In his assessment of the first decade of the new millennium, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, MSNBC host and Nation editor Chris Hayes points to crumbling institutions as one of the primary reasons for America's current malaise.
Read more from the MSNBC crowd with Rachel Maddow's 'Drift.'
Here, Hayes contends that from Wall Street to the White House, the Catholic Church to Major League Baseball, the American public has lost faith in the authority of its institutions, resulting in greater political discord and financial inequality.
So what can be done? Hayes suggests revisiting the notion of meritocracy itself and applying it more effectively. "This is the paradox of meritocracy,” he writes in his book. “It can only truly come to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality."
If the public has so little faith in our institutions, why hasn't that brought about more change?
I think that we're currently in something of an interregnum. In the broad historical sweep of things, the problems we have made for ourselves have only manifested relatively recently, the financial crisis being the most obvious.
But we are seeing some changes, in all different kinds of ways, such as public discontent. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are reactions to the widespread perception that the game is rigged, that the structure of society is fundamentally unfair. There's a vicious circle at work, in which the concentration of money and power creates a group of incumbent interests that benefit greatly from the current order. There's a degree to which we've all kind of tacitly bought into this social model that is pretty deeply anti-democratic, but it's one that we all share.
You also address how social mobility is becoming increasing difficult in a society such as ours.
Social mobility proves to be an incredibly difficult thing to measure. Even nailing down what that concept means... presents a lot of obstacles. What we do know is that we're much less mobile than any other industrial democracy with the exception of England. This has been declining since the 1960s. We're not getting more mobile, and inequality is growing.
That's kind of the tradeoff of having a meritocracy. We hold on to the mythic pillars of this system, that people will fall into a number of different levels because of their talent, ambition and drive...But it's pretty clear that's not the way the system is working. Meritocracy contains within it seeds of its own destruction, so one can't so neatly separate equality of outcome from equality of opportunity. People don't really know how unequal society is. The distribution of wealth is massively understated. People overestimate the odds of social mobility and underestimate the skewed distribution of wealth.
How do you reform institutions?
First we need to be aware of the degree to which we buy into a model of socialization that is in fact very unequal. We need to see the dangers and the dispensation toward crisis that the current system engenders. But making society more equal is not a policy problem, it's a politics problem.
I think a lot of stuff is happening online, where the barriers to entry are so lowered that it's more diffuse and democratic...People are pushing to reduce the power of the people that have too much of it, which will lead to a wave of re-democratization. The upper middle class is becoming increasingly radicalized and frustrated, and that's an incredibly potent political power.
How is this all going to shake out in November, do you think?
The big question is whether these themes are going to factor centrally in this election. There's some indication that this kind of rhetoric—inequality, mobility—could have negative consequences.
But in America, we've seen the elites do a terrible job, broadly, in managing the economy and calculating risk. At the last second, they managed to pull it back from complete catastrophe. Now the system sort of limps along, neither fully discredited nor worthy of confidence. It all accounts for very strange, frustrated, prickly, dyspeptic politics.