BOOK EXCERPT: Who Broke America?

BOOK EXCERPT: Who Broke America?

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.”

Twilight of the Elites is the story of how the same meritocratic order that produced that magical election night when the American dream seemed most impossibly alive also produced the crisis we now face. It’s a story that begins during the last Crisis of Authority, the iconic, long period of social upheaval we refer to as the Sixties. That period represented what would be the high point for economic equality in the country. Labor unions were strong, wages steadily rising and basic components of middle class life – healthcare, housing and higher education – accessible to more households than ever in the nation’s history.

But the country was also grossly unequal along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation, and controlled by a relatively, small self-contained set of white Anglo-Saxon men. By waging a sustained assault on the establishment responsible for perpetuating the Vietnam War, patriarchy, and racial discrimination, the social movements of that era permanently transformed American society for the better.
In place of the old WASP Establishment, America embraced meritocracy. Based on a very old vision of American exceptionalism, in which America was a land of opportunity, the meritocracy is an ideal whose roots reach back to the early years of the republic. To the old catechism of self-determination and hard work, the meritocracy added some new chapters. By opening the doors to women, racial minorities, while also valuing youth over seniority, and individual talent over the quiet virtues of the Organization Man it incorporated the demands of the social movement of the 1960s. But whatever the egalitarian commitments of the social movements that brought about the upheaval of the time, what emerged when the dust had settled was a model of the social order that was more open but still deeply unequal.

The meritocracy promised liberation from the unjust hierarchies of race, gender, sexual orientation and creed, but swapped in its place a new hierarchy based on the notion that people are deeply unequal in ability and drive and that society should provide confer vastly unequal compensation and resources on the bright and the slow, the industrious and the slothful. At its most extreme, this ethos celebrates an “aristocracy of talent,” a vision of who should rule in deep tension with our democratic commitments. “Meritocracy,” as Christopher Lasch once observed, “is a parody of democracy.”

Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating and extreme economic inequality of a scope and scale unseen since the last Gilded Age. There are numerous political economic reasons for the explosion of inequality, from globalization to technology, to the corruption of the campaign finance system to the successful war on organized labor — but the philosophical underpinning for all of this, the fertile soil in which it is rooted, is our shared meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule, we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be a member in good standing of that select few.

It is precisely elite acquaintance with, and acceptance, of inequality that has produced a cohort of socially distant, blinkered, and self-dealing elites. It is those same elites who helm the pillar institutions and who have been responsible for the cascade of institutional failure that has come to characterize the fail decade and produce the crisis of authority through which we are now living. While each specific institutional failure — Major League Baseball, Enron, Iraq, — was the product of a complex set of specific, sometimes contingent causes, the consistent theme throughout them all is elite malfeasance and elite corruption.

Excerpted from Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes. Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Hayes. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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