.” Gone was the sense of obligation and service that marked a previous era’s elites. (The recent passing of Nicholas Katzenbach was a poignant reminder of that quaint ideal.) Hayes puts it more bluntly: “We can’t be sure…just who our elites are working for. But we suspect it is not us.”

The catch, of course, is that we need them. “As unreliable as elite authority has been over the past decade, we can’t fix what needs fixing without it,” Hayes concedes. This is especially true in the realm of science, where the rejection of empiricism by the right has rendered us incapable of confronting climate change—our most pressing problem as a species. But the flight from obligation by our elites has been most apparent in our politico-media complex. The last three years have brought any number of examples from Congress, where an intransigent Republican Party has abandoned any semblance of good-faith governance. Their obdurate and irresponsible posture climaxed with last year’s debt ceiling showdown, an unprecedented bit of brinkmanship that revealed their willingness to sink the economy for political gain. Complicit in all this is a mainstream press that observes the Washington freak show with delight. When moved to venture a judgment, it merely castigates both sides, mistaking an abdication of responsibility for its fulfillment.

A potent articulation of a society’s free-floating angst, Twilight of the Elites stakes its claim as the jeremiad by which these days will be remembered. But this is no mere howl against injustice. Hayes may let loose the radical yawp in his cataloging of the system’s sins, but liberal reason tempers his conclusions—his book calls less for the destruction of institutions than for a shift in priorities. The prescriptions don’t depart greatly from the progressive catechism: more attention to inequality, higher taxes on the rich, lower military spending.

To effect those changes, Hayes allows himself a poignant thought: We need to build a “trans-ideological coalition” that harnesses the energies of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. It’s an audacious—and doomed—hope. For all their shared frustrations, the two sides are separated by a vast gulf. Hayes offers anecdotes of Tea Partiers who distrust industry as much as government. But as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson discovered in their definitive study of the Tea Party, their dominant economic view is libertarian. Business is “idealized as a free-market, entrepreneurial force”; it is government—and the “moochers” who rely on it—that is the problem. If this is what one half of the populist coalition brings, then our elites can rest easy.

Still, Hayes is on to something when he looks at the socio-economics of the two movements. He sees reform as coming from “a newly radicalized upper middle class,” a notion that harks back to an earlier time. In the Progressive Era, it was an agitated middle class that engineered reforms to restrain big business, ameliorate poverty, and expand the franchise. In our time, an energized coalition of the middle class, the upper middle class, and professionals—groups that have been left in the dust by the one percent—may be best positioned to revive the reformist spirit. This “top 40 percent,” as Hayes dubs them, have spent the past decade “with their noses pressed against the glass, watching the winners grab more and more for themselves” at their expense.

Ironically enough, what could keep such a movement dormant is the very thing Hayes argues we’re trying to preserve: “our ability to self-correct.” The top 40 percent has seen the ship of state blown off course before, only to be righted again. Is this time any different? Hayes argues it is—the grown-ups have all left the room. If there’s one takeaway from this eloquent book, it’s that complacency is a luxury that even the rich can no longer afford.

Elbert Ventura

Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.