Our Civic Religion



TBQ: How did Twilight of the Elites come about?

CH: I went through a bunch of different ideas for the book but the actual moment when it all clicked was when I read a post on Nate Silver’s old blog, before it went to the New York Times. He had a post up that showed General Social Survey data on Americans’ trust in pillar institutions, and it was really startling. Discovering that GSS data crystallized everything for me. I thought: That captures something about the way that I feel about American public life at the end of this decade, and I’d like to write a book exploring it. As I started to work through those ideas, I began exploring why we were in a crisis of authority, and that was kind of the starting point.

TBQ: In your book, you talk about the issues with post-1960s meritocracy and how it’s connected to the rise in inequality in the last 30 years. How exactly are inequality and meritocracy related? Is inequality caused by meritocracy, or is meritocracy a political problem?

CH: I think the two ideas reinforce each other. First of all, there are a number of broad trends that are driving inequality, from attacks on organized labor to the financialization of the economy. The latter trend is probably the biggest one, to be honest; so much of inequality is being produced by finance. But outsourcing, globalization, and the inexhaustible global supply of cheap labor have had an incredibly depressing effect on American wages.

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At the same time, the ethos of meritocracy is used to justify inequality, and also, in a very explicit way, is actually worsening inequality in our institutions. The idea of merit pay, which is being instituted in schools, is the way that Wall Street increasingly works — completely bonus-driven. Studies show that pay-for-performance as a rubric — the ultimate institutional expression of meritocracy as ideology — is growing and becoming a leading contributor to growing inequality. So, I actually think that meritocracy doesn’t just serve as an ad hoc justification for inequality. The implementation of reforms along meritocratic lines is creating winner-take-all-economies, economies of superstars.

TBQ: To a certain degree, this “economy of superstars” was by design, right? Is part of the solution undoing at least the political factors that have accelerated the superstar economy, especially with taxation? It can be mapped very clearly: if you graph the high-end marginal tax rates and then you graph inequality, the correlation is uncanny. It was during the ‘90s with the Clinton tax rates that all of a sudden, lo and behold, inequality started to get a lot better.

CH: It gets a little better post-tax; it doesn’t get any better pre-tax. Short answer: as I think about this more, I have a more developed sense of the stages of solutions. In the book, I say, look, let’s start with a low-hanging fruit: raise taxes at the top a lot and increase the minimum wage. I mean, a 50% top marginal tax rate and a $15 an hour minimum wage — which sounds crazy — would lead to a lot more equality.

You lose sight of what a radical concept actual democracy is. There is no one else out there who decides, other than the people on the F train, or the people in your post office.

TBQ: Is it a fair interpretation of your argument that ‘60s meritocracy introduced a higher degree of social equality to race, gender, and, increasingly, sexual orientation into our system, making the higher economic inequality palatable to a segment of society?

CH: I think it broadly had that effect. The idea that the rich deserve what they have predates creation of our current meritocracy. It’s partly an inheritance of feudalism and of a certain kind of Calvinism and Protestantism. I think it deeply structured our conceptions of just deserts and fairness to think this way. The division between equal opportunity and equal outcomes is just a trope that is casually invoked by everyone across the political spectrum — of course we want one and not the other.

That kind of neat conceptual division lets us evade a lot of questions like: How much did this hierarchical way of thinking of the world influence the success of progressive social movements — second wave feminism, civil rights, and LGBT rights — in achieving social equality?

TBQ: The “Iron Law of Meritocracy,” as you call it in your book, has to do with entrenchment of the elite. Our society’s top tier actually becomes a closed, self-justifying system: you get a handful of people who make it in, and everyone else is shut out.

CH: That’s exactly right; it’s a natural product of very extreme inequality. The conceit of this meritocratic ideal is that you can make up for very extreme levels of inequality in the opportunity space. It’s a delusional and impossible dream, and it’s all we ever talk about. In the book, I quote George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush. What do they identify as the problem with [addressing] inequality? “Education, education, education.” That’s just a way of saying, “opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.” It will not work.

TBQ: We’ve been trying it for thirty years almost.

CH: Matt Yglesias makes the point that if we were actually committed to actual equality of opportunity, we would have just a much more massive redistribution of state than we already have. We don’t even really believe in that.

TBQ: In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama looks at the history of a lot of different civilizations and societies through the lens of what he refers to as “patrimony.” Meritocracy is what everybody tries to create, and “patrimonialism” is the sign of its decay, the half-life version of meritocracy. There seemed to be some interesting parallels there to your “Iron Law of Meritocracy.”

CH: Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail tells a similar story. It talks about representative institutions versus extractive institutions. Extractive institutions are so durable that they will permeate even through a huge revolution. Their whole point about Africa and Latin America is that the institutions set up in those places were extractive from the beginning, so when you got rid of the people in power and replaced them with revolutionaries, they just inherited a set of extractive institutions.[1] The point is that those institutions are so deeply rooted. To be honest, finance in America has become a totally extractive institution, in Acemoglu and Robinson’s terms, and has to kind of be destroyed.

TBQ: Were there any other examples of elite institutional entrenchment that you found — either historically or cross-culturally — or was your research mostly confined to post-crash America?

CH: I read a set of theorists — Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Ortega y Gasset and a few others — who were called “elite” theorists. Elite Theory was very en vogue in intellectual circles, particularly at the turn of the century when Europe had gone through its first real wave of democratic revolution — not the first wave, but the first wave that stuck and led to World War I. That sort of revolutionary period posed all these questions about democracy.

One of the things that working on the book reacquainted me with, and which I hope comes through in the book, is: Because our democracy is so attenuated, you lose sight of what a radical concept actual democracy is. It’s that there is no one else out there who decides, other than the people in this diner or the people on the F train or the people in an emergency room or the people in your post office — people, just people, with everything that is crazy about human beings — that that’s the ultimate arbiter, that’s the ultimate authority.

We all get to decide. I think we are so far from thinking in those terms. We need a kind of democratic Great Awakening.

I don’t even think we really think in those terms anymore. We think of Congress, the President; they have these periodic moments when they ask us for permission that we basically grant. There’s no sense in which we think about it as us deciding. Back when democracy was fresher, of course, that was closer to the thing everyone was thinking and writing about — and it was terrifying to certain reactionaries. Part of what’s interesting about those elite theorists is that a number of them come around to think, “Well, okay, a la Michels, this democracy thing is kind of all right, because you can have this democracy thing on paper, and, some version of Plato’s gold people are going to run things anyway.[2] So, this system can be kind of subverted.”

I quote Ortega y Gasset talking about “mass-man,” this awful spectacle of an industrial brute running things . There’s a Christopher Lasch quote in the book about meritocracy as a parody of democracy. Part of it is getting back to that idea. Really, at the end of the day, it is just us — us, all of us, with all of our different backgrounds, life experiences, natural endowments, technical skills cultivated through the various things we’ve done. To get away from the other idea that there is some other small group that gets to decide. We all get to decide. I think we are so far from thinking in those terms — really far from thinking in those terms. We need a kind of democratic renaissance. Not a revolution in the traditional sense. But a kind of democratic great awakening is what the country needs, I think.

TBQ: You suggest that one of the things we most cherish about American life is our ability to self-correct. What would the self-correcting process look like? Can the problems of meritocracy as a concept be solved?

CH: No, I don’t think they can. I think the idea of people rising based on their merit is a great idea abstractly but it just can’t be implemented — particularly if you design a society around it. That kind of social mobility is an old-left socialist dream.

TBQ: It’s as though we took the result, mobility, and turned it into the new objective.

CH: Right, exactly. You can’t achieve mobility unless you actually design a society that’s really concerned with broad equality — and not even broad equality but, like I talk about in the book, closing social distance and establishing a real fabric of connection.

TBQ: Not having your own elevator.

CH: Right, not having your own elevator, exactly.

The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly meeting for the first time in Washington Square Park, October 8, 2011. (Image: David Shankbone, Wikipedia)

The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly meeting for the first time in Washington Square Park, October 8, 2011. (Image: David Shankbone, Wikipedia)

TBQ: At the end of the book, you discuss some political dynamics that could be in play in the near future. One is the insurrectional energy we’re seeing from both the Tea Party and the Occupy folks, and how both draw much of their support from the upper middle class, which has suddenly found itself the most angry and left out over the last ten years or so. How do you imagine uniting that insurrectionist left and that insurrectionist right? You also mention the possibility of another exogenous shock to the system, such as another financial crash or future climate-related catastrophes.

CH: I think that’s the most likely, to be honest. It’s weird because I feel like the [2012 presidential] campaign was kind of a lead blanket on top of that in that it sort of smothered it all. But this stuff isn’t linear. When you go back and you study the American Revolution, in the high school version of the curriculum, you study Shays’ Rebellion — an example of little pockets of uprising that, in retrospect, appear as foreshadowing. The political mood of the country seems numb now, like we’re weirdly acclimated to dysfunction and high unemployment. The duration of the crisis has gone on long enough that it no longer feels like a crisis.

TBQ: To play devil’s advocate, let’s consider the Tea Party or the conservative movement. They’ve been doing the distrust-of-elites game for a long time, and they’ve doing it very, very well. They’ve tapped into right-wing populism and anti-intellectualism. Their distrust is of education, expertise, credentials, and science. They would de-fund public education; they’d rewrite school textbooks; they’d dismantle environmental regulations and cut even further the social safety net. Given the detrimental effects of conservative anti-elitism, don’t we have some faith in certain things we think of as elite at times — whether it’s data, empiricism, science, or numbers?

CH: Yes, I believe in empiricism; I believe in science. But one of the points of the book is: you have to produce institutions that are trustworthy if people are going to trust them, and that’s part of the problem. If we don’t have a proper democratic renaissance, if we don’t have a distribution of power, if we don’t hold accountable and make less corrupt our institutions, that only feeds that form of right-wing populism, which is really dangerous.

TBQ: You mentioned earlier not just the political solutions but also the cultural issues for people who made it and feel like they deserve that they made it. Where do we go with that? How do we address that post-hoc rationalization of elite success, stop this economic system from being treated as a moral one. Do you think there’s anything that can be done on that?

CH: Well, writing the book! The idea behind writing the book was to get people to question precisely that. People do cling to the idea of American meritocracy very tightly because, what’s the alternative? Either despair or radicalization. And where does radicalization get when you’re just trying to freaking pay the bills and take care of your kids, and despair is not productive, so yeah, it’s a kind of faith.

TBQ: It has become our civic religion.

CH: Oh yeah, it definitely is. I think people recognizing the game is totally rigged — and they’re right to think that way — is really important. And a kind of necessary precondition for the kind of democratic renaissance we need.

[1] “The Colombian state, with its extractive institutions, cannot or is unwilling to control large parts of the country. Instead, the state delegates this to local elites and paramilitary groups.” (Authors of Why Nations Fail)

[2] “Citizens, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour.” (Plato’s Republic)

chris-hayes_web_headshotChristopher Hayes is Editor at Large of The Nation and host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC (8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday). His first book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, is about the crisis of authority in American life.

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