While departing to exotic locales this summer, you may come across a book being read by the jet set. That book, Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes may change the way you look at the world.
Originally posted at www.escaperepublic.com
With a title that is deceptive in its simplicity delivered by the hipster, academic Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy almost single-handily undermines virtually every precept we’ve come to accept about life in the modern age. It also may well turn out to be the seminal treatise for the so-called “FAIL” generation, a term that loosely connotes everyone who graduated since the beginning of the 21st Century.
Hayes is the host one of the few breakout successful news shows of the last few years. His UP With Chris Hayes is a bonafide hit. While MSNBC’s overall ratings dipped in May along with those of other news channels, Mr. Hayes’s program was one of the few to surge, rising about 15 percent in total viewers over MSNBC’s programming in the time slot from the previous year. Since December 26, it has been No. 1 on average in its Sunday time slot on cable news channels among viewers ages 18 to 34, according to Nielsen figures provided by the network. Despite much of the country being in bed when it is on, UP has occasionally flirted with the ratings of prime-time programs like The Rachel Maddow Show (hosted by Mr. Hayes’s mentor) among those 18-to-34 viewers.
Ms. Maddow said on her program that UP was “the best news show on TV, including this one.”
“Chris is the antidote to the anti-intellectual posing that has characterized the last decade in cable news,” she wrote in an email. She added: “No one else in cable is even trying long-form, off-the-news-cycle dives like him — let alone succeeding at them as he is. He’s giving the network Sunday shows a run for their money.”
In Twilight Hayes starts out by putting the last twelve years into perspective in a way that no one has. It’s both reassuring in its authoritative tone and deft analysis, which underscores what he describes as a ‘”crisis of authority.” This crisis is systemic, according to Hayes, and affects institution after institution, as he links the bank bailouts with the Iraq War, the Catholic Church’s harboring of child rapists, and the genuine failure of leadership in Washington.
Hayes says, “The American body politic is sick. We are stalked, as a patient with a fever might be, by the maddening sensation that things aren’t right. Because the country manages to function–the ATMs work, the planes get people where they need to go, crime is the lowest it’s been in decades–it’s tempting to hope that national convalescence is right around the corner. But the longer this Crisis of Authority persists, the more it runs the risk of metastasizing into something that could threaten what we most cherish about American life: our ability to self-correct, to somehow, even seemingly against all odds, make the future better than the past.”
What’s disturbing is where Hayes lays the ultimate blame: the idea of meritocracy, an ideal he says came about in the UK of the 1950s and eventually became institutionalized in the US in such gatekeepers as the SATs determining who our best and brightest are… it’s an unsettling claim. He asserts that the meritocracy has replaced and become almost as bad as the previous class system it replaced. Moments before interviewing Hayes, I overhear Republican senator Marco Rubio speaking on a radio show and as I mention to Hayes, Rubio’s essentially laying blame at the same institutions Hayes identifies in his book, how can this be? “That’s one of the problems with writing a book like this… is that the language can be so easily used by the right, but that doesn’t mean that’s it wrong.” He goes on to say that this meritocratic language has been usurped by everyone to the point that it doesn’t mean anything; President Obama he says, is the ultimate exemplar of the benefits of this system and emblematic of its failure, as he hasn’t been able to do very much to enact change having come up in believing in the same tenants that have caused the very problems he would set out to to fix.
What then, I ask, are we left to hope for in this election cycle? “That’s part of the problem, there isn’t an easy answer, this isn’t something that can be fixed quickly, although a change in the progressive income tax would definitely be a move in the right direction.”
If all this seems pessimistic, it’s not. As Hayes notes, “it’s often difficult for a book on social criticism to be prescriptive as well.” But he has faith that the system has in it the ability to reform itself. “Previous crises of authority in America have produced not just concerted movements to reform the institutions of the time, but organic bouts of institutional innovation that have created fundamentally new ways of coordinating work and life.”
After all this, I feel like I have to ask, did he include “Twilight” in the title in the hopes that millions of 14 year-old girls might accidentally order his book? He laughs. “Everyone keeps asking me that. If we search engine optimized the title in the hopes of having millions of tweens order a serious book of social criticism. No.”
That said, this generation could do worse than accidentally read this important book.
You can follow Chris on Twitter at: @chrislhayes
Photo courtesy of NBC via Politico