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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The following is an excerpt of Twilight of the Elites, the new book by MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large Christopher Hayes. You can buy the book here.

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. This is the heart of why his presidency has been so disappointing for so many: He campaigned as an Insurrectionist and has governed as an Institutionalist. And how could he be anything but? He is, after all, a product of the very meritocratic 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 that the system was imploding in on itself.

Like all ruling orders, the meritocracy tends to cultivate within its most privileged members an abiding devotion, and so it is with those who have ascended its heights. Many of the figures who feature most prominently in this era’s chronicle of woe, are, like Obama himself, products of the process of elite formation we call the meritocracy, the interlocking institutions that select the brightest, most industrious and most ambitious members of the society and cultivates them into leaders of our major institutions. Ben Bernanke, son of a pharmacist and substitute teacher in South Carolina. Ken Lay, raised by a preacher and a farmer in Missouri. Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide and son of a Bronx-born butcher, first in his immediate family with a college degree. Bud Selig, the son of a first-generation Romanian immigrant who owned a Milwaukee car-leasing business. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was raised in a Brooklyn housing project. Condoleezza Rice grew up during the civil rights era, the daughter of a Birmingham minister.

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. This faith in the expertise and judgement of the elites has been the achilles heel of the Obama administration.  “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.”