How do we define elites today? As Starbucks-drinking, NPR-listening snobs?
The true definition of an elite is a relatively small group of people that has undue influence over society. Even “people who have cable TV shows” are elites, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said as he sat down with New America’s vice president and editorial director Andrés Martinez to discuss his new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.
The “Up with Chris Hayes” host hardly appeared the stereotypical definition of an elite during the relaxed conversation held at the Arizona State University Washington Center on Wednesday.
The problem with elites today, Hayes explained to Martinez, is that the “social distance” between the haves and the have-nots has contributed to the “elite failure” of the past decade. The “fail decade,” encompassing the 2000s to the early 2010s, has been a period characterized by the repeated failure, and sometimes implosion, of America’s elite institutions. The Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, and Wall Street, to name a few.
Hayes used the example of the housing bubble that led to the Great Recession to examine the effects of society’s growing inequality. Alan Greenspan and Benjamin Bernanke repeatedly stated a housing bubble did not exist, but Hayes noted “social distance” is likely the culprit behind the ignorance of many elites in the calm before the financial crisis.
“If Bernanke had lived in a subprime mortgage neighborhood,” he would have seen it coming sooner, Hayes said.
The “meritocratic model” has been the norm in the U.S. since the early 1970s, yet the original goal of meritocracy — equality of opportunity — has been overthrown by the lack of equality in meritocracy’s outcomes.
Hayes used Hunter College High School in Manhattan as an example in his conversation with Martinez. The original idea behind Hunter was to create an institution where a student’s admittance and access to unparalleled academic resources would be decided by a test. However, as years have gone by, the number of African-American and Latino students at the school dropped to an unrepresentative number as wealthier students have access to private tutors and expensive test-prep.
The resulting growing inequality is reflective of U.S. society today. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The failure of the “meritocratic model” compounded with the inequality and social distance that now characterizes American society has changed the way we trust our leaders, institutions, and even each other.
Hayes’ message is not a saber-rattling call to arms, but rather a plea, particularly to the upper middle class, to set aside our differences to create an America that is more equal in every way a society can be.
— By Lauren Glass