Twenty years ago, William Greider’s “Who Will Tell the People?” documented the betrayal of American democracy by the elites — by both political parties, by the press, by corporations and labor unions, and by a Washington regulatory complex so perfectly corrupt that it exists to serve only the monied interests.
“Twilight of the Elites” is a story about inequality and myths: the myth of the meritocracy and the reality of the very uneven society that allows those, in the words of Ann Richards, who were born on third base to end up thinking they hit a triple — and then find themselves protected when they screw up.
The anchor of MSNBC’s “All In” every weeknight at 8 p.m. Eastern, Hayes has quickly become one of the country’s most essential public intellectuals. We met in his Rockefeller Center office last week before moving across the street for lunch. This is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Is there a reason why elites have performed so particularly poorly in the last decade — whether we’re talking about the Iraq War and its aftermath; Katrina; the many failures on Wall Street and in the banking world that caused the Great Recession; right now, a security state that grants access to secrets to Edward Snowden, then appears to lose track of him. So why so much failure now? Are elites getting dumber?
Right. So why now, I think, two answers. One is that I don’t think I’m making the argument that current elite failure is the worst in American history. Clearly the antebellum slave power was –
But that’s going back 150 years.
I think around the Gilded Age, also the crash of 1896. But why now: I would just say it’s social distance and inequality. Basically, excessive social distance between elites and citizens produces excessive power for elites, and this is the result of a 30-year process in which that distance has been expanding and expanding and has introduced a governing financial class, particularly, that is incapable of not effing things up.
And yet it seems like a fairly new problem that we can no longer assume basic competence –
– from those who at least appear to have risen on the merits of intelligence.
Yes. Because we a) have a myth we tell ourselves about how right they are for their jobs, and so we feel a greater sense of betrayal, because we’ve all constructed a national myth that’s like – of course these are the people who should be running things. And second of all, democracy, when it’s functioning, and democratic institutions, when they’re functioning, have beneficial cognitive effects, which is that they’re ways of aggregating information. And when you get very removed from that, and things become very inside baseball, inside games, people are going to make bad decisions.
So that’s a big part of it. People are embedded in these institutions, they are blinkered in these ways that means they’re making decisions outside the bounds of democratic accountability. Which can lead to corruption – like, moral transgression – but also, at the least, incompetence, because they’re literally not seeing the whole problem.
That’s the theme of a show like “The Wire,” which is essentially entirely about how all institutions rot from the inside — whether it’s egoism, whether it’s careerism, whether it’s just complete rank incompetence. That kind of institutional rot seems to me one of the most important stories of the day – the problems facing us are so serious and so large, and yet we seem completely unequipped to deal with them forthrightly and seriously – whether in Congress, in the media, in academia.
I think it’s hard to make these objective comparisons of different periods of institutional dysfunction, but the one thing you can do is at least look at polling data from the 1970s that gives you a subjective sense. The polling reflects an American populace that is more distrustful of their institutions than they have been since the polling began — and the polling began in the wake of Watergate! At a total nadir of public trust. So I think there is a level at which it is quite novel, at least in recent memory. I think, if you read the social criticism of the 1930s, there was something similar that happened there. The Great Crash did produce a kind of pervasive sense of betrayal and disillusionment society-wide in the ’30s, and that’s something that the writing today picks up on. It’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons, but I think in recent memory, I think the answer is a pretty resounding no.
So if these institutions are run by the smartest people, who rose through a meritocracy because they are so bright, how do they hollow out into such rank incompetence?
Well, there’s two answers. One is that the selection method – it’s not the case, that they’re the smartest people. The selection method says that it’s doing that, but the hydraulics of privilege mean that actually we’re creating an enclosed world of inbred elites, despite all our claims about the equality of opportunity and people of all races, creeds, backgrounds …
You’re suggesting the American dream and the American democracy is a big lie we’re being fed!
Yes, exactly! (laughs) So there’s that. But there’s also – I talk about the cult of smartness in the book, but intelligence is a really slippery concept, and it’s a lot harder to pin down than it first looks. The cult of smartness is this very seductive but very misleading sense that smartness is an ordinal quality, like height, that could be perceived immediately and you can definitively rank people, that it’s a clear perception that can be made when it’s just not.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for intelligence, and it’s something that’s important to me, and it’s necessary, but far from sufficient. Intelligence in elites that is detached from lived experience, empathy, wisdom, judgment, compassion, self-skepticism, humility – detached from all those qualities, it can be a massively destructive trait. And I cite in the book [Dick Cheney aide] David Addington, who is the chief architect for much of what we have come to recognize as the most horrific aspects of particularly the torture regime, who is universally understood to be extremely bright. To me, he’s a kind of perfect example of what I call in the book “destructive intelligence.” People can be very bright and very destructive across the aisle. There’s Democrats, Republicans – a lot of people who are kind of “best and brightest” types. When somebody is really smart, in a palpable way, particularly when they’re competitive, or show off in a dominating way at meetings, they are cut a very wide berth.
Someone like Larry Summers, who is an intimidating guy.
Notoriously intimidating. And that factors into who gets listened to, who gets ignored.
Your argument is post-ideological – and you’re right, there are plenty of left-leaning institutions that suffer from corruption and rot. But the major failings of this last decade — Iraq, Katrina, the housing bubble, malfeasance on Wall Street — essentially come to an end at the closing of the Bush era. Since then, we’ve been completely hamstrung during the Obama era in our ability to deal with these problems honestly. A lot of that is Congress. Some of it is because the institutional failures also breed a collapse in trust, which limits Obama’s ability to convince people that government can be an answer or a force for positive change.
But isn’t the second part of this that after showing off their own incompetence for a decade, this mistrust has been designed as a distraction for political purposes? That politics is being played with misdirected anger, fomented and ginned up and Astroturfed by the Koch brothers? How is it possible to rebuild the kind of faith we need in institutions and legitimate authority, in order to grapple with problems seriously, when so much of the debate itself is phony?
A few things. Society has to be re-democratized. I think we have an increasingly attenuated democracy. What you’re seeing with the street uprisings in Turkey and Brazil when the normal mechanisms of democratic government break down, but you have to reassert democratic accountability through these other, nonviolent means. I do think that institutional performance matters a huge amount. Obamacare is a good case study. It passed, sort of remarkably and impossibly, against tremendous mistrust and opposition. Still not popular, still seen as something kind of vaguely menacing, or confusing – but then the ultimate verdict will be if it works or not. I am a realist in that respect. I do think that institutional performance matters. If they do it right, and the institution performs, that will produce, I think, trust. Now, that can’t happen alone. I think the Obama theory of how to conquer this problem is precisely that: Pass the legislation, see if it works. Make government work for people. That’ll repair it. And that’s part of it, but the mistrust goes so much deeper than that. And then the third aspect of reasserting trust is accountability. People need to see corrupt institutions and corrupt and bankrupt police held accountable.
Which hasn’t happened.
Not Wall Street. Not the New York Times for Judy Miller.
I mean, one person pays one price. Basically, John McCain didn’t get to be president. A bunch of Republicans in the House lost their jobs over Iraq, as they should have. But that’s about it.
The system is not set up for accountability. There’s so much money and so little genuine choice that it’s almost impossible to lose your job in these districts. The only accountability comes if you lose your base and face a primary challenge. You have to really screw up.
Yeah, the accountability mechanisms – I mean the filibuster does a horrible, horrible thing. There’s a Keynes quote I love. I think it goes something like, “Nothing corrupts society more than the disconnect effort of war.” He’s writing it, I think, about the Bolsheviks at the time, but nothing corrupts a democracy more – disconnects inputs and outputs, mass opinion – and the filibuster is something that does that. It interrupts the conveyer belt. Like, right now, massive public opposition to arming the Syrian rebels.
Most of the same people, of both parties, who got us into Iraq. Speaking of no accountability.
Yeah. Just because a mass of people believe something doesn’t mean it’s right or the best policy, but the further and further away you get from that kind of basic alignment –
You write about Obama running as an insurrectionist, but governing as an institutionalist. Was that a misreading of the opportunities for genuine change? They talked about taking advantage of a crisis. Did they take advantage of a crisis, or did they miss the opportunity? He could have gone the insurrectionist route or he could attempt to build faith back in institutions, and he chose the latter. Wrong choice?
Well, I don’t know … I think he chose that because that’s who he is, in his heart of hearts. And so that was probably the right choice, because he shouldn’t have done the thing that wasn’t what he actually believed. And there was again – Obamacare is a good example. If that works, that’s a big deal, a huge deal! But I do think the biggest opportunity lost was this kind of accountability moment. No one was ever really held to account. No one was held to account for torture, or the financial crisis. That is a real kind of toxic presence in our national consciousness. That’s really problematic.
Are there reforms in the political system that would help, or is this train too far gone?
The standard lefty answer is public financing. Which I believe. It’s really an unsolved problem, though. Public financing would help, but the biggest problem is just the level of inequality. It’s just too big. In some ways, the problem is relatively simple. In a society with inequality like this, we’re just going to be in for a lot of problems.
And you have two sides that appear to be further apart, in some ways, than they ever have been. Not speaking to each other, not working off the same set of facts, even.
No, and there’s some interesting comparative political data that suggests a correlation between inequality and partisan polarization. The people who are most polarized are actually elites, particularly non-super-rich wealthy, like red state, blue state, that’s where the biggest – and they also have a disproportionate influence on politics.
And yet what’s also remarkable right now is that polarization includes folks who don’t believe in science, who would rather talk about masturbating fetuses ….
So if one side of the debate mistrusts science, government, bureaucrats –
It’s Alex Jones … totally.
We are all truthers now. There were James Gandolfini truthers this morning.
There were Michael Hastings truthers emailing me.
There is a connection. So there are pathologies that afflict the American right that have to do with a whole bunch of things that a lot of people have written very smartly about. Race, ethnicity, demographic change, is one set of those issues. The increasingly secular/religious divide in America is another. The fact that the party is increasingly a Southern party and the South has always been different. In the history of the U.S. experiment, there’s like another country called the South. There’s a million maps you could construe on a bunch of different dimensions that show that; the South has always been a different place for a bunch of different reasons.
So the way that the current conservative moment, the American right and the Republican Party, manifest themselves, the way they express themselves and the way they behave, are kind of overdetermined by a set of different factors, but the two ways that overlap, I think, in the book is the role that inequality plays in it. There’s a sort of plutocratic set – this vector of the party that is essentially just kind of procuring the heart for the 1 percent. Not to minimize the 1 percent’s influence on the Democratic Party, but Larry Bartels and Martin Gillens’ data on this shows the correlation between the Republican Party and wealthy voters is much higher than Democrats. But the other thing is the point you’re making, the place where there’s this overlap, and that has to do with the base idea, which is this kind of nihilistic distrust of the experts in any field — when Jack Welch wonders about the Labor Department’s jobs report. You would have this shocking moment where it’s like, “You’re Jack Welch. You had to manage this multibillion-dollar enterprise and now you’re in Alex Jones land …”
It’s hard to pull people out of that quicksand, I think. I’m not sure what the answer is for that. But there’s a market for it – there’s a strong market for that. Glenn Beck has never made more money.
It creates a real problem, especially as you talk in this book about an Occupy/ Tea Party coalition, and also about a radicalized upper middle class. If the divisions are being manufactured along these kinds of partisan lines, it gets harder and harder to bring people together along some kind of economic or class lines.
Yeah, that’s always true. It’s generally hard to build political coalitions; we have the ones we have for all sorts of reasons that actually make a fair amount of sense. But it also means that there’s, like, this fundamental disconnect in how that manifests itself in producing this kind of elite accountability writ large that you’d want to have.
How do we create this radicalized upper middle class? It makes perfect sense that all of those people who have lost jobs or seen pension plans go away or seen careers melt due to the collapse of entire fields would somehow become more angry. Yet it’s still almost impossible to imagine a Turkish-style protest here. The idea of people not showing up for work and protesting – we’re as difficult a country to imagine that happening in as any.
I think right now a lot depends on the precariousness of the recovery and how that kind of manifests itself. One thing I will say is that it’s difficult to predict these outbursts. The Brazilian thing is fascinating because I don’t think anyone would have thought – and that’s kind of like Turkey. Sometimes discontent catalyzes in a way that’s unexpected.
What do you think the role of the news media is in all of this division and failure? The best and brightest led us into Vietnam during the years of the phony elite Walter Cronkite/James Reston consensus, so this isn’t necessarily new. But is it any coincidence that this decade of failure coincides with the explosion of cable news on one side, of partisan cable news, and also this institutional hollowing out of the media – both the daily press corps and the alternative press world?
Well, here’s what I would say. A more centralized media with larger levels of trust in it has some costs and benefits. The costs are that the more centralized media was stultifying, monopolistic, kept outside voices out – it had all sorts of problems with it. There’s all sorts of reasons I like our current media environment more than that. But it had a benefit. It was an equal player. It was this kind of bulwark. When media was less fragmented, more concentrated, and more trusting, it had this kind of confidence about itself that meant that it could act as a real check. It could be an Archimedian point for public opinion, and I think that’s been lost a little bit. It’s very difficult to produce social consensus under the fragmentation we have now. If the New York Times – the mainstream media says, yes, climate change is real, that doesn’t have the weight that it once would have, and that is problematic. That I really worry about.
But at the same time, there are tradeoffs, and I’m quite aware of that. There was a lot of bad things about the old model.
In this model you get a show at 8 p.m. every night. Are you enjoying it as much as the weekend show?
Yes. It’s extremely challenging.
How is it different?
In every way. It’s a totally different game. The biggest difference is the competition for those eyeballs is just intense. I think about, there’s someone out there who’s worked all day, helped their kid with their homework, grabbed a beer, sat down at the TV, and now they’re going to watch me. And they could watch “The Voice,” and I would not begrudge them wanting to do that! I would completely understand. So you have to be thinking in terms of what emotional effect are you producing in the viewer. What’s that thing you’re giving them that’s going to make that choice? In Saturday, Sunday morning, there wasn’t that same choice. There’s not a lot of other stuff on, people are in a different mind-set, it’s early in the morning and it’s kind of uncluttered. It’s more laid-back. You put the show on and you make coffee and you walk around the house and you – 8 p.m. is a whole other set of constraints.
You have to think about ratings more? MSNBC has had its challenges there lately.
Yeah, ratings are the measurement of what you have to think about, which is producing entertaining television. The ratings – I try not to think about the numbers, because that data can be very overwhelming or misleading. The thing I do think about is “are we producing a good show?” And the word “show” is key. You have to be a showman. It is a show. You need to put on a show every night. Which means, like, step right up, ladies and gentlemen, let me entertain you. And I think the thing that I found rewarding, that I first found really difficult, is learning how to do that better, learning how to embody that naturally. Learning how to be myself fundamentally and authentically while still entertaining. And that’s a really hard challenge. We did food stamps last night. It’s like, “How do you make food stamps entertaining?” and no one’s figured this out better than Rachel Maddow. She is just a savant in this respect, but I have to find my own route to that place, that is true to what I do best.