Twilight of the Elites

Twilight of the Elites by Christopher HayesFull Title: Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy
Christopher Hayes
Publisher: Crown (2012)
Number of Pages: 292
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I got this book: local library
ISBN: 978-0-307-72045-0

Like a Moth to a Flame

A close friend, who’s also a liberal, feminist, political activist, and social worker, recommended this book to me. When we recommend books, videos, etc., to each other, we always do the requisite reading and watching, and then we discuss our beliefs and necessary practices.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Beyond left and right isn’t just a motto. Those most devoted to the deepest kinds of structural reform of the system are insistent that they do not fall along the traditional left-right axis. Just as elite failure claims a seemingly unrelated number of victims—the Palm Beach retiree bankrupted by Bernie Madoff and the child left homeless after his mother’s home was foreclosed—so, too, will you find that among those clued in to elite failure, left/right distinctions are less salient than those between what I call insurrectionists and institutionalists.” (p.17)

4. “The challenge, and it is not a small one, is directing the frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite. One that marshals insurrectionist sentiment without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust. One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism. One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable, and connected social order.” (p.233)

3. “It is not simply that the rich are getting richer, though that’s certainly true. It is that a smaller and smaller group of über-rich are able to capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of the American economy. America now features more inequality than any other industrialized democracy.” (p.60)

2. “So the obstacle to more equality isn’t the absence of possible models for equality-enhancing policies, and it is not widespread public opposition to a more egalitarian society. The obstacle is simply that people and institutions who benefit most from extreme inequality have outsize power they can use to protect their gains from egalitarian incursions.” (pp.228-9)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with—in income, in wealth, in access to politicians—we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.” (p.102)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“As I begin reading this text, I’m reminded of the book, The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, a book I read as an undergraduate and which is the only book I still have from that time of my life. And as I continue reading, I am pleasantly surprised as Hayes begins to talk about Mills’ work, which was also a fascinating treatise into the rich and powerful. Contemplating Hayes’ words, I continue to think, ‘Who am I if not of integrity?’, something I often relate to my patients in their healing journeys. This is a long-standing question of mine—a driving force, and doing this reading encourages me to delve into my own beliefs, practices, ethics, and morals, as well as the morals of society.”

“With horrific stories of power and corruption, Hayes engages me in what must be a work of fiction; but I know these stories are true. And I’m truly frightened by what I’m reading. From our sacred institutions (and what can be more sacred than baseball—‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’), Hayes delves into a national pastime of greed, incompetence, dishonesty, fraud, self-righteousness (and its sister, smugness), grandiosity and narcissism, as well as outright sociopathy. He takes on the dysfunction of these institutions, from the Supreme Court for giving away an election, to Congress, the Presidency, Enron, the Iraq disaster, Major League Baseball, the financial crisis and bailouts, the treatment of New Orleans after the hurricane, the Catholic Church, the media, and our educational systems.

“As I examine my own thinking on these issues, I acknowledge that greed and power have become this society’s passion, while compassion, honor and equality laughable characteristics for many of us in the 99%. I think of my own political activism and wonder, where is everyone else? Yes, many of us are trying to impact society in positive ways, but there’s so much apathy in the air that it threatens to overtake those who are doing good work, honorable work, healing work. That apathy is caused by what this book is telling us: the power elite is reining herd over us, and so many people, myself included, feel defeated and helpless in the course of our daily lives. I am saddened by what I’m learning.”

“While many of these powerful people believe that they are the best and the brightest, that simply isn’t true. I look no further than George W. Bush to invalidate that premise. Many of the best and brightest are living simpler lives, focusing on healing themselves and others in a spiritual tradition of love, compassion, equality, soulfulness, and creativeness, thereby not raping the environment or one another in the ongoing climb towards power and money. I am questioning why wealth, a good education, and power corrupt. I can’t let go of my question regarding integrity and I am absolutely frustrated about the loss of a value system and the grandiosity of those in power.”

“I must admit, I’m disappointed by the ending of the book—Hayes fails to outline a practical way to help cope with the corruption of society. While the rest of the book is quite powerful, his take on making ‘America more equal’ (p.218) is limited in its scope. I embrace this notion, but looking at his first step of ‘persuading the public—including the elites themselves—that the ideology of meritocratic achievement stands in the way of social progress’ (p.221), is too simplistic. Yes, changing the tax structure is one way, and having the upper-middle class mobilize with a ‘grassroots egalitarian movement’ (p.234) is another, but while these theories are valid, he needs to examine what some of our past community organizers have done, i.e., the work of Saul Alinsky and his success of organizing the poor and the disenfranchised. Since Hayes’ father was a community organizer, I expected a greater focus on how to form these grassroots organizations.

“I also believe that more than just members of the upper middle class have been horribly affected by the power elite. I feel that we must organize, as the Occupy Movement is showing us. And we need to learn from the past—the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, the GLBT Movement—all excellent examples of how to become powerful forces to legislate social reform. If not, I fear that we’ll continually enable those who are morally bankrupt and who will continue to denigrate the poor, the minorities (including persons of color, women, religious beliefs other than Christianity, different nationalities, and the GLBT population), the disabled and infirm, and the disenfranchised. It’s a horror story I see continuing until we face enough crises to force us to change our ways. Yet I wonder, since we haven’t learned that much from past crises, is there any disaster that can precipitate change?”

“While this book has an extremely important place in examining the power elite, the title is really a misnomer. Although he presents remarkable information on this 1%, I’m finding little to validate that the power elite is in any decline/twilight of its hold on American institutions. Instead, I see glaring examples of how they have not only continued their dominance from the days of Mills’ (the 1950s), but have significantly expanded that dominance. How utterly terrifying that this is our current state of affairs. And I keep wondering about what I can do to be a process of change beyond signing petitions through, donating time and money for good works, and voting for those who want healthy change.”

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  1. LIA says:

    The reviewer commentary of this book is thought provoking. The quotes presented from the book by the reviewer are almost chilling – especially notable is the quote “…applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful…” Excellent review for an important work.

  2. Carol says:


    Thanks for the review. It was a fascinating book. carol

  3. Janet says:

    Excellent review! I felt the power of the book just by reading this review. I look forward to more reviews by this writer.

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