Features » June 25, 2012
The Misruling Class
Meritocracy worship bedevils America.
Editor’s Note: In a February 2006 In These Times cover story titled “In the Search of Solidarity,” Christopher Hayes, then a senior editor for the magazine, wrote:
Right now, our politics are atomized and transactional: we send checks, we sign petitions, we forward articles. We buy sweat-free clothes, recycle and look for vocations that don’t collude too egregiously with evil. But we’ve unconsciously circumscribed the boundaries of political action. … As the American Right offers that redundant canard “moral values” as its lodestar, the Left should offer solidarity. Not retrograde brotherhood, or faith-specific fellowship, but something more robust and difficult and rewarding. The uplift of collective enterprise.”
In his just published book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown), from which this essay is adapted, Hayes calls for citizens to stand in solidarity against the misrule of members of America’s reigning meritocracy.
We now operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities. The consequences of this simple, devastating realization define American life. The failure of the elites and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions, and execute self-governance. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and MoveOn, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work. All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.
The key both to Barack Obama's political success and to his political setbacks lies in his ability to connect to our core sense of betrayal and his inability to deliver us from elite failure.
Obama only had a fighting chance at the Democratic nomination because of the credibility bestowed by his appearance at a 2002 Chicago rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, where he referred to the impending invasion as a “dumb war.” He, alone among the leading contenders, was able to see that the emperor had no clothes. He invoked, time and time again, the great social movements in American history that attacked the authority of the unjust institutions that preserved the status quo. And he advanced a critique of American politics at the end of the Bush years that homed in on the fundamental dysfunctions, improper dependencies, and imbalances of power that had led to the mess we were in.
But as much as Obama spoke to the desire of Americans for reconstruction, and reform, he also cultivated the support of those members of the elite who had grown disgusted with and weary of the Bush administration, and who longed for restoration of authority rather than a revolution from below. Barack Obama may have constantly invoked his years as a community organizer in Chicago, but he spent just as much time at Harvard Law.
In his very first speech as president, Obama avoided castigating the establishment and instead urged Americans to trust in it once again. He acknowledged that there was a “sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.” But rather than use the speech to explain just how and why our confidence was sapped, he instead announced that sheer will and determination would be the key to repairing our broken trust: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
In 2008, trust in a number of institutions, most notably the presidency, shot up, born on a wave of optimism ushered in by the beginning of the Obama era. For a year, trust in the president as an institution was above 50 percent. But by 2010 it had plummeted back down toward Bush levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Part of the reason for that decline was that despite his campaign promises to take on the “system,” the president has operated safely within it.
Corrupt and dysfunctional
Three decades of accelerating inequality in America have produced a deformed social order and a set of elites who cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt. Most of us don't see it that way, because we get elites wrong.
We don't acknowledge that our own most fundamental, shared beliefs about how society should operate are deeply elitist. We have accepted that there will be some class of people that will make the decisions for us, and if we just manage to find the right ones, then all will go smoothly.
To recover from the damage inflicted by this crisis of authority, we must reconstruct and reinvent our politics, a process that has, in a sense, already begun. Andrew Smith, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street, told me one fall evening in 2011 that the movement is not “Left or Right, but up or down.” Amid drums and whoops and chants of “We! Are! The 99 percent!” he leaned in and said, “I realize that's scary for some people.”
Beyond Left and Right isn't just a motto. To those clued in to elite failure, Left/Right distinctions are less salient than those between what I call insurrectionists and institutionalists.
Paul Krugman is one prominent example of an insurrectionist. A man who was once a defender of elite competence and neoliberal technocracy against its populist foes, he has come to believe there is something very wrong with the people running the country.
The experience of the fail decade has made Krugman profoundly skeptical of elite opinion and what he derisively calls Very Serious People. He now approvingly cites such insurrectionist heroes as Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, something that would have been unthinkable a decade before.
On the other side are the institutionalists, who see the erosion of authority and declining public trust as a terrifying trend. Like Edmund Burke, the institutionalists look on aghast as pillar institutions are attacked as decadent and dissolute by the uninformed rabble.
Institutionalists live in fear of a society without central repositories of authority, one that could collapse into mob rule at any time. The New York Times columnist David Brooks is institutionalism's most accessible advocate and in 2009 he laid out its vision. Citing the political scientist Hugh Heclo, who wrote the book On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks writes that “the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of … . Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior.”
Which side are you on?
What divides the institutionalist from the insurrectionist is a disagreement over whether the greatest threat we face is distrust—a dark and nihilistic tendency that will produce a society bankrupted of norms and order—or whether the greater threat is the actual malfeasance and corruption of the pillar institutions themselves. (While my own insurrectionist sympathies are considerable, I am also stalked by the fear that the status quo, in which discredited elites and institutions retain their power, can just as easily produce destructive and antisocial impulses as it can spur transformation and reform. Call it my inner David Brooks. When people come to view all formal authority as fraudulent, good governance becomes impossible, and a vicious cycle of official misconduct and low expectations kicks in.)
Whether you align yourself with the institutionalist or the insurrectionist side of the debate comes down to just how rotten you think our current pillar institutions and ruling class are. Can they be gently reformed at the margins or must they be radically overhauled, perhaps even destroyed and rebuilt?
Barack Obama seemed to suggest he was on the side of those who favored radical overhaul, but he has governed as a man who believes in reform at the margins. And how could he do anything but? He is, after all, a product of the very institutions that are now in such manifest crisis. The central tragic irony of the presidency of Barack Obama is that his election marked the crowning achievement of the post-1960s meritocracy, just at the moment that the system was imploding on itself.
Like all ruling orders, the meritocracy tends to cultivate within its most privileged members an abiding devotion. Recruitment into the top ranks of the meritocracy also cultivates a disposition to trust one's fellow meritocrats and to listen closely to those who occupy the inner circle of winners. “Obama's faith lay in cream rising to the top,” writes Jonathan Alter in his chronicle of Obama's first year, The Promise. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”
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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.