Disenchantment with our elites speaks to a deeply unsettling distrust of the meritocratic system that produces them, a system that we have long viewed as an indispensable feature of our democratic republic.
Whatever lies at the end of this surprise-filled electoral season, most observers would agree that it has already exposed a widespread distrust of those whom we selectively call our elites. Even before this election season, the word elites had become one of the nastier epithets hurled back and forth across America’s cultural and political divides, each side having its own catalog of particularly loathsome nabobs. In his 2012 book on the subject, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, pundit Christopher Hayes named many of the reasons Americans have come to doubt the ability and integrity of the “best and brightest” in fields ranging from politics and the media to sports and business. “We now operate,” Hayes writes,
in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from authorities, and the consequences of this simple devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low dishonest decade. Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society…. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and MoveOn, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work.
If that verged on authorial overstatement four years ago, today, in the midst of the current political circus, it seems nothing more than a straightforward statement of the facts.