Chris Hayes explains the decay of authority in America, and why
you’d better step up.
This first decade
of the 21st century has been glorious (think iPod and 30 Rock),
but it’s also going down as one giant sorry-ass fuck-up.
Let the sad list
begin: 9/11, Enron, Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans, the housing
bubble, the steroid problem in major league sports, the church
scandal and The Great Recession. Who’s accountable? Our ruling
class, who have failed us big time, that’s who. And yet, despite the
traffic jam of tragedy, the ruling class has escaped accountability.
Who is being run out of town on a rail? No one. The elite is smart,
but they’re also stupid —
clueless too. And they let us down. End of story.
brilliant/scary new book, Twilight of the Elites [Crown
Publishing Group], MSNBC’s Chris Hayes neatly sorts out the mess,
explaining how the slow decay of leadership and responsibility
festered due to greed, smugness and worse. He also offers solutions
as to how we need to sweep clean and start anew.
Here, he puts it
into plain talk just for The Modern readers, explaining how
the elites went dark and the country dimmed out.
Chris, define “elite.”
The word elite is a very contested word in American
politics. Over the last few decades, the Right has been pretty
successful in redefining what the word means. The way that it is
often used, particularly by conservatives, is to describe people who
have a certain set of cultural attributes or even consumer choices.
You drive a Prius. You drink Starbucks lattes. You sip white wine.
Or you live in San Francisco or the West Village of New York. You
read The New York Times. But that’s a pretty sociologically
poor definition. First of all, it grabs too large a number of people
to really be meaningful. So my father and Henry Kissinger would be
labeled under the same [definition]. And it also deviates in a very
important way from what the historical understanding of what the
word means — that was shared for over a century by both the Right and the
And that is defined by the power they have rather than by
their cultural attributions. That is a relatively small group of
people who exert a disproportionate influence over society’s
direction. CEOs, major media figures.
Was the older elite better than the current elite?
I want to avoid a certain kind of nostalgia: [the idea
that] the previous elite was better because they had a certain set
of characteristics that made them superior. I don’t really go for
that. I think the last set of elites had their own problems.
In your book, you refer to meritocracy. What exactly does that mean?
Meritocracy is a new name for an old American ideal. It’s
an ideal of social mobility and the American dream. Only in America,
a place that did not have the feudal inheritance of Europe, did
people rise to any station that their talents and drive would take
them. Benjamin Franklin, for instance. Meritocracy is a current
incarnation of the American dream. It specifically says that we are
not going to bar entrance to the American elite based on religion,
race, geographic location or sexual orientation. All sorts of people
from all walks of life will compete on what’s called a level playing
field. Through a series of competitions, they will come to the
smartest, most capable members of the elite.
also label 2000-2010 The Fail Decade. Please explain.
We’ve seen an uninterrupted cascade of institutional
corruption and incompetence over the last decade. You start with
9/11, and then go into the largest corporate bankruptcy of all time,
represented by Enron. But Enron has been so overshadowed that it
almost seems quaint to mention [compared to the war in Iraq], the
worst foreign policy disaster in a generation, costing over a
trillion dollars, thousands of American lives and probably 100,000
Iraqi lives. This is followed by the spectacle of an American city
drowning live on national television. Followed by the largest
housing bubble and the worst financial crisis in 70 years. And
that’s just the short version. We can go on: what happened in the
church, or with the big three automakers; newspapers imploding
around the country. Now we have major American cities that don’t
even have a daily newspaper.
Is there no place to go but up from here?
We don’t have a
belief in self-correction because we have not seen self-correction.
And that is at the heart of what I call the crisis of authority in
America. Because we had such a cascade of uninterrupted corruption
and failure, we don’t trust the institutions. It’s radically
destabilizing for the way we go about conducting our public life,
when all the sources of authority that we look to be anchors for the
world don’t function that way.
What are some of the specific ways the elite failed?
The two specific monumental crises of the decade
— and the source of
the feeling of exhaustion and cynicism that the country is mired in
— are the Iraq war and
the financial crisis. In both cases, what you saw was an elite
consensus — not a
total consensus, but a
lot of elites essentially arguing for and supporting ideas that have
proven to be preposterously destructive. We’ve had all sorts of
people in high places saying that there was no housing bubble. There
is a tremendous amount of false consensus. We as the public use a
reliance on consensus as a rough indicator of reliability and
truthfulness. If it seems like the people in charge are all saying
x, there is a tendency to believe x. The aftermath of people in
charge saying x, and x turning out to be not just false but
destructively false, means that now we listen with a much more
skeptical ear. And it makes it hard to go about forming your beliefs
So, Chris, what do we do?
The first thing we have to do is just recognize the profound cost
and the negative consequences of this social model we’ve adopted.
It’s not producing the American dream that we want. So we need to
question that model that we’ve adopted because it’s not working. The
second aspect of it is being more forthright about making the
society more equal. The first step is reducing the extreme and
extremely pernicious form of accelerating inequality we have. The
question is: does the political power exist to make that happen? And
that’s the big open question.
us Let us know what you