Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes [Review]

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. One deep story on the Clintonista side was the notion of American progress, an almost cinematic tale of redemption and progress in which Hillary’s narrative would have coincided with a putative feminist triumph. At roughly 8:15 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, progressives found themselves embracing a darker deep story of the farther left: America as an irredeemable bastion of the forces of reaction, in which every victory for progress is temporary and every activist effort ultimately futile because of the enduring power of–well, its hard to say of who, exactly, but ur-Fascism will serve as a label for now.

In Twilight of the ElitesChris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of ethnics, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what theydeserve.

Hayes’s deep story reads like the precise inverse of Hochschild’s deep story, in which rural folks see America as a queue in which Others are getting ahead by stealing their places. For the Elect, how long you’ve served, how loyal you are, how good a parent or a spouse or a neighbor you are–these are irrelevant compared to how good you are, as measured by smarts, earning, or prestige. A member of the Elect would have little sympathy for Hochschild’s line-waiters and their markedly inefficient view of distribution; don’t those at the back of the line understand that they need to retool to compete in the new line economy?

Reading Hayes’s book years after its release is jarring, not least because he was already adducing fake news and insurgent presidential candidates as symptoms of a broken system. He quotes (p. 11) the conservative Utah senator Bob Bennett, unseated in a Tea Party insurrection:

The moral for that story is–if people will read responsible publications and commentators–and they have a sense of respect for institutions and those of us who labor in those institutions, then were OK. But if you get all of your information from the blogs, then you’re just angry because were lying to you.

And Obama’s 2008 campaign sounds downright Trumpian:

Obama only had a fighting chance at the nomination because of the credibility bestowed by his appearance at a 2002 rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, where he referred to the impending invasion as a dumb war. When all the smart people got it wrong, including his many rivals for the nomination, he got it right. He, alone among the leading contenders, was able to see that the emperor had no clothes.

Indeed, despite Trump and Obamas mutual hatred, it is plain to see that Trumps tenor–his, shall I say it, audacitypays the ultimate compliment to Obamas political skills.

Hayes goes beyond politics to discern elite failings in the Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, Enron, and elsewhere. Like many books in this genre, Hayes, I think, goes both too far and not far enough. He goes too far because elites behaving badly isn’t a symptom but a recurrent fact of social life in every society. (Hayes could have stood some historical perspective here: are the elites of the early 21st century really that much worse behaved than the elites who caused the Johnstown Flood or engaged in systematic racial, religious, and gender discrimination?)

He goes insufficiently far because his viewpoint is relentlessly parochial: this is another fable of American exceptionalism in which American failures are analytically incomparable to failures–or successes–in other societies. (Can the American trahison des elites really have been worse than the failures of enarques or Etonians?) And, most profoundly, his analytical framing is deeply nationalist, when, as Chrystia Freeland and others have shown, there really does exist a global super-elite who only perch in the United States when convenient but whose movements and preferences shape US politics more profoundly than do JD Vance’s kin?

But Hayes’s redeeming grace is that he almost squarely recognizes the implications of his diagnosis:

Together, the discrediting of our old sources of authority and the exponential proliferation of new ones has almost completely annihilated our social ability to reach consensus on just what the facts of the matter are. When our most central institutions are no longer trusted, we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal. As some of these encampments build higher and higher fences, walling themselves off from science and empiricism, we approach a terrifying prospect: a society that may no longer be capable of reaching the kind of basic agreement necessary for social progress. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely the single largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on the planet.

A longer and broader perspective on the matter might have led Hayes to the next step: the possibility that the economics of media and culture–of the noosphere itself–have been so fragmented that the possibility of elite consensus governing a vertically integrated society, as more or less all developed and Communist bloc countries had attained ca. 1945-1975, has disappeared. That period was as ephemeral and epiphenomenal as trench warfare or mass aerial bombing raids.

The combination of the omnipresent human drive for levelling and of broadly disseminated access to the means of producing ideas will not prove fertile ground for persuasion over the desirability of re-submitting ourselves to elites who are–and let us be honest–worn out and barely competent at best. Re-forming the conditions for unified governance will likely require the same sorts of fundamental ordering as the Second World War provided globally and the Civil War provided domestically.