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.
In his brilliant/scary 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, explaining how the elites went dark and the country dimmed out.
Hey, 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 Left.
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.
You 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.
This is not doing much for our trust of the ruling classes.
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 essential 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 and opinions.
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.