After a decade of national failure, the public's trust in our most essential institutions is at a record low. In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown), author Christopher Hayes, an MSNBC host and editor-at-large at The Nation, offers an original approach to thinking about how we got here and what to do about it.

YOU BEGIN BY WRITING THAT "ALL THE SMART PEOPLE FUCKED UP AND NO ONE SEEMS WILLING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY." WHAT ROLE DID PERSONAL OUTRAGE PLAY IN WRITING THIS BOOK? I think it's really important for people to take a second to reckon with what has actually taken place. It actually seems hard to believe. We've had the longest period of war in the history of the republic and the largest financial crisis in 70 years, in addition to basically watching an American city drown on national television. Everything from our presidency to Congress, from Wall Street to the Catholic Church, from Major League Baseball to the Big Three automakers has been discredited and disgraced.

YOU WRITE THAT OUR CURRENT SYSTEM OF MERITOCRACY IS HARDLY NEW. HOW FAR BACK DOES IT GO? Meritocracy is a modern incarnation of an old American idea of boundless opportunity and social mobility. The specific social order of our current meritocracy came about in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s. It was a vision of a nation that doesn't discriminate due to race or religion or sexual orientation, but rewards people based on intelligence, drive, and discipline. The crowning achievement of that vision was the election of President Obama.

HOW DID OUR MERITOCRACY BECOME CORRUPTED? The problem with meritocracy is, over time, we always end up with an unlevel playing field, created by the elites who will do just about anything to preserve their power. For example, take Hunter High School in New York, which I attended. Hunter is 100 percent meritocratic, in that it accepts students from public schools in all five boroughs of New York, based solely and exclusively on one sixth-grade exam. But what's happened is, over time, "the test" failed to protect the school from the growing inequalities outside its walls. And the numbers of black and Latino students at the school have shrunk to alarmingly low levels. Part of it is the inequality of elementary schools, plus the rise of the test-prep industry, where rich parents can pay for tutoring or a week of "cram sessions."

YOUR CONTENTION IS THAT OUR MERITOCRACY HAS BECOME CORRUPTED BECAUSE THE ELITES EMBRACE THE INEQUALITY THAT PUT THEM AT THE TOP? It makes them more inclined to corruption, more tempted to pursue their own narrow interests, rather than the public interest. And it also makes them less able to make decisions, because they are so socially distant from the very people who their decisions will affect.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE "CRISIS OF ACCOUNTABILITY"? Our society is very punitive on the bottom, with millions of people imprisoned for nonviolent possession of drugs. But we're quite forgiving of people at the top. Even after a financial crisis that was caused by systemic fraud, we haven't seen any major criminal prosecutions. And when the CEOs lost their jobs, they walked away with millions of dollars in pension funds and golden parachutes.

HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THE INCREASING DISTRUST OF THE MEDIA, EVEN AT A TIME WHEN THERE'S MORE INFORMATION AVAILABLE THAN EVER BEFORE? People's trust of the media is low, and in a lot of respects that is justified, particularly because the press did a terrible job covering both the lead-up to the Iraq War and the housing bubble. Also, the fracturing of authority in the media is a huge problem. I worry about a future in which there are no central arbiters of truth that can create enough social consensus to produce the level of social change that we need.

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