Epilogue—We recommend caution: Chris Hayes new book, Twilight of the Elites, ended up being hard to review.
Its logic is very fuzzy. To this day, we can’t really describe the book’s central point, its claim about meritocracy.
Why have our major elites failed so badly in recent decades? (Hayes limits the time span, describing a recent “fail decade.”) As a general matter, we’d say it’s because the culture of greed has re-established itself since the wealthy began fighting back against the strictures of the New Deal.
In modern American culture, the rewards for high achievers are now immense. Within some elites, the large pay-days are plainly dispensed in part to purchase obedience.
That’s how it works inside Hayes’ elite, the one he barely discusses.
That would be our short explanation for the dysfunction of current elites. But according to Hayes, our elites have failed us because—well, it has something to do with meritocracy. We defy you to read his book and explain it better than that.
Hayes is very fuzzy. Meanwhile, like others before him, he basically skips the mainstream press corps as he discusses our failed elites. Instead, he goes on at great length about the way major leaguers took steroids to get the big paydays.
How exactly did “meritocracy” affect Barry Bonds, McGwire and Sosa? The question is silly on its face. Let’s not even ask.
Despite what you read in this book’s tribal blurbs, Hayes is very fuzzy. The book turned out to be hard to discuss because it was so hard to find clear statements of his various theses.
To our ear, Hayes disappears his own elite, then ends up going soft on the others. Have financial elites conducted their looting because they have too much “social distance?” Please. Social distance is sought by these grasping elites. The looting is driven by greed, the same motive which can perhaps be found all through the elite Hayes skipped.
Around Labor Day, we plan to return to Hayes’ book for our award-winning back-to-school editions. We have continued to struggle with Chapter 2, in which Hayes discusses the meritocratic Manhattan high school he attended.
In effect, Hayes discusses affirmative action and low-income education all through that chapter. We think his apparent views are striking. We plan to return to that topic as summer turns into fall.
In closing, we thought we’d discuss a puzzling error in Hayes’ book. Everyone makes mistakes, of course. But this mistake is striking.
The passage comes from Chapter 4, where Hayes seems to keep the hot winds of anger away from the mainstream press. At one point, he discusses the run-up to war with Iraq.
In the following passage, Hayes makes a truly remarkable claim about two or three major Democrats. He claims that Ted Kennedy and Al Gore sounded more or less just like George Bush with respect to war with Iraq:
HAYES (page 110): A little more than one year after Congress authorized the war with Afghanistan, it authorized war with Iraq. The resolution passed the Senate 77 to 22, with 29 Democrats (or 60 percent of the caucus) voting aye. Of course, it was the Republican administration and party that most aggressively pushed for the war, but even a casual observer of politics would have noticed that many high-profile Democrats, indeed the most high-profile Democrats, were saying things about Iraq that sounded more or less identical to what the Bush administration and congressional Republicans were saying. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said on Face the Nation, “Whatever we’re worried about is as A-bomb in a Ryder truck in New York, in Washington and St. Louis. It cannot happen. We have to prevent it from happening. And it was on that basis that I voted to do this.” In a January 2003 speech Senator John Kerry said Saddam Hussein was “miscalculating America’s response to the continued deceit and his consistent grasp for weapons of mass destruction.” A few weeks later Al Gore warned that Iraq “represents a virulent threat in a class by itself.” Even Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, a hero to liberals who called his vote against the Iraq war declaration the best he’s ever cast, echoed the bellicose rhetoric from the White House: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s...pursuit of lethal weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated. He must be disarmed.”Let’s summarize:
According to Hayes, “even a casual observer” would have noticed that “many high-profile Democrats were saying things about Iraq that sounded more or less identical” to what the Bush administration was saying. Four major Democrats are named, including Kerry, Kennedy and Gore.
We think Hayes is a bit unfair to Kerry; in the speech from which that quote has been clipped, Kerry differed from Bush in many ways. But his statement is truly astounding concerning the other two Dems, each of whom gave high-profile speeches in September 2002 warning against Bush’s desire for war with Iraq.
How casual an observer is Hayes himself? The speech by Kennedy was made on September 27, 2002 at the Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
Was Kennedy “sounding more or less identical to what the Bush administration was saying?” In fact, Kennedy blasted the rush to war. These are a few of the headlines which appeared in the press the next day:
Boston Globe: KENNEDY CRITICIZES BUSH ON IRAQ POLICYIt’s strange to be told that Kennedy “echoed the bellicose rhetoric from the White House” in this speech. Major Democrats, including Kennedy and Gore, were still saying that Saddam possessed WMD. Presumably, that’s what they believed; liberals have often done a poor job coming to terms with that fact.
Boston Herald: Ted K Blasts Bush on Iraq
Chicago Tribune: Opposition to war grows more vocal
Miami Herald: Kennedy Attacks Bush’s push for war with Iraq
New York Daily News: KENNEDY RIPS PREZ ON SADDAM THREAT
New York Times: Liberals Object to Bush Policy on Iraq Attack
New York Post: TEDDY BROWBEATS BUSH
Philadelphia Inquirer: Kennedy raps Iraq war push
But Kennedy argued against war with Iraq. So had Gore, four days earlier.
Uh-oh! As seems to be required by Hard Pundit Law, Hayes makes an overt factual error regarding Gore. The quote by Gore in Hayes’ book actually comes from February 2002—not from February 2003, as Hayes mistakenly writes.
Having misplaced one speech by a year, Hayes ignores the later speech in which Gore argued against war with Iraq, a stance for which Gore was savaged. This is the way the New York Times described that high-profile speech:
MURPHY (9/24/02): Former Vice President Al Gore accused the Bush administration today of weakening the war on terrorism by turning the country's attention to Saddam Hussein. He also said the Congressional resolution on Iraq sought by President Bush was too broad and did not do enough to seek international support for a possible military strike.Gephardt was a hawk on Iraq; Kerry never managed to establish a clear line. But Kennedy and Gore gave high-profile speeches in which they flatly opposed Bush’s stance on Iraq. Ten years later, it’s surprising to see our brightest young liberal clipping quotes, misplacing a speech by a year and misstating the basic truth about each of these major figures.
"From the outset, the administration has operated in a manner calculated to please the portion of its base that occupies the far right, at the expense of the solidarity among all of us as Americans and solidarity between our country and our allies," Mr. Gore said.
Mr. Gore said that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had yet to be avenged and that Mr. Bush's approach would make it more difficult to punish those who were responsible. He suggested that the administration had become distracted by Iraq because Mr. Hussein was an easier target than Al Qaeda.
Everybody makes mistakes. That mistake is extremely strange, especially in a book Hayes worked on for two years with the help of a seven “talented and industrious research assistants” and one “kind and fastidious” fact-checker.
For us, there are much larger issues in Hayes’ fuzzy book:
As career journalists typically do, he largely disappears the elite within which he himself is going to get rich and famous. In the end, we think he’s weirdly soft on our financial elites, weirdly ascribing their misconduct to their “social distance” from the folk they were looting.
In fairness, that sort of thing is often seen as professional courtesy within a nation’s elites.
Beyond that, Hayes’ basic argument is woolly, unclear. Despite these problems, the usual suspects are found on the jacket saying the book is brilliant. Hayes returns the favor to three of the five, praising them inside his book.
A cynic would say that this type of conduct is described right in Hayes’ book. Near the end of Chapter 2, he discusses the ways our modern elites turn themselves into self-serving guilds. And he describes the type of society created by this self-dealing conduct:
HAYES (page 57): Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.Friends and colleagues get pimped and protected; there are no sanctions for gross misconduct or error. To our jaundiced but far-seeing ear, the world Hayes describes sounds a great deal like the world of MSNBC.
(page 63): It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars…
It would, in other words, look a lot like the American elite in the first years of the twenty-first century.
In this world, the misconduct of Chris and Lawrence and Charles will pass without comment or correction. When Rachel makes mistakes, she will insist, at amazing length, that she has done no such thing. These ambitious players will pimp one another, conning us liberal rubes in the process. Meanwhile, ambitious young climbers will swear that this world bears no resemblance to Fox.
It's an impossibility, they will say. They will base this on the greatness of the suits for whom they work.
Hayes always seems extremely sincere. After reading his strange and self-involved book, we recommend caution concerning Hayes and the rest of his horrible guild.