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 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 Times: Liberals Object to Bush Policy on Iraq Attack
Philadelphia Inquirer: Kennedy raps Iraq war push
It’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.

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.

"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.
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.

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.


(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.
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.

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.


  1. To quote a brilliant guy who was speaking about anti- capitalists at the time, the same holds tre for our uber-capitalists:

    "Men forgot about God."-- Solzhenitsyn

  2. The Anonymous IdiotAugust 1, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    "A cynic would say that this type of conduct is described right in Hayes’ book."

    Or maybe a realist.

    But you have to agree, FOX is much worse.

    And therefore you are making a false equivalency, because I, a free-thinker, say so.

    Therefore you should stop criticising Hayes and MSNBC and focus exclusively on the real problem: FOX.

    1. If you really believe that there is no problem with almost exclusively critiquing the left on these problems, why don't you try to support this rather odd take and spare us the childish, redundant sarcasm?

    2. Because the biggest mistake we can make, the one that will lead to loss after loss on issue after issue, is to believe we got it all figured out. We can't afford to believe that the One True Liberal Channel actually represents liberal interests and liberal values.


      Because they don't.

      To believe that is to lose any semblance of a chance to win out in the end. We cannot defeat our enemy by becoming them.

      Is that such an "odd take"?

    3. Because it is based on a non existent, bizarre concept of the "we" following slavishly "the one true liberal channel." Nonsense, at best.

    4. I know several daily watchers of the programs we're talking about.

      They couldn't be more in thrall to the writ handed down from O'Donnell and Maddow.

      Greg, you don't know what you're talking about. Which is no shock, of course.

  3. Good job, AI; the air is thick with butthurt.

  4. Some good work here, but it must be said the corrupting factor of money, and media for blockbuster profits is not exactly late breaking news. It seems an insoluble problem, and I can think of no better way to fight it than to leave grudges aside, praise the good work when it occurs and make sure the worst of the bad is not taken lightly.

    As to the former, it would seem the Daily Howler refuses to do this in the case of Maddow's book "Drift." a tome that might do some real good and which he rather bizarrely chooses to ignore. In general it must be observed, however, that the Daily Howler does not do Defense, a huge flaw in the Press in general that he would seem to share.

    As to the latter, well, for a bit of perspective we might consider the example of this past week's media blitz by Judge Anton Scalia. By any objective application of the term Judge Scalia is, quite obviously, a crook. He has used the public trust for personal profit, as he shamelessly fields the softballs thrown his way by "journalists" like Peirs Morgan, rich men who made the fortunes carrying water for Rupert Murdoch.
    "Judge Scalia, do you think it was appropriate for your son to take a job in the Bush White House right after your ruling which handed him, as popular vote loser, the election?"
    Fat chance. But this standard had been set by the millionaires at 60 Minutes when they did a commeri- er, interview with Scalia's partner in crime Clarence Thomas, pimping the tome Murdoch had given him a million dollar advance to write.
    Hang your heads in shame, American Right Wing, this is the whorehouse you have made in our Country. And I invite those who speak of tribalism, or would suggest I would tolerate the same thing on the left, to place it in the sunless confines of their own rectums.
    You might think Scalia and even the lack of attention given to it in the press might draw some notice around here. I'm afraid, however, the Daily Howler has much, much smaller fish to fry.

    1. Right. You can't even tolerate criticism of liberal tv hosts.

  5. Oh, God. Maddow's book again. You really don't want Bob to review it.

    She's not a historian and there's nothing particularly enlightening about her thesis. I liked the book better when it was written by Gore Vidal and it was called Perpetual War.

    We've been a war happy country pretty much since the beginning. She started with Vietnam but could just have easily started with WWII and the Korean War.

    Bob focuses on the media. It's a blog about media coverage, mostly as it pertains to politics. Every now and again, he branches out but only in passing. Maddow's work on her tv show is right squarely within the scope of his chosen purview.

    Give it a rest.

    1. Sophistry sandwich, Oldman. Bob focuses, relentlessly, on Rachel Maddow. Except when it doesn't fit his harangue.

  6. Adding - I have never read another blog where the commenters so relentlessly demand it to be a blog about something else. It's mind-boggling.

    1. Oh, you'll soon discover that they are utter tyrants. Unabashed and merciless.

    2. OH, sorry for mentioning Rachel Maddow, I know She's off limits around here!

    3. Talk about sophistry.

      Did you even bother trying to understand my points?

    4. The topic of the blog is political reporting, though it does stray at times from that. If you want to limit yourself to a specific opinion on an isolated aspect of said as presented by TDH, that's your right, but you shouldn't expect everyone else to be so intellectually limited. If you just want Bob, then don't read the comments!

    5. I'm glad you've come to the conclusion that this blog has a particular focus, and that this is the prerogative of the blog owner.

      Now, your complaints when Somerby does just that, are revealed as being even more intentionally divisive and disruptive.

  7. tl;dr

    WHY oh why won't Somerby leave poor Chris Hayes alone?

    There is so much more important work to be done in praising Rachel Maddow's less-than impressive book.

  8. I'd be interested in seeing if he dismisses it, since he is interested in hanging on to Maddow's every word. But I doubt he could, so, somewhat dishonestly, he just pretends it's not there.

    1. The book, whatever its faults (and it is quite flawed), is not about the press, is not about our media landscape, is not about the state of modern discourse.

      It is about the military and its use and misuse.

      That is, simply and obviously, not the topic of this blog, however much Greg might want it to be. It is a subject very clearly distinct from Somerby's daily concerns.

      Only a puerile troll would think that just because of its author's name it should be discussed here.