Review: Twilight of the Elites, America After Meritocracy

Twilight Of The Elites CoverReview: Twilight of the Elites, America After Meritocracy

ISBN-10: 0307720462
ISBN-13: 978-0307720467


  • Book transcends petty politics while being straightforward and realistic.
  • Proposes understandable models of elite decline.
  • Reviews historical issues past and present on elite decline, providing useful fine detail.
  • Explains its subject matter smartly, realistically, and accessibly.


  • Proposed solutions could focus more on actual solutions.
  • If you follow news closely, some sections will literally be “old news” and will be more of a review.

SUMMARY: Must-read book for people concerned about what’s gone wrong in the American (and world) culture and economy.

I’m going to be putting this review in the “Geek As Citizen” slot for this week because this is a book that aspiring Geek Citizens really should be reading – though it’s focus on economics, psychology, and systems also makes it a heavily – but accessibly – geekonomic tome.

Christopher Hayes takes on a subject that we’re all concerned about, but not always inclined to analyze, namely, what happened to our elites and how have they gotten so much wrong despite supposedly being so, well, elite

It’s easy to understand why the subject is important, because we’ve seen a decade or two of serious problems, often build on foundations of previous decades of elite incompetency we missed. Financial meltdowns, housing bubbles, pointless wars, Catholic Church sex scandals, lead many of us to figure that something has gone terribly wrong with the people who supposedly are qualified to run things. Worse, it seems the people who messed up haven’t been punished or in a few cases were even rewarded.

So, what happened – because we really wonder how much more of this our culture, economies, and planet can take.  How did we end up with, well a Twilight Of The Elites? (Yes, a reference to the oft-quoted Twilight of The Gods).

Off the bat a book like this could descend into political polemics, or even be focused more on selling books via outrage than solving a problem (another issue of elite incompetence in a way). Hayes, to his credit, both wears his liberal politics on his sleeve but also shows both an open mind and a lot of empathy in his subjects. Hayes isn’t busy wagging fingers and feeling self-righteous, he wants to solve problems and understand what’s going on; he even empathizes with some dysfunctional elites because some of us might be just as messed up were we to exchange positions.

This is a guy who can look at people who have done massively awful things and actually take a moment to empathize with them – before explaining how much they messed things up.

Thus the book, though very readable and even at times a bit poetic, has a refreshing and blunt realism without rant or contrived outrage. This makes it very useful because you can get maximum information with minimal BS.

Hayes starts off by reviewing our discontents about our elites, and then jumps straight into the nearly unquestioned idea of meritocracy, the belief in a system where people succeed on their merits. This rather beloved myth actually has its roots in a political parody, and the irony becomes even more apparent because the parody being taken seriously in many ways resulted in a rather mockable system. It’s apparently produced an elite that is not meritorius, but one that starts poitness wars and covers up horrible sex scandals.

Next, Hayes explores exactly what happened, and the political theorists who have touched on similar issues for years if not centuries. Though it’s hard to do justice to his ideas – and indeed a short review isn’t enough – essentially meritocracy breaks down because those who benefit from it eventually subvert any ability for people to rise through the ranks. At some point the people who got to the top – even if they did so virtuously – will often be interested in making sure they stay there and only people they want get there as well.

Having established his theories, Hayes then “treats” us to an overview of our dysfunctions, from what builds functioning systems and builds trust in our systems to what happens when things break down. He points out, essentially, how one by one major social systems people rely on to know what’s true, to build trust, to get things done have stopped working. A lot of this seems to be common sense, but he uses examples and analysis to help give a near-visceral understanding of what’s wrong.

Finally, Hayes gives us a tour of major malfunctions. This is, oddly, a less interesting part of the book for anyone who’s a news junkie (like myself) as you’ve seen it all before – only in this case he puts things in context. This is useful and appropriate, but for some people this part of the book is “yeah, I know.” It is necessary for the overall context of the book however, so it’s inclusion is understandable.

Hayes lays out an excellent model for elite dysfunction, shows how things have broken down one by one, then looks at major scandals and issues to show just what happened behind the scenes of the last decade or so. He gives a small-to-big picture view in the book that makes his theories and analyses applicable . . . if you’re not too busy being depressed.

The book closes with a look at what can be done. This chapter is a bit weak because though Hayes remains hopeful and optimistic, a great deal of change is not made by grand outlines and scenes, but actions at critical points by people and groups. Thus he gives possible outlines of what may and could happen, but it is vague – and he knows it. Frankly, I’d like to see a followup book on specific actions.

Is the book worth it? Frankly, yes. In fact it’s not just a good book, Hayes’ empathy and understanding, building of systems and connections, is actually a good model for writing a book – it actually has influenced some of my writing goals already.

I consider this book a must-buy for:

  • Citizen geeks who want to know what went wrong and how to fix things.  As he proposes theories and systems there’s stuff we can work with.
  • Econogeeks who want to understand much the same thing – and get some good historical context.
  • Anyone who wonders what the hell happened the last twenty years.

This is a must buy, must keep, and a must-get for others book. I look forward to Mr. Hayes’ other works.

– Steven Savage