Chris Hayes: Why America's Meritocracy Is Just a Myth


Over the past decade, Americans have watched a series of disastrous failures on the part of our elites – failures that have eroded our trust in the institutions we once believed to be competent stewards of a prosperous society.

In his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes considers the ramifications of that decline in confidence. What does it say about our supposed meritocracy that those who have achieved positions of immense power appear to be unwilling or incapable of exercising their authority on behalf of the common good? Do we even have a meritocracy anymore, or have we developed a sort of inept aristocracy?

Hayes appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to talk about the book. Below is a transcript of the discussion that has been lightly edited for clarity (you can listen to the whole show here, or subscribe to the weekly podcast on iTunes).

JH: I want to talk about the book, but first I feel almost duty-bound to ask about this recent fracas you got into after noting something entirely obvious to my viewpoint -- that not every soldier who loses his or her life is a hero. You said this very respectfully, but it ignited a kind of 'two minutes of hate' against you. Was that an eye-opener as far as the constraints of the discourse on cable television versus if you’d written that column in the Nation? I don’t think there would have been the same reaction.

CH: I think it was an eye-opener and kind of a reminder that I do have a pretty big platform now. People are listening and paying attention, and that’s a privilege I take incredibly seriously. We talk about difficult and sensitive topics, complex and loaded topics on the show. It’s one of the things that we try to do intentionally, because those are topics that need to be talked about. So with the nature of that -- and talking unscripted and mostly off the prompter for four hours live every week -- that comes with the territory. I knew that abstractly, but I’d say I now know it more concretely in these last few weeks.

JH: Again I think that what you said was both respectful and obviously accurate. You apologized for it in the days that followed. Did you come under pressure to do so?

CH: No. I don’t say things that I don’t believe, as a rule. I wouldn’t say something that I didn’t believe. I stand by what I said in the statement and I stand by what I said on the show. I said those things because I felt those things. But I want to be very clear: we’re not going to be cowed, intimidated or bullied away from having difficult conversations. I think we showed that by how we went about the show the next weekend.

People are paying attention and words mean a lot. They have a certain power and a force. They have a power and a force specifically to individuals who have been on the receiving end of some terrible life experiences. One of the requirements of journalistic empathy -- and just empathy as a general human being -- is to take care about that, to keep that in mind. That’s something we’re also going to keep doing. We have a lot of issues in this country that don’t get the airing they need to get. We want to keep trying to discuss them.

JH: Well, I really respect the work you’ve been doing on the show, and I don’t watch a lot of television.

Let’s turn to your new book. It’s called The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Chris, I like to be upfront with my guests -- I’m halfway through the book.

CH: That’s good. That’s more than a lot of interviews I’ll be encountering over the next few weeks.

JH: I think it’s a great read so far. One of the arguments in the book is that we face what you might call a 'crisis of confidence' in our major institutions. This is something I’ve written a little bit about myself. A couple of years ago there was a poll out which found that Americans were expressing their lowest level of confidence in almost all of our institutions -- in business, in government, the media, academia, you name it. The only institution they continued to trust somewhat is the military. Just this week there was a poll out which showed that fewer than half of respondents trust the Supreme Court, which is an all-time low.

What do you think brought us to this point? Are elites less trustworthy or are we becoming less deferential?

CH: The big question the book starts with, and the place the book started as a project, is coming across some of this data. The data is really clear -- when you look across the landscape, American trust in pillar institutions, like the financial sector, big business, media, science and academia, and even religion are at or near all-time lows.

They’re at all-time lows even compared to when this polling was initiated in the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate. The big worry after Watergate was that the country was suffering from a crisis of authority. It didn’t trust institutions. The irony is that the polling was initiated in the 1970s, and what was then viewed as the nadir of public trust in institutions turns out to have been the high watermark. There is much less trust now than there was then. The exception is the military, which is the most trusted institution in American life. The least trusted institution in American life is Congress. I think that says a lot about where we are politically in and of itself.

The project of the book started with trying to get to the bottom of why this was the case. You laid out the fact that there are two theories. One is that we’ve just become less trusting. You’ll hear people say this. I quote Bob Bennett -- who is a longtime Republican senator from Utah who was deposed by a Tea Party challenger in the state’s Republican Caucus -- basically saying, 'the problem is you’ve got all these blogs by people who don’t know anything talking nonsense. All this hatred in the 24-hour news cycle makes people not trust those of us who labor in lead institutions.' I think there’s something to that; but, the argument in the book that I assert is if you take a step back and look at the record of the last 10 years in American life -- what I call in the book the “fail decade” -- it is a cascade of incompetence and corruption.

You start with the Bush v Gore decision where a slim majority on the court hands the election over to the favored candidate even though he doesn’t win the popular vote, and even though the legal logic is tortured. Then there's the failure of the largest security apparatus in the history of human civilization, the American security state, when it couldn’t stop 19 men with box cutters. Then you go to Iraq and the fallout there. You go to the botched Katrina rescue. Then you go to a financial crisis. Running through there you have Enron, Major League Baseball’s steroids issue, the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. So there’s a long-winded answer to the question you set up, which is we are less trusting of our institutions because they appear less trustworthy. They’ve had a very poor record of institutional performance over the last decade.

JH: You have this poor record, which is tangible. But let me get a little ideological on you. Do you think that the right’s relentless attacks on big government, the media, universities, scientists, and all the sources of authority we once had some degree of faith in has played a role in this? In compounding those obvious errors that we see around us?

CH: I think one of the things that’s happened -- one of the dangers of the situation -- is that the distrust spreads from untrustworthy institutions to trustworthy ones. What do I mean by that? When you start to think that experts or elites are self dealing and deceitful, then when they tell you the Earth is warming -- there’s these pointy headed intellectuals who have figured out that there’s this process underway and we need to do something about it -- there’s a lot of skepticism towards that. We’ve seen belief in climate change decline over time, particularly among self-identified Republicans and conservatives.

I think that part of what’s driving that, and one of the dangers of this distrust-- aside from polarization, which is one of the brute facts of American public life -- is that you start to run the risk of falling into this vortex of nihilism. In fact, trust in institutions, good institutional performance, sound rule of law and accountability all go together in the development literature on what makes a country highly developed, prosperous, and a good place to live. Distrust, corruption and poor institutional performance all kind of lead to each other. I worry a lot about that. I don’t think the distrust is the problem. I think it’s the effect, not the cause. I also worry about it accelerating a process whereby we can’t solve big public problems.

JH: Chris, you also write about what I think may be one of the most important dynamics in our political culture. It is this idea that we are living in a pure meritocracy where our outcomes are limited only by our innate talents and our ability to work hard. The reality, of course, is that there is less opportunity for upward mobility in our economy than in Canada, Germany, France, Finland, and several other countries. In the United States, the single greatest predictor of a person’s economic fortunes is how much money his or her parents make. How does the gap between that reality and our mythology -- our whole bootstrap culture -- feed into the phenomenon you write about in the book?

CH: You put your finger on something that’s a really important dynamic. Compared to other countries, we have the most people saying that in America you can start out poor and work your way up to being rich. Our faith in that basic meritocratic promise -- that basic dream -- is a shared, consensus view in America. In fact it’s such a consensus that it’s not something that we ever really debate. It’s what we call the "American Dream.” Every politician gives credence to it. We more or less all buy into this idea of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes – the ability of social mobility through will, determination, talent, luck, intelligence, and drive. How you can go from anywhere and rise as high as your talent takes you.

Of course the ultimate confirmation of that, the greatest confirmation of the meritocratic dream, is the president of the United States, Barack Obama. Right? He’s as unlikely a president as you could imagine given his roots and his background. And yet he’s someone of such tremendous and obvious talents, drive, will, and discipline. He has in fact ascended to become the most powerful person in the country.

So we have this disconnect between that dream, which we really believe with great ardor, and the reality, which is that social mobility is declining in this country. It turns out to be a somewhat difficult thing to measure. Most measures show it either flatlining or more likely declining. Declining from generation to generation while inequality rises.

One of the toxic aspects of our politics is that the gap between the American Dream and the reality is something people feel viscerally. People feel that betrayal. I think that’s a very profound, and shared sensation – something that people on the right, the left, and the middle all feel. They blame different people for it. There are different political manifestations of who is to blame. Who is taking cash out of your pocket? Who is rigging the rules of the game in their favor? But the fact that it feels that the game is rigged is broadly shared. It’s in some ways the defining experience of being an American at the end of the fail decade. I think it’s what structures some of the brutality of our politics. People get angry and upset, even enraged and passionate when they feel they’ve been betrayed, and there’s a broad sense of that in the electorate.

JH: Is there a prescription that you offer? Are there potential solutions to the problems that you describe so well in the book?

CH: This is always a challenge for anyone who writes a book.

JH: It really is. It’s the hardest part of a book.

CH: It’s called the last chapter problem. There’s two things I want to say. One is that the big solution is to make the country more equal. We’ve had two eras of tremendous egalitarian gains in the last 60-70 years. We had a period of tremendous economic economic equality -- unrivaled in the history of the country -- from the New Deal to the 1970s. All of that had to do with high levels of unionization, growing median wages, enlarged social safety net, etc. That was an incredible accomplishment. Many of those gains have been undone.

What came afterwards, in the second era of equality, from the 1970s until now, is tremendous gains along the lines of equality in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. The racial gains have actually been far less pronounced than I think one would assume or one would like. But the fact of the matter is that along a lot of different metrics there havs been tremendous gains. For women there have been tremendous gains, though, again, they're still not equal in many ways. For gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks there have been tremendous gains.

The challenge is to inaugurate a third era of equality, which combines those two. We keep pursuing the project of equality around those lines of race, gender and sexual orientation while we produce more economic equality.

One of the things I say in the book is that creating a more economically equal society is a solvable problem. That’s what computer scientists call it. In other words, it can be done. We know how to do it. Simple things like if you tax a society a lot more, and provide a lot more universally provided public goods, you’ll have more equality. If you do a lot more transfers and have a redistributive tax code, you'll have more equality. If you raise the minimum wage significantly, which they’ve done in Brazil and in Australia, you'll have more equality. There are all sorts of policies that can do this. The problem is the political obstacles. There are the people who benefit most from the current system of inequality – they are also the people most empowered to prevent challenges to the status quo.

Secondly -- and this is a long way of saying what is in some ways the first solution that I’m proposing in the book -- is for us to all actually make explicit the implicit assumptions we have about the desirability of meritocracy as a social model. I think the implicit consensual buy-in that even a lot of liberals have to meritocracy as our social model is part of what facilitates the rhetoric and ideology that supports the system of inequality that we now have. I think people need to look hard at whether that system is working, whether it can work, whether it’s producing what we want it to, and be more forthright about a more egalitarian vision of the country. Putting equality of outcome, not just equality of opportunity, at the center of the debate -- I think that in some ways is one of the most important first steps.

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