Pulling Up the Ladder

'Twilight of the Elites'

The United States is in the midst of a broad crisis of authority, with our most important institutions and the elites who run them facing a huge deficit of public trust. In a June 2012 Gallup poll, Americans reported near-record distrust of the medical system, the criminal justice system, and organized religion. Fewer than half the respondents said they trusted religion “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to 60 percent in 2001. Just one in five said they trusted corporations “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” Organized labor didn’t do much better.  And almost half—48 percent—said they trusted Congress “very little” or “not at all.”

In Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes, a thirty-three-year-old MSNBC host and former Washington editor of the Nation, offers a compelling counterintuitive theory for what is causing Americans to lose their faith in elites. Meritocracy is failing us, Hayes argues, because the socioeconomic inequality produced by a meritocracy inevitably undermines meritocracy itself, as people climbing up the socioeconomic ladder pull it up behind themselves. Hayes calls this phenomenon the “Iron Law of Meritocracy.” Our highly competitive social and economic system is decaying, turning our elites into an increasingly socially isolated ruling class that passes its privileges on to its often mediocre children. Many of those undeserving heirs fail, causing Americans to lose trust in their leaders. (Perhaps Hayes’s thesis would be better called “The Iron Law of George W. Bush.”) 

Hayes has a deft touch as a writer, but his singular talent is finding the perfect quotes and examples to illustrate his points. He even catches Bill Clinton articulating his thesis. “Every successful civilization builds institutions that work, that lift people up and reward people for their greatness,” Clinton told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011. “Then, if you look at every one of those civilizations, all those institutions that benefited people get long in the tooth. They get creaky. The people ruling them become more interested in holding on to power than the purpose they were designed for. That’s where we are now.”

Manhattan’s Hunter College High School, Hayes’s alma mater, is his first and best example, a “near perfect parable for how meritocracies tend to devolve.” Each year, Hunter offers admission to about 185 New York City 11-year-olds, all based on how they do on a test. Since Hunter is perhaps one of the best public high schools in the country, admission guarantees a great education and makes subsequent admission to a top college—and the nation’s elite—all but certain. But the system has been gamed. Parents with money spend thousands of dollars on cram classes for their ten-year-olds, and as a result, over the past three decades Hunter has gotten whiter and more Asian, and less black and Hispanic, as the demographics of the school skew ever closer to representing privilege instead of potential.

Here, again, Hayes finds the perfect third party to illustrate his point, quoting the remarkable 2010 commencement address of Justin Hudson, a black Hunter student from Brooklyn. “If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights,” Hudson told his graduating class. “I refuse to accept that.”

After the Hunter anecdote, Hayes serves up a detailed tour of the myriad recent failures of America’s elites. In each case, he shows that people who made key mistakes were living in a rarified world, one “irredeemably distant” from the vast majority of Americans. At Enron, you could break the rules as long as you made money. In steroid-era baseball, only cheaters could prosper. The financial crisis was the work of an “overclass convinced it’s composed of scrappy underdogs.” As the Bush administration prepared to take the nation to war, all the “smart” people knew Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. During Hurricane Katrina, local, state, and national leaders simply didn’t comprehend that many New Orleans residents were so poor that they “had nowhere to go and no way to get there.” And then there’s the church, where the social distance between the bishops and the average parishioner was so great that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law could write to Fr. John Geoghan, whom he knew was a serial child rapist, that “yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness.”

This sort of out-of-touchness—the gap between the charmed and cloistered lives of the elites and the daily lives of the masses—is the chief complaint of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, and must be addressed if elites want to be trusted again, Hayes asserts. He offers several fairly convincing proposals for doing so. One is to insist that equality of opportunity is not enough. Instead, we must also seek a greater equality of outcomes. “The tax system, the most straightforward means of restraining inequality, has been subverted, so as to become a tool for maintaining and expanding it,” Hayes writes, noting that the marginal tax rate of the richest four hundred Americans is 16.6 percent, lower than that of many middle-class taxpayers. As candidate Barack Obama famously told Joe the Plumber, we need to “spread the wealth around,” with more generous social programs and a more redistributive tax code.

Hayes has an obvious familiarity with the literature and scholarly research on meritocracy, and he recognizes that he stands on the shoulders of others in making his critique. He offers a brief review of the literature, scholarly and otherwise, on meritocracy, from Michael Young’s dystopian Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) to more recent works like Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test. And in conclusion, Hayes acknowledges that “any vision of egalitarian policies isn’t worth much without a vision for how to create the political space for their adoption.” To that end, he shows how ordinary citizens have reformed important institutions, citing the example of Francis Townsend, the physician whose advocacy of old-age pensions helped midwife Social Security, and more recently the group ACT UP, which successfully pushed for more AIDS research. By getting in the face of the powerful, Hayes adds, Americans tired of the status quo can make elites more aware of the problems the rest of the country faces. That could mean occupying Wall Street or, as Hunter’s Justin Hudson did, simply drawing attention to the contradictions in our unquestioning embrace of meritocracy.

But Occupy-type disruption on its own won’t be enough. Twilight of the Elites argues that “a newly radicalized upper middle class”—the same group from which the liberal netroots and the conservative Tea Party draw their members—is key to changing the game. Hayes makes what cynics might see as a pie-in-the-sky call for political partnerships between activists on the left and right—perhaps his weakest argument, but one that seems more convincing and nuanced when it comes from the scrupulous Hayes than when you read it on the Washington Post op-ed page.

Liberals have long criticized income inequality, but Hayes has gone further. Instead of simply arguing that inequality exists, or is bad, he explains why it exists, and why it’s bad. The answers are flip sides of the same coin. Inequality and its cousin, social distance, are both products of our decaying meritocracy. They make our leaders out-of-touch, dysfunctional, and corrupt, and they make us distrust our institutions. It’s up to us to fix the problem. Twilight of the Elites offers an elegant, original argument that will make both cynics and idealists reconsider their views of how, and whether, our society works. If Americans believe in anything, it’s our meritocracy. Hayes is brave to question it so forcefully.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Nick Baumann is senior enterprise editor at The Huffington Post.

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