Chris Hayes On 'Twilight Of The Elites' And His 'Heroes' Controversy

06/07/2012 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2012

Chris Hayes' new book, "Twilight of the Elites," posits twin theories about the state of America. The first is that there is what he calls a "crisis of authority," where elites have so disgraced themselves that there is a dangerous distrust of all major institutions. The second is that "the meritocracy" — the idea that we get ahead based on nothing but our inherent talent — is largely to blame for this crisis.

For Hayes, the meritocracy has created a class of distant, corrupt, cloistered elites and wildly escalated the levels of inequality in the country. His book looks at everything from his own high school to the steroids scandal in baseball to the financial crisis to explore how this happened, and what he thinks can be done about it.

Hayes talked to The Huffington Post on Wednesday about his book, and about the recent controversy that emerged when he said he was "uncomfortable" calling killed soldiers "heroes."

Why did you write the book?

I’d been thinking about trying to write a book for a while, and I came across a Nate Silver blog post that was showing general social survey data in American trust in institutions. And basically [by 2008] everything just fell off the table. And that crystallized something I had been feeling deep in my gut about the experience of living through and reporting on the ten years that make up the failed decade — this crisis of authority. I’m disposed to trust authority, and I think that people that do have that disposition feel extra betrayed. So it was a combination about a set of facts about where the nation’s attitudes were and my own visceral feelings that came together in an instant.

You make a very thorough case that these institutions have been discredited. If that’s the case, what is the point of wanting more out of them or looking to them?

The real fear I have is that if you take away any kind of central repository of institutional authority in a society, you get this sort of nihilistic, Hobbesian war over the basic facts of the matter. And the place where the rubber hits the road on this is climate change. If people think that everything is essentially a con job run by predatory elites or their ideological opponents, then you can’t have a basic social conversation about the most pressing civilizational challenge we face. Which is terrifying.

Isn’t, to some extent, the whole thing a con job run by predatory elites?

Yes, but it doesn’t have to be. I also think there’s this guilt by association. The problem is there’s a sort of tainting that happens. The discrediting of one [institution] taints the others, and so you can no longer distinguish between people you should listen to and people you shouldn’t.

Obviously these things dangerously manifested themselves in terms of Iraq and the financial crisis.

I think the biggest thing that enabled both of them was social distance. In the case of Iraq, there’s the distance between the people making the decision about war and the people on whom the bombs will fall. And there’s the distance between American elites and the people who serve in the wars.

The financial crisis is the ultimate social distance problem. The people that were on the ground were sounding the alarm, but they weren’t sitting in the corridors of power. If you create a society in which there’s more distance between people at the top and everyone else, you are producing the preconditions for more of those kinds of crises.

What did you mean by subtitling your book “America After Meritocracy”?

I think the root cause of a lot of the problems we’re facing is a flaw that’s baked into the cake from the beginning in the whole notion of meritocracy. I think that meritocracy as a social model concedes far too much in terms of inequality, and it has provided the conceptual and narrative framework for a society that has seen levels of inequality that are unseen in 100 years.

What are some of the examples in your book that you think really sum this up?

I think that’s what happened to my high school [Hunter College High School in New York] is one example. What’s great is that it clings to this meritocratic vision with tremendous fealty. Literally, there’s one test [to get in]. There’s no gaming it. The problem is that over time, the profile of the students has changed. Black and Latino students have been diminishing and white and Asian students have been increasing and it’s because of the inequality of schooling outside of the school and also the test prep industry. You can create in one institution this kind of level playing field vision, but if everything around it is unequal, it proves to be a flimsy defense. We want to tell ourselves that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome can be separated, and yet, in reality the two are not that equally separable. There is no real equality of opportunity.

Your book cover very prominently shows the “1 percent” phrase made famous by the Occupy movement. What do you make of Occupy?

I think there’s going to be a lot more like Occupy. I think there will be more and more points of rupture in which people feel sufficiently frustrated with the status quo that they look to politics that are not circumscribed by the normal rules of politics, and want to build institutions themselves.

You say at the end of the book that what’s needed to change things is to make society more equal. How do you go about it?

What’s needed are disruptions to the status quo. If we don’t address this problem, we are going to produce more crises in the future. The more elitist a society gets, the worse caliber of elites it produces. The kind of politics that would create more equality has to be a politics of experimentation and rupture … things that fall outside of the narrow politics of the usual.

I mentioned that I was talking to you to somebody today. He said, “I’ve barely heard of him and I knew all about [the controversy over Hayes’ “heroes” comments].” I’ve been wondering how it felt to you to have your entire career crystallized in this one moment.

It was not enjoyable. I would love for more people to know me for a lot of other things that I’ve done. But also that’s the way the media environment works, and I understand that. I myself have covered firestorms that emerge from what someone said.

There’s no real emotional psychological machinery intact to deal with 1000 emails that are extremely angry, or being despised by a whole lot of strangers. That’s a surreal feeling that there’s not a kind of inborn psychological equipment to handle. But that is the nature of being a public figure. I think the emails that I got that were genuinely anguished really did affect me, and I think that because I am privileged to have the platform that I have that I need to take care to not be hurtful. That’s not the same as saying don’t talk about controversial subjects. But I felt terrible about that — that people were really hurt.

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