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How Inbred Elites Are Tearing America Apart

MSNBC's anchor Chris Hayes pins Iraq, the economy, Katrina and more on elites — says we all must get radicalized now.

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Twenty years ago, William Greider’s “Who Will Tell the People?” documented the betrayal of American democracy by the elites — by both political parties, by the press, by corporations and labor unions, and by a Washington regulatory complex so perfectly corrupt that it exists to serve only the monied interests.

Chris Hayes’  “Twilight of the Elites” (just published in paperback) might be the clearest story of America’s collapse since Greider’s essential telling. The story, of course, has only gotten worse. In Greider’s book, the elites were complicit in profiteering and rigging the system to their own advantage. But in Hayes’ story, the elites misled us into war, bungled the occupation, let an American city drown, and tanked the economy. Other elites in academia, athletics and religion didn’t have such a great decade, either.

“Twilight of the Elites” is a story about inequality and myths: the myth of the meritocracy and the reality of the very uneven society that allows those, in the words of Ann Richards, who were born on third base to end up thinking they hit a triple — and then find themselves protected when they screw up.

As Hayes writes:

“Along with all the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with — in income, in wealth, in access to politicians — we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both insider traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.”

The anchor of MSNBC’s “All In” every weeknight at 8 p.m. Eastern, Hayes has quickly become one of the country’s most essential public intellectuals. We met in his Rockefeller Center office last week before moving across the street for lunch. This is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.


Is there a reason why elites have performed so particularly poorly in the last decade — whether we’re talking about the Iraq War and its aftermath; Katrina; the many failures on Wall Street and in the banking world that caused the Great Recession; right now, a security state that grants access to secrets to Edward Snowden, then appears to lose track of him. So why so much failure now? Are elites getting dumber?

Right. So why now, I think, two answers. One is that I don’t think I’m making the argument that current elite failure is the worst in American history. Clearly the antebellum slave power was –

But that’s going back 150 years.

I think around the Gilded Age, also the crash of 1896. But why now: I would just say it’s social distance and inequality. Basically, excessive social distance between elites and citizens produces excessive power for elites, and this is the result of a 30-year process in which that distance has been expanding and expanding and has introduced a governing financial class, particularly, that is incapable of not effing things up.

And yet it seems like a fairly new problem that we can no longer assume basic competence –

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