The Best and the Brightest

A cable news journalist looking at American life through classics of social theory? Scott McLemee checks it out.

July 11, 2012

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. 

Share Article

Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

Back to Top