Twilight of the Elites

July 17, 2012–Last Saturday night, a wild-eyed, t-shirt clad teenager screamed at me for riding on a boat.

I won’t print exactly what he said, but it was a pretty creative string of expletives. Here’s the gist: It was not fair that my family and I were on a boat in the Chicago River, cruising out to see some fireworks, while he and his friends were stuck schlepping above us on the Michigan Avenue bridge.

We were, according to his shouted analysis, “rich you-know-what-holes.” We had “our you-know-whats stuck up our you-know-whats.” We could also proceed, he screeched in a grand, man-of-the-people finale, to “you-know-what” ourselves.

The boat had been rented that night for a family reunion, but he didn’t know that. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t spit on us, or, worse. (Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Bridge, it should be noted, has holes in it. A few years back, the Dave Matthews Band’s bus driver dumped some raw sewage through similar holes in a nearby bridge, sliming some unlucky sailors below.)

So it could have been worse — and when it comes to Chicago, it can get much worse. This year’s horrific gang violence has left a body count of 275 already, earning comparisons to Afghanistan and Iraq. Homicides are up 35 percent. Most of the carnage is contained in chaotic corners of the city’s South and West sides, where it’s not unusual to see young kids shot capriciously in front of their homes.

Occasionally, the violence spills over into Rich People Country. The area around Michigan Avenue, where tourists and wealthy residents fill the streets, has seen several random mob attacks this year-and that’s when it really makes headlines. That’s when Chicago’s two worlds, in a rare instance, collide. And that’s when the elites, or the “rich you-know-what-holes,” as some might call them, finally start to think, at least for a few minutes, that something has to change.

This all seemed particularly timely as I paged through Christopher Hayes’s new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After the Meritocracy.  Hayes, an MSNBC host and editor-at-large for The Nation, has had it with “the elites” of America-and these days, who hasn’t? Whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street crowd (or, I suppose, what remains of them), fired-up Tea Party members, or crazy guys shouting from random Chicago bridges, everyone seems to hate America’s “elites,” those out-of-touch one percenters who pull society’s strings, stealthily crafting our nation’s disasters.

Hayes argues that America’s meritocracy is broken, lorded over by entrenched, corrupt power brokers hell-bent on rigging the game. His book has gained a fair amount of buzz, and over the course of 240 pages, Hayes touches on some fascinating ideas, wading into some interesting critiques of the American meritocracy.

But then, like a rubber band of liberalism that has simply been stretched too far, he snaps back, reminding us that what we really need to worry about is a) taxing rich people and b) the catastrophic arrival of climate change that is entirely man’s fault and has nothing to do with the natural climactic cycles exhibited on Planet Earth for millions of years.

And no, given the subject matter of the book, I don’t know where that second item came from either. Let’s assume it has something to do with taxing the rich.

What’s most interesting about Twilight of the Elites — and about much of the media’s current agonizing about “elites” and failing meritocracies — is its blissful, irony-free residence deep in Rich People Country. In a way, Hayes admits this, calling for “a newly radicalized” upper-middle class.

“The most militant and effective political mobilizations of our last decade, ” he writes, “were, for the most part, upper-middle class uprisings.” The professional classes, he argues, “are now the class that feels most keenly the sense of betrayal, injustice, and dissolution that the Crisis of Authority has ushered in.”

Really? How about the family of 7-year-old Heaven Sutton, who was just gunned down at her mother’s candy stand in Chicago?

It’s certainly easy to blame a flawed top 1 percent and a failed meritocracy for society’s ills. Addressing the cancer of growing government dependency, our nation’s general culture of entitlement, or the social, cultural, and economic problems that plague the bottom 1 percent (and, more broadly, the bottom economic quintile, which, unlike most of America, actually does have a crisis of mobility) is apparently too awkward and scary.

So what should this newly enraged, horribly oppressed upper-middle class rally for? Twilight of the Elites suggests higher taxes, income redistribution, and, if I may be so bold as to read between the lines, the replacement of one government behemoth with a bigger, “better” one.

After writing a book dedicated to rampant institutional failures stewarded by out-of-touch power brokers, one would think Hayes would rethink the whole “more control from the top” theme. He doesn’t, and he’s not alone.

If you’ve ever had young kids, you know that distraction (“Hey, is that Buzz Lightyear driving that mail truck?” “Here, son! Want to play with this broken stick?”) is a great tool. The political version (“Aren’t these rich people terrible? Look, there’s Mitt Romney on a jet ski!”) can be even more ingenious and dazzling.

So, people of America, gird your loins. We’re in for a few long months.

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