Christopher Hayes on America’s distrust of elites and the fall of the meritocracy.
Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.
Our leaders have been called worse names than “ metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” But seldom have they come to stand in for the entire possibility of hope, change, progress, a bold reboot of the status quo—rarely do we have the opportunity to feel profoundly, soul-crushingly disappointed by them. Such a feeling now clusters around Barack Obama, the first black president and, just as recently as 2008, proof that the American meritocracy might still work. But four years feels like lifetimes ago. Back then you were in a field with millions of other true believers, waving your hands and thinking there’s nothing more beautiful-sounding than the harmony of strangers; now you’re trying to peel a sticker off the bumper of your Volvo. Better, perhaps, never to have hoped at all.
Do you believe that the political system has compromised Obama, or that he, like anyone who might scale such heights, was merely an accessory all along? Your answer traces the circumference of your imagination. This question is at the heart of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites, an attempt by the Nation editor and MSNBC host to reckon with our mounting restlessness toward the elite class, from politicians to titans of industry, spiritual leaders to baseball idols. “What hope do the rest of us have?” Hayes wonders, as he surveys the scene: Wealth is concentrated in the pockets (and offshore accounts) of the very few, many of whom benefit from systems that sound fine in principle but are rigged to preserve the status quo. We lack faith in those who have made it, but we’re unsure what we can do about it.
What’s at stake here isn’t the actual direction of the country. It’s the feelings we associate with the direction of the country, the ways in which suspicion or intuition might compel us toward action. While Hayes is a capable wonk, introducing ideas of “fractal inequality” and sprucing up suspicions and suppositions with eye-catching stats, his true ambition is a careful exploration of the boundaries of our national imagination—the fate of “hope” and “change” as we head toward the 2012 election, for example, or the thrilling, possibility-rich vagueness of the Occupy movement. That we have such a hard time imagining grand ruptures in the fabric of life-as-it-is—think of the unreal splash made by “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs”—is part of the problem. I have a difficult enough time imagining there’s an alternative to PayPal.
Twilight is a book that has been written dozens of times before. It’s part of a great tradition of American writing, the rangy, pop diagnostic manual of Our Current Predicament. These are books of lofty, multidisciplinary ambition that are meant to theorize the tectonic shifts underfoot for as many readers as possible. Their measure isn’t whether they’re right or wrong, but whether they begin to successfully colonize the way their readers decode everyday life. Their observations begin to seem intuitive and obvious. Everything seems like a bogus publicity stunt after you read Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, for example, just as Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism makes you notice just how needy and coddled everyone else is. (Not you, of course. Everyone else.)
Hayes’ accounting of the last 10 years—what he calls the “fail decade”—coheres as a widespread, culturewide “crisis of authority,” which, if you really think about it, has been going on for at least the past 300 or so years. But if previous generations stormed and stressed toward some presumably larger truth—a truth they were being deprived of—then maybe we are different. If anything, the idea that our crisis requires the discovery of “the truth”—Julian Assange and Wikileaks notwithstanding—or the restoration of authority—God, the office of the president, values or whatever—seems fairly absurd. For Hayes, we have been failed not by specific leaders or regimes but by the very notion of leadership.
Everyone boasts qualifications in abundance, yet nobody seems qualified. We’ve been led to believe that the fortunes of the elite attest to their fitness to serve in political office. We regard experts and assume their expertise proceeds from autonomous study rather than careful vetting. We admire the by-the-bootstrap striver and allow their one-in-a-million success to uphold some pure formula of merit.
For meritocracy is an intoxicating plot driver. It provides shape to our struggles, a faith for the faithless. For a while, this was our only defense against cynicism—our confidence in a system that guaranteed us each a fair chance to join the 1 percent ourselves. Problems arise once you realize that the standards of merit are constantly changing—that it all rests on the assumption of an impossibly even playing field. The very notion of common, identifiable “standards” upon which the meritocratic promise rests first emerged in the early 20th century as the rapidly expanding middle class sought a way to access schooling and jobs (as well as systems of prestige and distinction) once reserved for the wealthy. What they sought wasn’t a dismantling of this system; it was entry into it.
Which brings us back to Obama. “Almost nothing is going the way that most people have been told that it will,” Hayes quotes Tom Brokaw remarking in 2010. But our stories about the way things are supposed to be have evolved over time. For the skeptical or the underserved, meritocracy only ever seemed like a nice idea in theory. Over the past 40 years, a different set of changes than the ones Hayes names have made meritocracy seem like little more than a quaint dream of conformity. The segmented market, for example, acknowledges that there is no common language to our dreams, just as the Internet—a development Hayes discusses with zeal—insures that we are all taking in a wild array of inputs and opinions daily.
Most importantly, the rise of multiculturalism—particularly in that most fraught battleground of school admissions—has challenged our faith that any one set of standards might work for a country as pluralistic as ours. The establishment of affirmative action, for example, was an acknowledgment that the playing field required some artificial leveling—that a previous generation might just as well have accepted inequality as a tolerable status quo. The success of Obama was twofold: He was a product of the multicultural age and he offered “a testament to American institutions at their meritocratic best”—a reason to believe, again, that talent could solve for anything, even the supposed problem of diversity. His potential failure—and here, again, we tend to confuse fact with feeling—threatens to turn us cynical toward both.
Photo by Sarah Shatz.
A different version of Twilight remains to be written, one that considers the necessity of the model minority to preserve meritocracy’s sense of fairness. All of this isn’t to say that meritocracy is some Matrix-like sham, just that it is a system that produces (and relies upon) exceptions which seem more universally relatable than they actually are. It works fine enough most of the time—but it is in those ugly slippages of theory and practice that entire political grievances, third parties, conspiracy theories and culture wars bloom.
So, per the title: What comes after meritocracy?
Twilight doesn’t offer a manifesto. Hayes imagines two agents of change: the “institutionalist,” who remains faithful to the status quo and fears the “erosion” of ideals and authority, and the “insurrectionist,” who sees this chaos as an opportunity to rethink the foundations of the present, from our dead language to our limited scope of the possible. In a modest and unassuming way, Hayes offers himself as an example of how we might think our way out of these feedback loops. He sees the lure of both approaches—the pragmatism of the former, the radicalism of the latter. If the endgame of meritocracy is a culture that fetishizes achievement, credentials, and distinction—the “Cult of Smartness” that shuts down all debate—then it is the conversation and random affinities of strangers that might grow instructive.
His chapters are full of anecdotes, conversations with power-brokers and the powerless, attempts to bridge—on the page, as a model for the world—the “social distance” that distances the “airless boardroom” from the “terrified and desperate.” There is an urgency in his juxtapositions and free-play of ideas. It is eclectic, agnostic, much like the program he hosts on MSNBC (which, in its post-Keith Olbermann iteration, has to be the most earnest network in the history of television). He comes across as an excitably inquisitive host, someone who selects his guests out of an affection for collision and conversation rather than ideological conformity. It gives off the effect of being above party politics (though Hayes is an avowed liberal). Anyone who moves freely between Karen Ho’s fantastic ethnography of the Wall Street, Liquidated, and Jose Canseco’s steroid age tell-all Juiced—as Hayes does in Twilight—is an open-minded reader.
Twilight is at its most effective as a restless brew of data and feeling. The most ambitious kinds of social criticism often feel like epic games of pattern recognition: You acquire some suspicion about how the world actually works and then set about finding examples to shade in the outline. In this way, they are no different than conspiracy theories. In both cases, the inner workings of society fail our basic expectations of how things are supposed to be. Everything seems predetermined. Even those in charge are revealed to be middle-managers at the mercy of an invisible hand.
There is ultimately no supervillain at the controls of Twilight, no symbols encoded in the dollar bill. Instead, its greatest ambition is to merely draw attention to the logic that structures our lives, the intellectual rationale offered us for ironic detachment or resignation. A contest in which everyone but the spectators have agreed to play with rigged rules, and you feel crazy for ever believing it might have been otherwise.
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. Crown.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.