Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Spring 2012 - Volume 15 Number 2
The Twilights of the Elites: America after Meritocracy
Chris Hayes
New York: Crown, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Almost a century ago, in 1915 to be precise, Robert Michels wrote Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Emergence of Leadership, the Psychology of Power, and the Oligarchic Tendencies of Organization. I read it exactly forty-nine years later and now, precisely forty-eight years after that initial exposure, I am thinking about it again. The book, incidentally, was one of many on the required reading list of an introductory political science course—imagine that!

At issue in the text is the question of democracy in practice. In his book, Michels joined with others of his day to question the ideal of democratic governance based upon high levels of civic competence, mass participation in political life, and egalitarian social arrangements in which the authorities were limited in their power and authoritarianism was destined to decline or “wither away” from the body politic. To men like Michels, pure democratic ideals were unachievable, not only because citizens lacked the knowledge and the desire to become actively engaged in politics, but because there operated in every complex organization an inescapable trend toward hierarchy. Leaders, regardless of their origins and ideologies, were leaders for a reason. They had a craving for power. Those who were among the led also had psychological reasons being followers. The rulers and the ruled were different.

Michels put it bluntly: “all phrases representing the idea of the rule of the masses, such terms as state, civic rights, popular representation, nation, are descriptive merely of a legal principle, and do not correspond to actually existing facts.” Even self-proclaimed democracies were anything but egalitarian. Winning parties ruled parliaments. All parties had bosses. In fact, Michels took pains to emphasize in his account a variety of “socialist” parties as well as radical syndicalist and anarchist groups which spoke eloquently of combating tyranny and forecasting a more complete democracy in government, industry and all organized forms of social life. Such organizational dreams, he concluded, were unrealizable, even in the organizations which most fervently advocated them.

I read Michels and other more-or-less like-minded early sociologists such as Gaetano Mosca (The Ruling Class, 1884) and Mussolini aficionado Vilfredo Pareto (Treatise on General Sociology, 1935) when democracy was a matter of some special importance to me and others. It was when I becoming more active as a citizen and also more interested in democracy as an aspirant scholar that I slammed into men who had pretty much abandoned the project of open, participatory government many decades before. Their gloomy assessment of democratic principles was depressing in itself, but the recollection of Michels and his fellow Italian intellectuals also invigorated the work of “democratic revisionists” in mainstream social science during the 1950s and early 1960s. Echoes of Michels’ assumptions about the necessarily of vesting authority in a small group if society was to maintain any semblance of peace and order were to be found in the publications of esteemed writers such as Talcott Parsons, David Easton, Daniel Bell, Bernard Berelson, Lester Milbrath, Raymond Aron and Joseph A. Schumpeter. For a time they dominated academic syllabi. Mosca, Michels and Pareto were taken seriously; Antonio Gramsci was ignored.

As an undergraduate, I learned that the best that could be expected in a liberal democracy (which was seemingly the only kind of democratic governance worth discussing) was that there would be regular elections in which political parties aggregated interests and competed for the people’s vote. Participatory democracy was not only unrealistic but it was potentially dangerous. John Stuart Mill’s ideals of liberty and his flirtation with socialism (see the concluding “Chapters on Socialism” from this Principles of Political Economy which were published separately and posthumously in 1879) were to be replaced by the practical realism of those who understood the hazards inherent in the closing chapters of in mass society. The “people,” in the words of American Federalist Alexander Hamilton, “is a great beast.” Their “turbulent and changing” passions should be controlled. Their power should be kept within reasonable limits and their voices should be restricted to casting ballots every four years or so. Preferably, they would choose between one of two available and respectable parties, both of which campaigned responsibly and gravitated toward the centre of the political spectrum. Social stability depended on polyarchy, enduring institutions for the “authoritative allocation of values,” and a healthy dose of voter apathy. What was said by earlier political theorists was confirmed by up-to-date behavioural research. The message was simple: representative democracy on the Anglo-American model was as good as politics got. In the far-famed words of Seymour Martin Lipset (Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, 1960, p. 403), it was “the good society in operation.”

Amid such cautions about pushing democratic impulses too far, it seemed to me that imperialism, racism, sexism and enduring social class divisions belied the pleasant rhetoric about equal opportunity and representative democracy. As early as 1961, my future mentor Henry S. Kariel described the Decline of American Pluralism. By 1966, he wrote in The Promises of Politics about the “irrelevance of pluralist analysis.” In 1970, he explored The Frontiers of Democratic Theory and in 1977 encouraged us all to go Beyond Liberalism: Where Relations Grow. Despite the orthodoxy of the academic establishment, 1960s were, after all, the 1960s. Hope was springing at least temporarily from “new leftish” human breasts. Each new outrage in the American South, in Latin America and South-East Asia or in the slums of cities worldwide was a stimulus to deeper thought and at least the contemplation of action. Anti-poverty, anti-censorship and anti-capital punishment campaigns fed informed one another. We might not have achieved much in the long run (though capital punishment was eventually banned throughout the “civilized” world except, of course, in the USA, but we were possessed by the idea that, no matter how hideous public policy and elected politicians might be, a brighter future was in store.

Lately, say from about the 1970s, prospects have not been as cheery. In the wake of Kent State, Watergate and Jimmie Carter’s disquisitions on the “malaise” of America, the Western economy has enriched the already rich and the rest have flat-lined or declined. Elections have suffered from what is euphemistically been called a “democratic deficit,” which means anything from corporate financing of political parties to active voter suppression and attendant indifference if not hostility to the political process by various parts of the electorate.

Now, in the fourth decade of its ascendancy, even dissenters commonly accept the inevitability of the neoliberal agenda rather than articulating their own. The social democratic apostasy of Tony Blair’s “third way,” the feebleness of the brief liberal upsurge in the United States during President Obama’s first term in office and the pragmatism of Canada’s New Democratic Party in seeking power by drifting to the centre all testify to the belief that electoral success requires that those aspiring to elected office must embrace the status quo.

In this milieu, Marxism, democratic socialism and even a robust welfare liberalism have been suppressed—not by force of arms, though that is available any time a crowd forms without a permit, but by an imposed consensus. Even within progressive circles, any ideas and analyses vaguely smelling of “the Moor,” are quickly retracted, as though the implosion of the Soviet Union somehow meant that Marxian thought had somehow been repudiated. Safely ensconced under the title of “conflict theory” in corporate sociology textbooks and otherwise securely locked within a few modest academic monthlies or hidden in plain sight in alternative Internet news sites, what passes for the “left” in colleges and universities is engaged mainly in talking to itself.

Meanwhile, people who intuitively know that something is profoundly amiss and who are too civic-minded to retreat into the idiocy of private life face a serious problem. How are they to understand what has happened to liberal democracy, to corporate responsibility and to liberal social programs?

One answer comes from a contemporary reincarnation of Robert Michels in the person of journalist Chris Hayes. He writes not for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Post or any manifestation of the Murdoch media, but for The Nation, one of the most distinguished and enduring journals on the American “left,” where he remains an editor-at-large. He is also a host on MSNBC, the closest thing corporate cable television has to a progressive channel.

Hayes has evidently read Robert Michels more recently and perhaps more thoroughly than me; however, rather than finding oligarchy objectionable, he uses Michels’ iron law to indict the elite for corruption and incompetence. He says that our collective problems in politics and the economy are not due to the existence of hierarchies and elites. Like the poor, he and Michels agree, they will always be with us. Instead, our problem is that the existing hierarchies and elites are, like the landed aristocracies in the era of industrialization, largely composed of mendacious ignoramuses and self-serving nincompoops. Despite all efforts to encourage the best and the brightest and to ensure that the top positions in business and government go to the people with the wit and the will to guide us properly, we find that the new aristocracy is conspicuously lacking in noblesse oblige. Both morally and practically, the vaunted “meritocracy” lacks merit.

Hayes points to societies that have practiced irrational systems of inequality to the detriment of all. The Apartheid regime in South Africa ensured the material well being of European colonists, but the entire land was harmed by the exclusion of indigeous Africans from education and the skilled work force. Historical and contemporary patriarchies have robbed civilizations of the potential contributions of women to intellectual, economic and political leadership. Slavery in the American South, far from being essential to ante bellum prosperity, was an obstacle to economic development, an obstacle that was not even partially removed until the much-resisted Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and elements of which have not been completely extinguished to this day. Who could disagree? Permanent sets of privilege based on what sociologists call ascribed characteristics—which is to say those over which individuals have little or no control such as race, sex, national origin, religious heritage are not only inherently unfair, but they also undermine social progress by allowing incompetent people of the “right sort” to have uncontested access to opportunity while denying the same to people of the “wrong sort.” Prejudice, literally “pre-judgement,” gives advantages to the few over the many, to a part over the whole.

Naturally, the privileged segments of societies have justified their dominance by claiming that their innate capacities, proper breeding, venerable tradition or divine intention gave them the unique qualifications to sit atop a pyramid of inequality. In reality, they were the beneficiaries of some antique squabble in which some of their ancestors managed to prevail over others. Moreover, they held their positions of domination through a combination of imposed ideology and brute force. Meanwhile any claims that their forebears may have had to leadership had decayed. The decline in leadership from Julius Caesar to Nero was dramatic, but not uncommon. Genetics may provide for heritable characteristics, but they do not determine performance; decadence is a more likely prospect than continued superiority of character and quality.

From the Enlightenment onward, Western society has congratulated itself for overturning systems of inherited privilege. Monarchies have been overturned, and those that remain exist primarily for their ceremonial value and their importance to the tourist industry. Higher education is no longer the exclusive preserve of the elites. Women now make up the majority of students in most medical and law schools in North America. Affirmative action programs allow racial and ethnic minorities something approaching equal access. Quotas restricting members of certain religions are now illegal. Equality of opportunity has nowhere been fully achieved, but the complete exclusion of the many at the behest of the few has crumbled in theory and in practice. There may be obvious games of “tokenism” and the “glass ceiling” remains largely in place. But selection for social, political and economic power is now based more on achievement than ever before. Advancement is based on what you know more than on whom you know, or so we would like to believe.

Hierarchy based on individual merit is said to be in place. Why else do we have “specific learning outcomes” and “objective measures of subject mastery” in postsecondary programs? Why else are CEO’s mostly judged upon their capacity to enhance the value of shareholders’ stocks? Why else do we reward the “employee of the month” the “real estate agent of the year”? Progress depends upon results, and promotion is the reward for demonstrable skills, not family connections, or so we would like to think.

According to Hayes, however, Michels trumps the work ethic, and the dynamics of inequality breeds its own demise. Despite all the rhetoric about competition and the elevation of lower-level winners to places of command, the fact is that rewards separate this year’s winner from the aspirations of next year’s prospective contestant. Once up the ladder, the winners get to pull the ladder up after them. Among the rewards won in competition is the ability to rig the game.

Writes Hayes: The kind of inequality in twenty-first-century America is a far, far cry from slavery or apartheid … but extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have today produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision making.”

The inevitable result are elites that are “less competent and more corrupt” than those that would emerge from a “more egalitarian social order.” The result of the inevitable incompetence and corruption are plain to see. Hayes concentrates on what he defines as the decade of failure, 2000-2010—our inauspicious entry into the new millennium. The list is endless:

  • businesses failed as senior executives robbed employees and shareholders;
  • banks created Ponzi schemes, violated all the norms that gave their institutions a sense of solidity, and brought down the economy on a global scale;
  • the US Supreme Court, from the infamous decision in Bush v. Gore to the run-up to Citizens United, adopted an increasingly partisan posture, and allowed elitist ideology to govern the law;
  • political, military and covert intelligence elites collaborated in a scheme to deceive the world about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, precipitating an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation on a false pretext and a mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the infamy of September 11, 2001;
  • the “war on drugs” has been a colossal failure, and the price continues to be paid on American streets and in the protracted violence throughout much of Central and parts of South America;
  • the Catholic Church tolerated sexual abuse while simultaneously engaging in a hopeless crusade against women’s rights;
  • the popular press and the electronic media have systematically played along with political deception and abandoned their commitment to report the news “without fear or favour”.

Meanwhile, domestic infrastructure is being allowed to rot, measures of health and welfare are in decline, poverty is increasing and, in times of crisis, the government demonstrated its inability to deal with the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina while contemplating energy policies that are sure to prove ecologically calamitous. Even educational reform, initially justified as a creative response to deal with the alleged failures of mass education, has increased the financial pressure on public schools, while offering few benefits other than building increasing buffers between religious fundamentalism and modern science.

And through it all, the various political, legislative, financial, commercial, industrial and educational elites have continued to cook the books, manipulate energy markets, rig prices and interest rates, falsify corporate reports, lie to the public and to each other, and generally “game” the system. Insider information becomes the steroid of the elites in competition with each other, with the smallest fraction of measurable success being worth the life savings of numberless clients and constituents.

Even if you do not fully accept Hayes’s inventory of adversity, and even if you have at hand a feel-good list of achievements that seems to counter the impression of apocalypse implied in the catalogue of horrors, no one can seriously question that Jimmie Carter’s sense of malaise has outlived Ronald Reagan’s happy talk, and turned into a set of chronic diseases for which the therapy remains contested and the prognosis dubious at best. How did this happen? Hayes explains that the problem lies not with hierarchy, nor with the concept of meritocracy. The problem is that the process of selecting excellence has not been meritocratic enough.

Hayes insightfully points out that the word “meritocracy” was invented by Michael Young in his satirical essay, “The Rise of the Meritocracy” (cf. the review of Too Asian? in this issue). It was, however, too good a term to pass up. So, it has since been appropriated by precisely the people it was intended to mock, and it become a term of approval. It indicates regimes and organizations that reward the best at their jobs and encourage those with the potential to grow to greater heights by affording them the most opportunity for upgrading, larger challenges and increased responsibility. Hayes believes, however, that this type of competition has limits. People who may have been justifiably given increased authority eventually come to behave in ways that separate them from the experiences and interests of those beneath them and cause them to lose sight and interest in the well-being of the community they are ostensibly being encouraged to serve. They no longer strive to get better. They seek to keep what they’ve got.

Hayes illustrates his point in an engaging and entertaining fashion. He takes us on what former Wall Streeter Alexis Goldstein calls a “romp through the psychology of the elites.” Hayes offers amusing anecdotes about the hypocrisies and fantasies of the power holders and the power mongers. His anecdotes are often blackly humourous as he slips us past the security guards and into the toxic atmosphere of the Davos billionaires’ club where the rich and infamous demonstrate that they really are different from the rest of us—and not in any good way.

Hayes is also deeply empathetic as he plumbs the sensitivities of Katrina victims and Enron whistle-blowers to reveal the distinctly human consequences of our broken institutions and botched leadership. Such is the stuff of good journalism. It inspires a righteous moralism and encourages a healthy mockery of the platitudes and presumptuousness of leadership. It doesn’t help, however, when we realize that being flies on the wall only makes us more aware of the fly swatter.

Hayes gets more serious when he posits a modest conceptual framework, a method of analysis based on two elementary principles. The first is the “Principle of Difference,” which follows Socrates in his explication of the “Noble Lie.” Excellence is there to be found and encouraged. Some people really are much better at doing certain things, and it is in everyone’s interest if we appoint the best and the brightest to deal with the most difficult problems we face. (It was, we should recall, the “best and the brightest” in academia and business upon whom President Kennedy called and who wound up sinking his legacy in the jungles of South-East Asia, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

The second is the Principle of Mobility. A true genius may be found languishing among the “wrong sort” of people. Children horribly miscast and the daughters and sons ordinary labourers or of a petty thieves may have the talents and the ambition to become a great scientists or jurists. We are well advised to cast the net for selection to the elite as broadly as possible.

The dilemma that Hayes sets as the crux of our difficulties is that meritocracy is the best way to run the farm, the business, the college or the country, but meritocracies are inherently self-destructive. The best use their abilities to isolate themselves from the rest of society, including those best equipped to replace them, and they thereby abandon their right to rule.

What is to be done? Hayes pretty much ignores the fact that, although ordinary people with common sense might have fared better in the decision-making game than the people in actual authority. He largely ignores the probability that a local banker or real estate agent would not have collaborated in the creation of “toxic assets,” thus precipitating the housing crisis. He seems to disregard the likelihood that a county sheriff, having witnessed a mass murder, would not chase off in the direction in which the culprits were known not to be, and instead to blow up the homes of anyone associated with an unpleasant but, in this case, totally innocent person. He prefers to think that we have a problem with hierarchy gone wrong, rather than a problem with hierarchy.

Since, echoing Michels, hierarchy and not equality is an organizational necessity, Hayes sends an urgent message to the ruling class.

This is it: Clean up your act!

Yes, we must have rulers, he says, but we should make sure that we get the best people in those roles. We must never let the elites become established and entrenched. Ways must be found to hold them accountable. Like a star pitcher who loses his fastball, a leader must either learn to throw other pitches better or be replaced by a hot-shot from the minors. Treasury officials and automobile executives are only as good as the growth they stimulate in the country or their company’s last quarter’s profits.

The Principle of Mobility must govern the Principle of Difference, not vice versa. Whisperings of Trotsky’s concept of “permanent revolution” or, closer to home, the American founders’ insistence that the tree of liberty regularly be nourished by the blood of patriots is in the air … but it doesn’t stay.

The response to Hayes’s diagnosis has been ebullient. Aaron Swartz writes that “Chris Hayes manages the impossible trifecta: this book is compellingly readable, impossibly erudite and—most stunningly of all—correct.” Of course, Swartz acknowledges that he and Hayes “were fellows together at the Harvard Center for Ethics [where they] annoyed everybody else with [their] repeated insistence that reducing economic inequality was somehow always the appropriate solution to each of the many social ills the group identified.” Swartz can therefore be somewhat discounted for bias. He is, however, not alone. Even though later acknowledging misgivings and wishing that Hayes would get up from his comfortable pundit’s chair and join the dissenters protesting in the streets, Alexis Goldstein begins by saying that Twilight of the Elites is “so stimulating and immersive that I cannot wait to be able to discuss it with a wider audience.”

There is little need to worry on that point. The book’s immediate success guarantees that such discussions must follow, and may have some serious impact on the feelings of those who, Goldstein says, think they “are aware if the depth of the rot plaguing the highest levels of society [but who] will likely learn a new level of outrage by reading this book.” The wider audience may be forgiven if it believes on this basis that Twilight of the Elites is a twenty-first century version not just of Michels’ Political Parties, but of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) with a sprinkling of the muckraking Upton Sinclair and the later, angrier works of Mark Twain added for sheer piquancy. As such, it is a match for many of the popular books that sell themselves on their ability to address current anxieties without tossing liberal babies out with corporate bathwaters.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, Hayes’s appeal is to the nascent elite to toss out the corrupt elite, and to behave better when they have assumed the reigns of power. He praises the “Occupy Movement” and others for bringing neoliberal malfeasance to our attention (despite the corporate media’s best effort to ignore it at the beginning and to celebrate its alleged disappearance now that school’s out for the summer). Hayes has, however, little time for anyone who would counsel the empowerment of broad sectors of society. Instead, he places his faith in a new version of the upper-middle class, the people already awaiting inclusion in the elite. He wants to radicalize the next cohort of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, congressional representatives and military-industrial leaders. He provides little evidence that the successful among them could be persuaded to yield to demands for accountability any more than their predecessors. If, indeed, his treatment of the isolated cocoon culture of privilege is accurate, it would be in their interest to maintain or enlarge their distance from ordinary reality, not to make themselves more vulnerable to it.

Second, as Mike Konczal pointed out in Dissent magazine, real reform will not come from getting into the heads of the next generation of elitist triumphalists. Even with the best shaped instruments of social mobility, the mere structure of a pyramid of power excludes most people from influence. The majority in a neoliberal market society (and, to be fair, in just about all the societies that have hitherto existed since our species learned to develop surplus rather than subsistence economies and thereby to create a division of labour, inequality and a class structure) cannot escape from what Alex Gournevitch and Aziz Rama have called “relations of dependency and control” that are endemic to corporatist societies. “The politics of social mobility,” as Konczal explains it, “ultimately fails because it has only room for a certain amount of people at the top.” The real key to social justice must come from moving “all people from dependence to independence.” This, however, is not Chris Hayes has in mind. He is far too committed to a sort of minimalist liberalism in which the objective is not to achieve justice and liberty as positive goals, but merely to reduce injustice and tyranny where it is to be found. This is, of course, a matter of balance, but Hayes’s oligarchical assumptions tip him a little too far in the wrong direction.

Finally, Hayes offers an ahistorical analysis and false conclusions about past social change; accordingly, his prescriptions for the future are unpersuasive. Although acknowledging that Hayes is restricting himself to a discussion of the past decade, it is important to understand that, for example, the US Civil Rights movement made gains not because of the initiative of a radicalized upper-middle class, but because of a broad coalition of progressives and, at root, the end of patience with segregation among Southern Blacks. It is true, of course, that some members of the liberal elite joined the cause and that strings were pulled in Washington to push for change in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and elsewhere. It is also true that the modernizing economic interests were quietly eager to see Jim Crow overturned, if for no other reason than that the South provided a largely neglected labour force and a largely underfunded commercial market. The end of segregation meant the beginning of wide-spread prosperity and, of course, a new home for the Atlanta Braves, the headquarters of CNN and factories happy to find the blessings of states with “right-to-work” legislation. Nonetheless, it was not an incipient upper-middle class on the cusp of taking control that began, advanced and sacrificed their lives to the cause of racial justice (or almost anything else). The “best and the brightest” can certainly be trusted to come to the rescue and snatch the credit for victory, when it can be demonstrated that what is being rescued is also in their material interests. The job of starting and sustaining the movement and explaining the benefits of a more open society to the “free market” elites is another matter.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at