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June 2017

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Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: People looking for some insight how the U.S. got where it is, and some ideas for what we need to do to change that.

In a nutshell: The inequality in this country is harming us, and the powerful (in Government, in Business, in Banking) are so focused on the idea of meritocracy that they can’t see that it isn’t working.

Line that sticks with me: “In reality our meritocracy has failed not because it’s too meritocratic, but because in practice, it isn’t very meritocratic at all.” (p53)

Why I chose it: I finally read the back cover and realized that the topic is something that interests me greatly.

Review: This well-paced, well-researched, easy to read book is yet another one that I wish I’d read as part of a book club. I want to talk about the things I just read, and get other perspectives! Which I think is a pretty strong endorsement.

Mr. Hayes (of MSNBC fame – also his twitter feed @chrislhayes is a nice mix of news and incredulity at the news) divides the 240 pages of his book into seven meaty chapters that fly by. He starts by providing the reasonable premise that the U.S. likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – that anyone can get ahead if they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Never mind institutional challenges (don’t worry, he gets to those); those who get to the top are there because they deserve it.

He then goes on to explain how this mythical notion, if it every actually was true, is certainly no longer true. Using such great examples as steroid use in baseball, the banking collapse (and bailout), and the Iraq war, Mr. Hayes provides a thoughtful commentary on how our systems are not operating in a way that allows people to get what they deserve; they instead are functioning in such a way that they foster even more inequality as time goes on. He provides some interesting reasons for why it is getting worse, such as the fact that the elites of any field are out of touch with the rest of us, and that when we set ‘being the best’ as the ultimate goal, we also set ourselves up for people to cheat their way to the top.

I found two parts of the book especially compelling: the first is early one, when Mr. Hayes uses his high school alma mater (Hunter College High School) to demonstrate how something that is ostensibly 100% merit-based has become quite inequitable. The other is his ability to remind the reader that people have different descriptions of the elite — the Left see the Elite as the power-hungry corporate CEOs and Wall Street Banks; the Right see the Elite as Hollywood, academics, and fancy intellectuals — but that ultimately what matters is that the elite don’t seem to care for or represent the rest of us.

Mr. Hayes doesn’t leave us without hope; he offers up examples like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as different ways the people have gotten together to fight back against those in power. The entire last section is full of different ideas, although none so concrete that I feel I can point to what I need to do next. That said, I think a lot of what we’ve seen in reaction to the 45th U.S. President fits in line with his suggestions.

I’m leaving out other important things, such as his fascinating discussion of insurrectionists versus institutionalists is fascinating, but hopefully you get the point. What’s so disconcerting is that this book was published five years ago, and yet the downward spiral continues. I wish this book weren’t so relevant, and that it was more history book than current events, but alas, here we are.

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