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Book of the week: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes

Hayes’s faults a whole class of high achievers for the abuses of power that have pushed the nation's institutions to the brink.

(Crown, $26)

So much for the American meritocracy, said Jesse Singal in TheDailyBeast.com. Over the past 10 years, which Nation editor and MSNBC host Chris Hayes calls the “fail decade,” Americans have watched as many of our major institutions have been pushed to the brink of failure by corruption, incompetence, or greed. Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites “tells a sweeping story of American decline” that implicates a whole class of high achievers in the abuses of power that have rocked government, banking, the Catholic Church, even Major League Baseball. More than anything, we’ve been let down, he says, by our dream of a society in which each generation’s elite rises on individual merit. Instead, life’s winners are rigging the system in their favor, creating a nation where the middle ranks get a bum deal and their chances of climbing out and up are slim. 

Hayes’s theory nicely explains why public indignation seems to be mounting across the political spectrum, said Hua Hsu in Slate.com. His “rangy, pop diagnostic manual of Our Current Predicament” is most effective when attributing that anger to a failure in our very ideas about leadership—both who our leaders should be and what they have the power to accomplish. From Wall Street to Washington, our halls of power are populated by world-beaters who scored high on tests from preschool to Harvard Law. “Everyone boasts qualifications in abundance, yet nobody seems qualified”—either to detect an $8 trillion housing bubble or to broker a constructive political compromise. No wonder the public is cynical. But what would a post-meritocratic America look like? Hayes’s subtitle suggests that he might have a useful proposal.

“This is the part of Twilight of the Elites that I found least satisfying,” said Conor Friedersdorf in TheAtlantic.com. Hayes proposes attacking systemic inequality with two old-school liberal fixes: redistributing income by increasing taxes on the rich, and using programs like affirmative action to promote equality in career outcomes. Not much new there—“surely there are urgent policy changes needed” that instead would focus on reforming corrupt behavior among the elite. A more intriguing Hayes proposal is that the revolt America needs will come courtesy of a “trans-ideological coalition” of upper-middle-class citizens sick of closed avenues. Think the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street working together, but armed with an innovative agenda.

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