Christopher Hayes probably finished writing most of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown) before assuming his current duties as talk show host on MSNBC. Television is not a medium that fosters the kind of argument that requires parentheses -- much less the application to American social and political problems of ideas originally developed by any dead European thinker not named Alexis de Tocqueville. (Even then, you shouldn’t overdo it.)
Hayes uses the term “elite” as a social scientist might -- as a label for the leading stratum of an organized group -- rather than in its usual capacity, as a snarl word. His criticisms of the American status quo are clear enough, and harsh enough. Given that status quo, however, the book’s measured, non-hyperventilating approach may be a problem. There’s big money in professional ranting, and the audience for cable TV punditry usually wants catharsis, not concepts.
Twilight takes as its starting point the unmistakable collapse of public confidence in most American institutions, political and otherwise, that has been going on for decades now. Even before the financial heart attack of 2008, a Gallup poll showed that trust in 12 out of 16 institutions had reached an all-time low – with the ones that lost the most being “also the most central to the nation’s functioning: banks, major companies, the press, and, perhaps most troublingly, Congress.” Hayes points out that the approval ratings for Congress were lower than those for either Paris Hilton or the prospect of the country going communist.
Other studies show that trust in the presidency surged for a year with Obama’s election, but by 2010 “had plummeted back down toward Bush levels in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
The least trusting cohort, the author notes, “are those who came of age in the aughts.” In 2010, the Harvard Institute of Politics surveyed 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 “about whether they thought various institutions did the right thing all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never. Of the military, the Supreme Court, the President, the United Nations, the federal government, Congress, traditional media, cable news, and Wall Street executives, only one – the U.S. military – was believed to do the right thing all or most of the time by a majority of respondents.”
As striking as the decline of public confidence in major institutions is the collapse (or at least severe dysfunction) of institutions themselves. We have the examples of Enron, Lehmann Brothers, public schools, and the athletics program at Penn State, as well as… actually, that’s enough for now. To extend the list just seems morbid.
So a lack of confidence in authority figures and leading institutions is not groundless. But it can be generalized (and pandered to) in irrational ways. “From 1970 to 2000” notes Hayes, “the number of annual reported whooping cough cases in the United States hovered at around 5,000 a year. In 2010, it spiked to 27,500 cases.” The change reflected the rise of a movement premised on the idea that vaccinations cause autism, even if those know-it-all scientists say otherwise.
Here, again, examples could be multiplied. Every time it snows, for example, the same old sarcastic remarks about global warming get jotted out. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, it sure does know self-defense.
“When our most central institutions are no longer trusted,” Hayes writes, “we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal…. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely to be the largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on this planet.”
So, it’s bad. The word “twilight” in Hayes’s title is Götterdämmerung-y for good reason, although the book itself is much less gloomy than it certainly could be. From time to time, many of us, I assume, try to extrapolate from current trends to how things might develop over the next 10 or 20 years -- only to have our brains freeze up and shut down, probably to avoid picturing it too vividly.
Instead of futurology, Hayes digs into what he calls “the crisis of authority” with ideas borrowed from Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto – two of the three classic sociological theorists of elitism (the third being Gaetano Mosca). In this context, “elitism” refers, not to a set of attitudes or behaviors usually judged as more or less obnoxious, but to the general principle that any given society has a layer of people with disproportionate power over others. The thought that there will always be such a layer may be exceptionally disagreeable, although Pareto took it as more or less given.
For Michels, it came as an unwelcome realization that “a gulf which divides the leaders from the masses” emerges in even the most democratic of organizations, because they end up with knowledge and the tools giving them advantages over the rank-and-file. He called it “the Iron Law of Oligarchy.” The best-case scenario involves keeping that governing layer as accountable as possible.
The distinguishing feature of the contemporary American social pyramid, in Hayes’s account, is that efforts to check the power of earlier elites (insert cartoon of Ivy League WASPs making deals at the country club here) have boomeranged. The meritocratic principle is that knowledge and skill, rather than inherited advantage, should determine which personnel should be in positions of authority.
It sounds like a reasonable accommodation with the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- as anti-elitist an arrangement as possible, given the complexity of 21st-century problems. But what it’s actually created is a set of “interlocking institutions that purport to select the brightest, most industrious, and most ambitious members of the society and cultivate them into leaders” who have “a disposition to trust [their] fellow meritocrats and to listen to those who occupy the inner circle of winners.”
Since career mobility is one of the perks of meritocratic life, the camaraderie has a dark side, exemplified by a bit of in-house lingo from the hedge-fund world: IBGYBG, which stands for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” And we’ve seen how that works out. It is the nature of this elite, Hayes writes, "that it can't help but produce failure" because "it is too socially distant to properly manage the institutions with which it has been entrusted."
There's much else in Twilight of the Elites that I've scanted here in the interest of finishing this column, but one final point seems important to make: The book's title is a nod to Christopher Lasch's posthumous collection of essays The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), while Lasch's title in turn alluded to that of Jos Oretega y Gassett's classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930). One way to look at it is that all three reflect a set of ongoing, unsolved problems about authority and legitimacy -- always crisis, never a resolution. And here a cynical voice chimes in to say, "So why even bother thinking about it? Even if things do get worse, IBGYBG. Lol." I don't know whether the Devil exists or not, but if he did, that's what he'd sound like.
The prospect of reading a book about the Tea Party by a professor who supports the movement has a certain piquancy to it -- especially now, as campaigning for the Republican nomination enters what feels like its second or third year. Eight more months until the election? Even a political news-junkie's mood might turn a little gray at the thought. The Tea Party: Three Principles (Cambridge University Press) by Elizabeth Price Foley, a professor of law at Florida International University, is certainly a change of pace.
Its argument is clear enough to be forceful while revealing its presuppositions at every step. Foley regards the Tea Party as a movement that emerged as a spontaneous expression of concern to defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic. (Whether Barack Obama counts as foreign or domestic, she does not address.) The Tea Party movement stands proudly apart from the two major parties, holding fast only to three principles: limited government, forthright American sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. It is a lucid and necessary response to threats such as "the globalist agenda" and Obama's suggestion that the founders "bequeathed to us not a static condition but a perpetual aspiration." The movement is not driven by racism, nor is it engaged in the culture wars, nor should it be treated as the religious right with a makeover. Tea Partiers are, she writes, "united in their fearless query, 'What happened to the America I grew up in?' "
That's one way to look at it, I guess, although "fearless" is hardly an apt characterization either of the Tea Party or the usual tone of that question. To ignore the level of racial animus expressed in the movement requires an act of will. In a paper from the American Political Science Association meeting in September, Alan I. Abramovitz said that an analysis of data from the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey showed that, while "ideological conservatism was by far the strongest predictor of Tea Party support," support for the movement also corresponded to both white racial resentment and aversion to Obama himself. "These two variables," Abramovitz noted, "had much stronger effects than party identification. Racial resentment had a somewhat stronger effect than dislike for Obama." The influence on the movement of constitutional-law scholars such as Foley is minute compared to that of the fantasies that Jill Lepore discusses in her recent book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton University Press). And anyone believing that the Tea Party is a spontaneous and nonpartisan movement -- driven only by the humble but anxious civic virtue of just-plain-folks -- should take Deep Throat's advice during the Watergate affair: "Follow the money."
Foley's book shares the Tea Party's politics, but not its fevers. It has the soul of a talk-radio call-in show in the body of a law-review article. It left me wanting to argue with the author, or at least interview her -- not that the distinction lasted very long. A transcript of our e-mail discussion follows. If ever there is a Tea Party think-tank, it's clear Foley would be a capable director.
Q. Your dedication page reads, "To the intrepid members of the American Tea Party movement, with admiration and respect." Would you say something about your degree of involvement or interaction with the movement? Is this book simply an expression of political sympathy, or does it grow out an activist commitment?
A: I am not a Tea Party activist personally. I have spoken to Tea Party groups, who have read some prior articles and op-eds and invited me to talk. So I have met many Tea Partiers over the last few years and have learned to admire and respect them tremendously. They are the only group of ordinary Americans I have ever met who carry around pocket Constitutions and want to engage in substantive discussions about the text's meaning. From my perspective, this can only be a good thing for the country. The Constitution has become almost a dirty word in some parts of America's intelligentsia, and it's too often viewed as an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring. This is a dangerous narrative, and the Tea Party seeks to reverse this trend by re-embracing the Constitution and its original meaning. As someone who has dedicated her life to teaching and studying constitutional law, I find the Tea Partiers' attitude healthy and refreshing.
Q: You write that the Tea Party is opposed to people who think of the Constitution as "an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring." That seems like equal parts straw man and red herring. The racism or sexism of the authors isn't a topic for debate, since the evidence in the document itself: Article 1, Section 2 was to gave slaveholding states extra influence by letting them have extra representatives proportionate to three-fifths of their slave populations (not that this did the slaves any good); plus it took 133 years and 19 amendments before women got the vote. This doesn't mean the framers were Neanderthals, but it does suggest that "original intent" counts for only so much.
A: I'm afraid you misunderstand the nature of originalism. I can tell by the way you phrase the question that you've never had anyone objective explain it to you -- I'm sorry for that. But it's not as though you are alone in this view, and indeed it was a view I shared myself until I went to law school.
First, let me clarify what originalism means to most self-identified originalists today. I don't know any originalists who focus on "original intent" anymore. Instead, originalism is "original meaning" originalism, which asks the interpreter of constitutional text to ascertain what the meaning of the text would be, in commonsense terms, from the perspective of We the People who ratified it. By contrast, "original intent" originalism (which again, no one seriously espouses) tries to ascertain the subjective, oftentimes unknowable "intent" of those who wrote the constitutional text (i.e., the founders themselves). Notice that when I talk about originalism, I talk about not just those who wrote the text, but those who ratified it -- i.e., We the People. This is important because the founders had extensive conversations with the American people during the ratification process -- in widely-read pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, etc. -- and it is this understanding of the Constitution that matters to originalists.
With that clarification, I hope you don't honestly believe this is a red herring or straw man. The Three-Fifths Clause to which you refer, for example, was anti-slavery provision, not a pro-slavery one. Remember that the slaveholding states argued that slaves should be counted as whole persons (to boost those states' representation in the House), whereas the non-slaveholding states argued that slaves should not be counted at all. What the founders ultimately proposed (and the People ratified) was a Three-Fifths compromise. It certainly by no means meant that the founders endorsed or approved of slavery. Some did; many didn't. Indeed, you should look further at the constitutional text to get a more accurate picture. The Constitution never even uses the word "slavery," assiduously avoiding it because some of the founders (e.g., Madison) thought that mentioning it by name would give it further credibility, and they wanted to avoid that at all costs. Moreover, the 1808 Clause in Article I gave Congress the power to abolish all further importation of slaves beginning Jan. 1, 1808 (20 years after ratification). This was designed to choke off all future slave trade, stop its expansion, and hopefully its demise. Indeed, on Jan. 1, 1808 -- the first day this constitutional power kicked in -- Congress enacted exactly such a law and prohibited all further importation.
So the bottom line is that slavery was a very controversial issue, for obvious reasons, among the founders. To dismiss them all as racists is far too simplistic, and disregards the fact that the constitutional text they wrote was at ambiguous on the topic (to be expected given the divergence of opinion among the ratifying states) and in some key respects, quite hostile to it.
More fundamentally, please realize that originalists such as myself do NOT advocate that judges try to reinstitute the original Constitution. This is a very common misunderstanding, so again, you are not alone. But it is simply not accurate, as I discuss in the book. Originalism asks judges to interpret the Constitution's text as it presently exists. So, for example, none of the original Constitution's clauses addressing slavery have any continuing legal validity after the ratification of the Civil War Amendments -- the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. And of course the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is likewise part of the text of the Constitution that is entitled to full respect and implementation.
The Constitution as a whole -- as its text and that text's historical context stands today -- is what originalists (and the Tea Partiers) seek to honor and preserve.
Q: Whatever the merits of claiming that Obama's health care reform violates the commerce clause, my recollection of the Tea Party in late 2009 and early '10 isn't one of a debate over constitutional law. It's of people carrying guns to demonstrations, growing hysterical about "death panels," and venting in ways that sounded pretty much like what you would have heard at a George Wallace rally in 1968. You refer to people carrying around well-thumbed copies of the Constitution, but what argument is there to make for that reflecting the true concerns of the Tea Party movement, rather than, say, that picture of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose?
A: As I spend a good number of pages explaining in the book, the Tea Partiers' opposition to the health care reform law is grounded in their belief in limited government. If one knows anything about this concept, one can easily see how the health care reform law threatens this foundational constitutional principle. The individual mandate is an unprecedented, breathtaking exercise of federal power. If upheld, it will have significant, negative implications for individual liberty.
A ubiquitous government presence in healthcare will indeed predictably lead to some form of health care rationing -- it is a matter of supply and demand. The health care reform law added some 32 million Americans to health insurers' rolls, but did nothing to expand the supply of available health care providers. Substantially increased demand, without a concomitant increase in supply, will lead to not only price increases (which we have already witnessed and will continue to do so), but access shortages that will necessitate some form of rationing. Tea Partiers were naturally concerned about this, as older Americans, as high-demand users of health care, are the most vulnerable in a rationing regime.
Q: You write that "the Constitution doesn’t require prior approval by the UN Security Council" for use of the military. But neither does the Constitution require prior approval by Congress. Article 1, section 8 gives Congress the power to declare war. If there ever was any sense of obligation on the part of the executive branch to seek approval for the use of military force abroad, it's been more or less a dead letter since the Korean "police action" -- with the War Powers Act of 1973 not changing the situation much. According to a Library of Congress report, "U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch," beginning with Richard Nixon.
A: Completely agree with you here. The war power is shared between Congress and the President. As Commander-in-Chief, the President under Article II can commit US troops in defense of US interests. Congress can declare a formal war, constitutionally, but doesn't have to, and the Supreme Court has never said otherwise. Congress's ultimate power lies in the power of the purse — i.e., withholding appropriations.
Q: You go on to say, "Americans – particularly Tea Partiers – would think it odd that either our Supreme Court or our president would think they need to consult with the international community before doing what they think is right for America." But how is that an either/or? "Consulting with the international community" is a matter of building support for what the US is going to do in any case. How seriously can we take the "globalist agenda" as something to worry about, given that US leaders, Democratic and Republican alike, pay exactly as much attention to international law or world public opinion as is expeditious for pursuing what they regard as the national interest?
A: "Consulting" is fine, if by that word you mean literally "consulting" rather than asking for approval. The difficulty with President Obama's statements prior to committing troops to Libya was that he espoused a view — embraced by progressives — that something more than mere consultation was desirable and necessary. He suggested that it would contravene international law to commit U.S. troops without prior UN Security Council approval, and it is that radical position about which tea partiers are concerned, from the perspective of defending US Sovereignty.
Q: You only quote Tea Party people once or twice, if memory serves, not counting a couple of passages from Glenn Beck. The book seems not so much about the Tea Party, or even of the movement, as for it. That is, you offer arguments and perspectives that support Tea Party positions -- but they express your sense of how the TPers ought to be arguing. You downplay any "culture war" or social-conservative aspect of the movement, although there's evidence that the Tea Party overlaps considerably with the religious right. I've given you a hard time here about the element of racism that has been abundantly evident in some Tea Party discourse -- and a recent statistical analysis of poll results from 2010 showed a high degree of correlation between Tea Party support and white racial resentment. But just to be clear, there's nothing of the sort going on in your book. It's as if you are trying to raise the tone a little bit. Is that fair? Is it any part of your intention? Isn't the book more about what the Tea Party can be or should be, from your perspective, rather than what it is?
A: I did not want to write a book about individual Tea Partiers (as many books have already done, some well, some not so well). Instead, I wanted to write a book about the constitutional principles that define the movement as a movement. My goal was to have a substantive discourse about these principles -- to offer, if you will, an intellectual defense of the Tea Party movement.
I downplay the culture war aspect because the Tea Party itself downplays it. It is a conservative movement, true, but conservative in the sense of fiscal and constitutional conservatism, not social conservatism. You don't attend Tea Party events and hear any serious discussion about abortion or gay marriage. Polling data confirms this, revealing that a majority of Tea Partiers support the legal availability of abortion, as well as gay marriage or civil union. So I don't think it would be factually accurate to try to paint the Tea Party movement as a socially conservative movement. There are undoubtedly some social conservatives within the movement, but this is inevitable, given that some social conservatives are also fiscal and constitutional conservatives.
A set of three books landed on my desk last week: the opening salvos in a new series from Verso called Counterblasts. A notice across from each one’s title page announces the intention “to revive a tradition inaugurated by Puritan and Leveller pamphleteers in the 17th century when, in the words of one of their number, Gerard Winstanley, the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire.’” Given that Winstanley’s group, the Diggers, was the original Occupy movement, Verso’s timing is excellent -- though any revival of pamphleteering at this late date almost certainly demands a format suitable for rapid dissemination on portable devices. And at extremely low (and probably no) cost.
At least with Counterblasts you get a well-designed artifact for your money. Each volume singles out one of the “politicians, media barons, and their ideological hirelings” serving as “apologists of Capital and Empire,” as the series description calls them, in suitably Puritan-Jacobin tones. The cover is stark black. A photo of the book’s polemical target looms against the backdrop. The aesthetic here resembles "The Charlie Rose Show" (talking heads afloat in the depths of infinite space) although considerably less flattering to the guests. It seems appropriate, then, that the first two Counterblasts are directed at figures who have been prominent in the world of TV punditry.
One is the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, pictured scowling in concentration, like a bulldog who just swallowed a Styrofoam packing peanut and is now thinking that it might have been a bad idea. The other is Bernard Henri Levy, who, when not playing a philosopher on French television, serves as a celebrity thinker-in-residence at the Huffington Post. As always, he looks marvelous.
The third figure is Michael Ignatieff, whose picture will be familiar to the Canadian public but ring only the faintest of bells elsewhere. He spent the 1990s as one of England’s most prominent public intellectuals, preparing BBC documentaries and writing books on human rights, civil wars, and humanitarian intervention. He was also the authorized biographer of Isaiah Berlin, whose essays on the history of social and political thought defined a sort of Anglo-American liberal orthodoxy in recent decades.
In 2000, Ignatieff became the first director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. A few months later, George W. Bush took office. Each man had barely settled in their new offices before Ignatieff published the first of several efforts to clarify the ethico-political justification for preemptive war against Iraq, given the menace of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
With mission accomplished yet no WMDs in sight, Ignatieff turned his mind to arguing for other reasons why the invasion of Iraq had been a good idea. His book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton University Press, 2004) argued, among other things, that torture must be condemned as morally wrong, but hey, what can you do? Desperate times mean desperate measures, and desperate measures require thoughtful casuistry.
The Lesser Evil appeared at just about the time the pictures from Abu Ghraib did. Nobody in those snapshots was agonizing over nuances of right and wrong, and it didn’t look like the US soldiers were extracting information about ticking time bombs either. They were just having an awful lot of fun. The images would have created an uproar, of course, even if they had worn expressions of pain and doubt. But the way they looked out at the viewer, as if expecting you to give them the high-five, threw Ignatieff’s work in a new context. However much his thinking might be rooted in the precepts of Sir Isaiah, its on-the-ground consequences were degrading for everyone involved.
In 2007, Ignatieff returned to the pages of The New York Times Magazine (where his most widely discussed articles in favor of the war had appeared a few years earlier) to say that he had been wrong ... or misled ... or too much the airy academic ... or not quite so right as he could have been. He admitted that some people argued from the start that the war was a bad idea, but that didn't mean they were proven correct , since they had been right for the wrong reasons. He, at least, had been wrong for the right reasons and clearly must not be expected to learn anything from them.
It was a strange essay, and it left the impression of a mind at the end of its tether, dangling in the wind. But Derrick O’Keefe’s Counterblast volume Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil suggests that his mea culpa was more coherent -- or at least more consistent with the rest of his career -- than it might look.
When Ignatieff returned to Canada in 2005 after almost three decades abroad, it seemed like he was stepping away from the work that had defined him as a public figure. After all, he had made some major interventions in the debates over liberal internationalism, or philanthropic militarism, that unfolded across a distinct period beginning with the first war of Yugoslavia’s disintegration (mid-1991) and ending, more or less, with the second battle of Fallujah (late 2004). He even had the confidence and authority needed to risk defining his position in terms as brutal as any that an opponent might attribute to him: “Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it become politically incorrect.”
So wrote Ignatieff in 2003, full of beans. Declarations of imperial mission were not much wanted by 2005, when headhunters from the Liberal Party of Canada lured him away from Harvard. You could not fault him for wanting to reinvent himself. But here was more to it than that.
From the blinkered U.S.-centric perspective, Ignatieff’s departure did not look like forward motion, but the Liberal Party has long been at the very center of Canadian politics (flanked by the Conservatives on the right and the New Democrats to the left, and the dominant force among them). Ignatieff’s return to his homeland was the first step in a serious bid for power. And his mea culpa in the Times was part of it, since the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq never enjoyed much support in Canada.
Besides distancing himself from policies he had once supported -- taking responsibility for them, but not too much responsibility -- Ignatieff also used the essay for another purpose. He explained that leaving the ivory tower behind had rendered him a tough-minded man of the world. In the future he would assume his positions, and choose his words, more carefully. In the meantime, he was making as many references to hockey as circumstances would permit.
Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? makes the case that this newfound discovery of measured responses and realpolitik is just an act, because Ignatieff has been practicing them all along. O'Keefe points out that the Times essay defines politicians as "actors who have to feign indignation and other emotions they do not feel,” while academics “merely play with words and pursue digressions with ideas for their own sake because they are detached from the real-world consequences.” Here, unwarranted generalization yields self-accusation: Ignatieff himself seems to have been one of the very few academics to champion "regime change" in ways "detached from the real-world consequences." O’Keefe wonders if Ignatieff ever had a moral compass to lose. “It’s not that one can never genuinely change one’s mind,” he writes, “it’s just that there is no trace at all of the humility or regret that would normally accompany such an about face.” It's the portrait of a man saying what the powerful want to hear, as the means to gain power for himself.
While largely persuasive, O'Keefe's indictment is a little too unrelenting. He can barely credit Ignatieff with anything, even with any literary gifts: his books are the work of a “solipsistic cosmopolitan.” But even as a non-admirer of Isaiah Berlin, I’d say Ignatieff’s biography is decent. One of his novels was a finalist for the Booker prize in the early 1990s. And Ignatieff has been called “Canada’s Obama,” which refers in part to their shared facility with a pen, rare among politicians. But the series is called Counterblasts, after all, and sometimes polemic involves taking no prisoners.
Ignatieff became the leader of the Liberal Party in 2009. Last May, he oversaw what O’Keefe calls “the most catastrophic electoral defeat in the history of the Liberal Party of Canada,” whereupon Ignatieff resigned. That underscores the other reservation I had about the book, which is that both the man and the era he helped shape are now part of history, rather than current events. The next two volumes in the series will address Christopher Hitchens and Tony Judt. The thought of them counter-counterblasting in reply is appealing, but a daydream now that they're gone. The old world, as Winstanley said, is "running up like a parchment in the fire." The series editors should go find some active menaces to take down.