Twilight of the Elite

One of my favorite quotes about meritocracy is one I heard from Ben Bernanke a few years ago, when he gave a commencement address at Princeton:

“A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.” - Ben Bernanke, Princeton commencement speech

The central conceit of this book, that meritocracy is a broken system, and that elites use it to rise up the ladder but then turn around and pull the ladder up behind them, entrenching their power, creating a more and more unequal system, reminded me of this quote.

My attention was brought to this book on election night, when I saw an NYT colleague tweet something like “Years ago when I read Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elite, I thought he was misguided. Now I think he may have just been ahead of the curve.” In an effort to make sense of the world as it was changing around me that night, I ordered the book immediately. What I got as I devoured the book in 2 quick sittings, was a compelling (if sometimes scattered) argument about the fall of the American ideal of meritocracy. Hayes, while rightly identifying his own place in elite circles (I contend with my place in these circles all the time, it’s not an easy task), goes through a few examples (MLB, politics, economics, Catholicism, Occupy Wall Street) of institutional failure, laying groundwork for the main argument.

Like many such arguments made in the last 10-15 years, Occupy Wall Street is held up as an example of a movement or institution that avoided some of these pitfalls. Every time I see Occupy Wall Street held up as a model, I’m a bit confused. By most measures, it was a failed movement. You can draw through-lines on its influence on subsequent movements like the Bernie Sanders’ bid for the presidency, Black Lives Matter, but I’m hard pressed to see how Occupy could be considered a success. But that’s only a small quibble, with an otherwise well-reasoned book.

The most useful aspect of this book, and this is something that has gained popularity in recent weeks with all the post-election analyses that have been published, is the mental model of an American split between elites and non-elites. Splits along this axis, among other axes like rural/urban, conservative/liberal, educated/non-educated, white/non-white, are a helpful rubric when drawing mental models of how and why people make political decisions.