Retreat of the elites

Both liberals and conservatives rail against the insularity of the one per cent

Retreat of the elites

Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/Keystone Press

A short polemical book by a cable talk-show host doesn’t usually set off a worldwide conversation about the way society is organized, but Chris Hayes, the bespectacled policy wonk who hosts MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, hopes to do just that with Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Lots of people claim to hate elites, usually as a partisan excuse to beat up on political opponents. But with this year’s U.S. election cycle, there’s a twist. This time, it’s more than just hot air; politicians and pundits alike are dead serious about the issue. Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has built a campaign on telling Americans that “nobody got rich on their own,” and some conservative commentators are taking on elites in ways that go beyond what Hayes calls “people who listen to NPR, drive Priuses and live in San Francisco.” Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that both liberals and conservatives seem to be disturbed by “the rise of an insular elite,” people who “might as well be in a different country, and often live and think as if they were.”

This frustration with elites may be stronger than at any time since the ’60s when, Hayes says, “we had a whole national conversation about the crisis of authority.” Pundits are increasingly trying to grapple with the implications of living with, as Rauch puts it, “a class divide which perpetuates itself across generations.” Conservative hero Charles Murray recently published Coming Apart: The State of White America, where he argues that society is in trouble partly because the upper-class elite is “hollow at its core,” unwilling to connect with non-elites and set a good example. To Hayes, the meritocratic system has been just as bad for social mobility and equality as the old hereditary class systems.

No one seems to know how to deal with the problem, Rauch says, “but it’s important that a liberal worried about equality and a conservative worried about civil society are both worried.” Even David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist whom Hayes describes as “the most prominent defender of the institutionalist outlook,” admitted that Hayes has a point about meritocracy’s poor track record: “As this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions,” he wrote, “trust in them has plummeted.”

There’s nothing new, of course, about arguing that the people at the top aren’t doing a good job of running things. What’s new is that some of these new anti-elitists are turning the knife on their own readers or even themselves, challenging the institutions they support or even belong to. Hayes spends a chunk of Twilight of the Elites talking about the tendency of Hunter College High School, the meritocratic public school he attended, to reinforce the inequities in U.S. society (in part because rich kids can afford better test preparation). This didn’t go over with some smart, affluent liberals, who responded that they were being personally attacked for being smart and going to good schools. Rauch says conservatives and liberals have to face the fact that “society is splitting and neither the market nor the government seems capable of stopping it, so it’s hard for anyone to feel smug or happy.”

The new anti-elitists may not agree on a solution, but they do seem to be disenchanted with the old idea that education is the answer, or that inequality is all right if the smartest people rise to the top. Hayes calls this a dangerous “cult of smartness.” Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer and activist who has been prominent in the online backlash against elite institutions (he was arrested in 2011 for allegedly “liberating” millions of academic articles from a database), says that “when you create situations where there can be only one winner, you’re inherently putting people in a situation where to succeed, others have to fail.” Hayes says we should be moving toward a social model where instead of giving rewards only to the best and brightest, “every job pays well enough to have a modicum of comfort, that there are many fulfilling lives to be had,” and where the upper class don’t lead completely separate lives from the rest of us.

Was there ever a model that worked that way? Hayes thinks there was, and so do a lot of anti-elitists. Hayes argues that shared prosperity, and a comfortable existence even for non-elites, was part of “the broad political-economic system that was in place from the New Deal until the early ’70s,” when taxes on the rich were higher and unions were stronger. Since then, says University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, people have had an increasing sense “that there has been a cultural change in the degree of inequality that is socially acceptable among the elite.” And many commentators across the political spectrum have noted that elites used to be less cut off from everyday life than they are now. Murray spends portions of Coming Apart castigating elites for being out of touch with regular people, and told the New York Times he moved his family to a rural area because “I did not want my children to grow up only knowing other upper-middle-class kids like themselves.” No matter what kind of anti-elitist you are, it seems, you’re looking back to a time when there was more social connection between the rich and the middle class.

That argument has a whiff of nostalgia to it, and that may be the most unexpected effect of the new anti-elitism: it has many people longing for the Mad Men era. Conservatives like Murray argue that the ’50s was a time of stronger values, but so do liberals like Paul Krugman, who writes nostalgically about that period, considering it a “paradise lost” of economic equality and strong unions.

The longing for the good old days became particularly potent in July, when a 1955 Fortune magazine article unexpectedly went viral online. It was an article about what Hayes describes as “the relatively modest life of an executive in the ’50s.” The piece described how the era’s high income taxes forced high-powered executives to do without servants and mansions, and filled commentators with a sense of longing for an era when class divides were not so stark. For Hayes, there’s more to this kind of longing than pure nostalgia; it’s also a reminder that social policy can change the behaviour of elites, creating what he calls “a cultural norm that was accepted among the executives of the time.” He points to the differences between Mitt Romney and his father George, both of whom were part of the wealthiest one per cent. George, a favourite of liberals who miss the old-fashioned moderate conservatives, accepted the idea that rich people should pay higher taxes and live relatively modest lives. That history gives Hayes and other anti-elitists a sense that it’s not hopeless, that society can be made more equal if we put the right tax policies into place. “A regime of high top marginal tax rates that squeezes together the top and the bottom is a good first step toward solving the problem,” he says.

Of course, if anti-elitist, anti-meritocracy views inevitably lead to higher taxes, that could explain why there’s been so much push back by some elites. Many bankers have been bitterly resentful of the idea that luck, rather than merit, played a role in their success: there’s been a ferocious backlash against President Barack Obama for saying that businessmen don’t succeed on their own, and Hayes says that JPMorgan Chase chairman Jamie Dimon thinks “basically that people are ungrateful and fail to recognize how hard-working the elites are.” Others have expressed the fear that the new wave of anti-elitism could overturn the system and replace it with something worse: real estate billionaire Jeff Greene warned New York magazine, “We will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy—rights, all that stuff will be different.”

Of course, such fears might be overblown, in part because most of the people talking about overthrowing the elites are, at the moment, elites themselves. “What could be more open-minded,” sneered Lisa Mogilanski, a Fortune contributor who went to the same high school as Hayes, “than vilifying, as Hayes does, the very system that conferred elite status on you in the first place?” Hayes admits he’s “implicated” in the system he criticizes, and he also can’t go so far as to argue against elitism and meritocracy within a corporate structure. “Anyone who’s ever worked for an institution understands that people have different skills,” he says. “So I’m not saying that we should be selecting surgeons’ licenses by lottery.” Or, for that matter, pundits.

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