By Sarah Jaffe on Mar 14, 2013
It's hard arguing that meritocracy doesn't exist when your life seems to be proof of just the opposite. But that's the job Chris Hayes gave himself when he wrote Twilight of the Elites:America After Meritocracy, a book about the way the grand American bootstrap myth is actually failing us all.
The book was finished just as Hayes was preparing to step into the anchor's chair for his own MSNBC weekend talk show. Up With Chris Hayes airs on Saturday and Sunday mornings for two hours straight, giving the former Washington editor of The Nation a chance to moderate broad, searching discussions about controversial issues that even other MSNBC hosts don't take on. He's hosted Marxist economists and magazine editors, placed an Occupy Wall Street activist (and former Wall Streeter) across from Paul Krugman, and offered commentary on targeted killing, the Catholic Church, the death of activist Aaron Swartz, and the morality of war.
“I think our show is a unique perspective, we're really trying to foment discussion,” Hayes says. That means bringing on different voices and ensuring diversity of viewpoints and experiences—hosting retail workers to discuss their historic strike at Walmart, and Palestinians as well as pro-Israel voices to discuss the situation in Gaza.
Hayes grew up in the Bronx and discussed in his book about testing into the city's prestigious Hunter College High School, a public magnet school for which there's just one requirement—acing a three-hour test. “At Hunter, what mattered most was that you were bright, talented, and self-confident; order, rules and everything else were secondary,” he wrote. But of course, like all bootstrap stories, there's more to it than that.
From Hunter he went on to Brown University, then to Chicago, where he wrote for In These Times and the Chicago Reader while his now-wife, Kate Shaw, attended law school. They then moved to Washington, D.C., where Hayes became Washington editor for The Nation and began occasionally popping up as a commentator on MSNBC—and then substituting for Rachel Maddow, the network's marquee host.
He's back in his native New York now, the youngest host on the cable network. Sarah Jaffe met Hayes in a Park Slope, Brooklyn, cafe not far from where he lives with his wife and daughter to discuss the myth of meritocracy, the responsibilities of privilege, the terminally dragging economy and the problems progressives have with talking about class.
Q: So Chris, how do you handle having it all? Having a TV show, a book, a baby, how do you not feel like it's all going to come crashing down around you?
Chris Hayes: I do occasionally have searching anxious moments where I'm convinced that there's going to be an awful end to a string of good fortune.
I do think, to invoke a cliché, that having a child gives you a certain amount of perspective. She's healthy and in a great place developmentally and everything after that really is secondary, so I think that also helps. One thing I realize now that I'm a father is the psychic toll of volatility and risk and the frictionless labor market that everyone operates in, increasingly. Obviously I'm incredibly lucky and at a level of the income distribution where I'm going to be fine and I can have savings. But the fact that there is no such thing as job security, that's the way all American workers are.
Lord knows when I was freelancing full-time that was absolutely my lot, but I didn't have someone I was responsible for. All of a sudden you have a kid and the intense psychic toll of the lack of security, the premium that security offers, and the degree to which volatility and risk, you feel more intensely. It's definitely given me a new perspective on the emotional cost of the way the American economy and particularly the labor market is currently structured that I did not have before I had a child.
Q: You wrote a book about meritocracy—it seems that you're fighting this founding American myth at the same time as you've been successful in that system.
Hayes: Awareness is necessary but not sufficient in terms of how you go about wielding the privilege and fortune that you've been handed.
Some people who've criticized the book pick up the fact that there's a lot of vestigial affection for the system, partly because it did right by me, and even if you intellectually understand that's not right or just, you emotionally have an attachment. There's an emotional core to people feeling they deserve where they are, particularly if where they are is near the top as opposed to near the bottom. I think a lot of people react very viscerally if you question that. That was the whole emotional core of the “we built this” strain of the Republican campaign and the theme of the RNC, trying to appeal to that visceral sense of earned benefit, earned success.
Q: It's much harder to run a winning campaign on that idea when most people are living in the kind of instability you mentioned.
Hayes: That was what was so interesting about it; it was remarkably tone-deaf. It was the sort of thing that their donor class wanted to hear but that voters did not relate to. That was the fundamental miscalculation about that set of tropes that Romney deployed up until that first debate, it basically reflected the complaints of their donor class as opposed to their voters.
Q: When talking about meritocracy, I think one of the most pernicious and most fundamental myths is the idea that education will just solve the jobs crisis, that we just need more educated workers and the jobs will magically be created and pay well.
Hayes: It's so ubiquitous, it's almost a contentless bromide to evoke. It's something that everyone agrees on. It's not just elites, that's what everyone says, education, education is the key.
The story about education gives us a way of telling a story that preserves some sense of justness in outcomes. It preserves the sort of broad meritocratic framework and identifies some sort of discrete problem as the thing that's not letting it function, so if that mechanism is replaced and gets functioning, then the whole thing can work as it was meant to.
There are obviously a lot of political-psychological-social reasons that people are broadly invested in that idea. Particularly people that are feeling squeezed by this economy--what are the options? Total radical rejection of the whole thing, but then exactly where does that get you, how do you operationalize that in your daily life when you're working at the laundromat and trying to get your kids through school? Or total despondency and despair that the whole system is rigged and there's nothing you can do, which again is not particularly productive. Or basically buying into this idea that if you punch these cards and do these things right, if your kids show this aptitude and you instill this discipline and they're bright this whole thing will work out.
What you're seeing in the law school bubble bursting is precisely the costs of that faith. And this gets back to the stability question. People say “What do I have to do to ensure some level of prosperity and comfort in the 21st century economy?” For a while the answer was “Take out student debt, go to law school, get a job, pay it back, and then you'll be a lawyer and you'll make a professional salary.”
That proved not to be the case for massive quantities of people who did that. That to me is a pretty good refutation of the education story, because the education story is “We need to get more people educated at a higher level,” and of course we did precisely that with law school and the market didn't function to absorb that.
So let's say we triple the amount of STEM grads we have, now it may really be the case that they really are so undersupplied that there would be jobs for them.
Q: At ten dollars an hour. How are you going to pay off your $80,000 in student loans at $10 an hour?
Hayes: Right, it pushes the wage down. Or we could just see the same thing happen with STEM that we saw with law school. The higher education machinery makes a promise to people that do this and you'll get this, but at the end of checking off those boxes you don't have what you were told would be there.
Q: One of the things about the idea of meritocracy and educating your way up is this idea of leaving your class behind. My favorite piece of yours is still the essay on solidarity from 2005. That's a concept that we just seem to not really be great at anymore.
Hayes: Solidarity remains a very foreign concept in American political dialogue. It's sort of dangerous and radical. I wonder sometimes about why that's the case. I think there's a whole bunch of reasons why the sense of collective cohesion is fleeting here, or that people view their problems in individual terms and not as systemic.
I would like to say I knew the answer to it. I sometimes wonder about how we on the left think about class and whether our own conception of it is not quite right. It gets invoked a lot, I invoke it, class is something that is very palpable to me because of my particular upbringing and because of the particular trajectory of social mobility that I experienced, and also because the unique background I had in which I was exposed to an incredible range of class, from like genuine poverty, food stamps and housing projects to fancy Manhattan restaurants all in the same upbringing.
It's something that is incredibly visceral and immediate in the way that I conceptualize it and there's all these perceptual or sensory triggers of what it means, but it's hard to articulate in a formal way, and I don't necessarily think that the ways we tend to think about it or talk about it reflect its texture.
I wish I had a better, thought-out vocabulary for it. All of us are basically working off the Marxist playbook, that is the template--it gets changed in all sorts of ways but conservatives will note that we have a very crass class analysis on the left. We talk about income quintiles, we end up missing important stuff. For instance, when I was a freelance writer making $20,000 a year, I'd be in, not the bottom quintile but the second from the bottom. But that's not really the right way to capture me. You talk about educational attainment...
Q: Educational attainment these days, with debt, drags your income down a lot of the time.
Hayes: Right. Class is very real but also an incredibly complicated and tangled thing, and all the attempts that we on the left particularly make to put some kind of fixed meaning on it meet with inevitable resistance. There's something very theoretically useful and efficient about the 99 percent but also obviously incredibly reductionist.
Q: In some ways I think that the 99 percent/1 percent frame was not that useful in terms of defining where the rest of us actually are, but it's certainly useful in terms of saying that this fairly small group of people over here has been doing incredibly well.
So we've been talking about the way you grew up, and class, and now of course you're back here where you grew up, with a TV show. How do you feel about covering politics, observing politics, living in New York versus living in DC?
Hayes: I prefer it here. I feel invested in New York, I feel invested in New York politics. I mean, I'm here because of my job but I'm here because I'm a New Yorker more than anything.
I sound like a really tedious old man when I inveigh about the changes in New York since I was growing up here because they're so stark. Some for the better and some for the worse. I think us on the left tend to be skeptical of the talk about the crime reduction, but it's just totally transformative. Everything is different in a city with 2200 murders and a city with 450 murders. And it's a huge progressive gain. Most of those people who were getting killed were poor people.
Now the reasons for it are a whole other thing. I'm deeply skeptical of the sort of CompStat, broken windows, Giuliani stuff. But that change is so stark. And then the amount of money in the city is just endlessly shocking. People don't recognize how much those things have to do with each other, that actually it was the reduction in crime that made the city an appealing place for Park Slope moms. I mean we talk about this edifice of class, right? Every single Kuwaiti prince has a place in New York, so that's where the real estate bidding starts, and that pushes the cascade down. So because the Kuwaiti princes have a place in Manhattan it means the white-shoe law firm associates and hedge funders are in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. And the professional lawyers and psychoanalysts are in Windsor Terrace.
What you see in New York happening right now is basically a transformation of the geography of the city. Because of a whole number of factors, the placement of housing projects, the persistence of rent control, the weird variegated nature of where crime was rife, New York was not like a European capital city like Paris or other cities in which basically wealth was at the center and poverty was at the periphery. You had extremely wealthy precincts in Fieldston and Riverdale near where I grew up, in Jamaica Estates, all the way out in Midwood. You had lots of money in different places scattered around. But increasingly what's happened is the city is now the concentric circles of wealth and power and the geographic concentric circles are now becoming coterminous. It is actually the case that the wealthiest precincts are around the precincts of the financial districts and then in concentric circles out from there it gets less wealthy so the furthest extremities are the poorest.
Q: And then you see what happened in Far Rockaway with Sandy.
One of the other pieces of yours that has always stuck with me was “Notes on Change,” right after the 2008 election. You talked about people in politics being “Down for the Cause.” I'm wondering what that means to you now that you have a TV show and are able to give people a platform.
Hayes: I genuinely like true believers. Of all ideological stripes. It's the reason that I like Tom Coburn more than I like Mitch McConnell. Or Darrell Issa more than Eric Cantor. I generally think that Tom Coburn really believes what he says and is not just essentially involved in a corrupt economy—I mean, they all are, to a certain extent, but on the spectrum. I think that's reflected in who we put on the show.
I want people on the show who are arguing what they're arguing because they care, not because someone paid them to argue that way or not because they're trying to, play this weird game of media talking. I think about politics still very much in that way, people that are really there because they care.