Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: Twilight of the Elites

Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes

I've long enjoyed Chris Hayes's reporting and commentary and had picked up a copy of his book Twilight of the Elites a while ago, but it sat in my bookcase with hundreds of other unread books until I started noticing how many of Hayes's Twitter followers were claiming that the book - published in 2012 - perfectly explained the state of the 2016 presidential campaign. I was skeptical. How could it? Clearly hyperbole! But these comments made me curious enough to give the book a try.

And: not hyperbole! I expected to like Twilight of the Elites but I was honestly shocked by both how good it was and how exactly it explained our current political situation, especially the rise of Trump and to a lesser extent Sanders. Hayes draws from a wealth of historical and cultural examples to analyze how the recent breakdown of trust in institutions (government but also the Church, the media, even Major League Baseball) due to corruption and failure have created a society that rejects experts and others seen as "elite" and creates an authority vacuum. It's engaging and readable and somehow both comforting, in that it makes what's going on make sense, and terrifying, in that it makes what's going on make sense.

My main quibble with the book was that it was too short; I would have happily read many more pages of analysis of each of Hayes's examples. There were a few points at which the differentiation of the themes of distinct chapters could have been stronger, but over all the book maintained momentum and felt remarkably cohesive for a text touching on so many varied subjects.

I've seen some reviews fault Twilight of the Elites for not being prescriptive enough, but that didn't really bother me: it's certainly possible to diagnose and analyze a problem in a useful way without also claiming you know exactly how to solve it, and if anything I'm glad Hayes didn't offer easy solutions to something so complex.

If you want to know how Trump could happen here, or if you just want a fascinating synthesis of recent American history, politics, and culture, I'd definitely recommend picking this up.

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