Eliteschmerz: Chris Hayes explains why the meritocracy doesn’t feel your pain
Chris Hayes spins elaborate thoughts on complex issues into diagrammable sentences — and makes that process look as easy as breathing.
Normally he performs this stunt on cable TV as MSNBC’s weekend morning host. Recently he gave us an in-person demonstration at Grist HQ, where he paid a visit to talk about his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, and how its ideas relate to the political deadlock over climate change.
Hayes spoke for an hour with David Roberts and other Grist staffers about his analysis of the paralytic dysfunction of the American elite. He paints the 1% as an overcompensated tribe of hyper-competitors who jealously propagate their privileges yet cling to the delusion that they are self-made superpeople. “We are cursed,” he says, “with an overclass convinced that they are scrappy underdogs.”
Hayes’ arguments on the state of media were especially fascinating to me, and I’ll pick up their thread again soon in another post. But first, here are some excerpted and lightly edited highlights from Hayes’ talk.
On elites and meritocracy
The ethos of competition produces elites who feel persecuted — they are always looking up the ladder and never down, and all construct for themselves a story of their own overcoming, even when it’s manifestly ridiculous. Like Mitt Romney, who got up at a Republican presidential primary debate and said, “You know, I could have inherited the car company. But I struck out on my own — I went to Harvard Law, went to Harvard Business School.” This is genuinely felt — it’s not artifice.
Merit proves to be a difficult thing to define, so money becomes a very neat proxy for it. That’s a self-justifying way of seeing things — people make a lot of money, they must have merit, they must be smart and hard-working.
Now, meritocracy is a word coined by Michael Young, a leftist British social critic, who in 1958 wrote a book called Rise of the Meritocracy. It’s a satiric, dystopic vision of the future a la 1984, or Brave New World. It’s a horrible future of government by the cleverest, and it ends up in this revolt from below. And Young was horrified to find the word was adopted as a positive thing. He wrote an op-ed to that effect in the Guardian in 2001.
In the U.S. context, meritocracy is in deep tension with our democratic and egalitarian commitment. Yet in America, the word is always a compliment. Bureaucracy is always negative. Meritocracy is positive. It’s in the first line of Goldman Sachs’ recruiting brochure: “Goldman Sachs is a meritocracy.” This model has a lot more costs than we recognize.
The argument my book makes is about the social model of the meritocracy, and that its ethos and principles and also the set of institutions that have been constructed to produce it — which is to say, an elite that is drawn from all of society but is funneled in this intense process down to the most talented and driven — is a system that’s breaking down. And that’s what’s producing a lot of the elite dysfunction, declining social mobility, rising inequality, and increasing social distance between the people who have power to make big decisions and the people whom those decisions affect.
Ultimately, we’ve reached this point in which meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction. In telling ourselves that we can neatly distinguish between equality of opportunity on the one hand and equality of outcome on the other, we’ve created a system with vast inequalities of outcomes. And those have then gone about reliably, relentlessly subverting the mechanisms of producing anything that looks like equality of opportunity.
On the “crisis of authority”
The effect of the bankrupting of institutional authority in some senses is really good — because people shouldn’t trust that which is untrustworthy. But it presents big challenges when you think about climate. What would it take to produce the level of social consensus necessary to produce the scale of change necessary? And is producing that necessary level of social consensus possible in our epistemic environment? — to use a slightly annoying word. (I’ve become very self-conscious about my vocabulary. Teased over it relentlessly.)
Part of the problem of the crisis of authority is that it makes solving this problem harder, because it requires elite mediation. When unemployment is high, or a lot of people are out of work, or inflation is high, you just don’t need elite mediation — you can see the political system respond to that directly.
I’m oddly fascinated with what the right has done with climate over the past 10 years, in turning it into a culture war issue — almost like busing. They took this very bloodless thing and made it into something that’s right up in your cheeks when you’re arguing at the Thanksgiving dinner table with your soused uncle. And that’s an impressive accomplishment.
On media fragmentation
It’s a remarkable best of times, worst of times situation in terms of information and media. On one level you have this unbelievable democratization of platforms that’s happened. Thought experiment: Say I’m a tenured professor at Princeton in 1980. I’m in humanities, so I’m not yet on email. And I want to tell 500 people about something. It’s a massive logistical problem, even for someone with a lot of social capital. You put up a sign in the faculty break room? You knock on doors? You flyer cars? Every teenager in Harlem now has that reach. Instantaneously.
So there are certain things that are happening that are really quite astonishingly promising. Then again there is the Walter Cronkite problem.
There’s a great book called The Race Beat, which won the Pulitzer, about the northern white establishment press covering the civil rights movement. It’s fascinating to see the degree to which civil rights organizers were extremely aware and savvy about the press, particularly the northern white establishment press. They understood that convincing the northern white establishment press of the moral bankruptcy of the Jim Crow order was a huge part of what they were doing. And when they did convince the northern white establishment press of the moral bankruptcy of the Jim Crow order, and when the northern white establishment press reported that as such, it really changed northern white opinion. It changed northern white opinion because it was a very trusted, small set of outlets.
Can we do that now? The concentration of the establishment press during the 1960s and 1970s was bad in a lot of ways, but it also provided this kind of Archimedean point of leverage. And it’s just unclear to me we have that now.
Although I had Bill McKibben on the show this weekend, and he seemed totally past persuasion. He was just like, don’t worry about persuasion. People are going to get persuaded when everything starts to light on fire simultaneously. The problem is the fossil fuel industry. So maybe it’s a quaint concern of mine.
I’m becoming a fuddy duddy now that I’m a father, and I used to hate all this complaining about partisanship and polarization, which I thought was the most self-congratulatory preposterous nostalgic self-back-slapping bougie concern. But I now really do wonder how much progress can we make in this kind of Hobbesian jungle of ceaseless will-to-power fights, just constant unmediated raw maximalist any-means-necessary battle over everything? Even if the left adopted it as powerfully as the right has. Which I think is one model of going. But then let’s say we do that — we wield the filibuster in the same way, we find our own norms to novelly violate, whatever our version of the debt ceiling is. I just don’t know what amount of progress we can achieve under those conditions.
On covering climate on TV
[On my show] we’re really struggling right now. We have this mismatch between my own desire to cover climate relentlessly and our ability to do it in a way that makes for good television.
We’re not gonna have someone come in from Competitive Enterprise Institute to say some preposterous silliness. But then, what are we discussing? We end up having these meta-debates of like, what can we do to get people to care about this? Which is weird television, frankly. I mean, well, we have a TV show — what are you doing? Presumably all of you watching are already convinced.
I do think that solutions are important. A guy you should know who does empirical work on storytelling and climate, his name is Mike Jones. Not the rapper. He said, his big thing is that protagonists are really important. More than villains. He went in thinking that villains are the most important parts of stories, and it turns out protagonists are. Particularly stories around climate stuff.
But part of me just also wonders, maybe it’s just about, like, coal is the new tobacco. Just go after coal: coal, coal, coal, coal, coal.
On energy and electricity
Energy for upper middle class and wealthy folks is just way too cheap. That’s a big problem, obviously, from the perspective of the planet. It’s also a problem in terms of people thinking about it. It just doesn’t register. What I would give to swap my cable bill for my electricity bill! And to swap everybody’s. I think that’s a huge part of the complacency over this. Although for poor folks it’s a massively huge part of what their struggles are. I would like to see a world where we just said, there’s a certain endowment of power that you can live on comfortably, and you get that for free, and then everything over that is incredibly expensive. Just massively expensive. Why are you looking at me like I’m crazy?
I also just think we just lose sight of what an amazing thing electricity is. That’s really what this is about: how we do the things that make modern life modern life. Which is pretty profound. And how we’re going to create the next version of that. Just speaking for myself as a focus group of one, that idea that there’s going to be this revolution that happens that’s as big as the industrial revolution, as big as the computer revolution, is an exciting notion. It’s a jetpack notion. Because that is what it’s gonna be like, if we pull it off — or it’s gonna be like that in a dystopic version of it, with self-contained climate pods and whatever. But that part of it gets me much more than other parts of that story. That’s just because I like technology.