Four years ago, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote a book that is eerily pertinent to the era of Brexit and Trump. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy argued that the country was not only divided between what Hayes termed institutionalists and insurrectionists but that our meritocracy, when challenged, entrenches itself and gives rise to widening levels of inequality and plutocracy. Now the host of his own prime-time news analysis show, All In, Hayes has been covering the Democratic nomination fight and the Donald Trump campaign. (His upcoming book, A Colony in a Nation, explores how policing has affected American democracy.)
I spoke by phone with Hayes over the weekend. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the problem with Hillary Clinton’s insider candidacy, immigration politics in Europe, and Bernie Sanders’ slow withdrawal from the race.
Isaac Chotiner: What would you say your book was prescient about and what would you say you underestimated?
Chris Hayes: I think that the fundamental thesis was just that a cascade of elite failure has produced a comprehensive crisis of authority that has dimmed the trust that people have in each pillar institution. The problem was so deep and so tied to the entire social order and rising inequality in the American model of enlightened meritocratic rule that even competent leadership from President Obama, or a period in which there weren’t the same sort of succession of elite failures, wasn’t going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I think that was clearly correct. The problems are so deep, and the sense of alienation and distrust so profound. In some ways the book was about America, but I think, if anything, I overassociated the problem as particularly American when it is clearly proving to be a broader problem in the world and particularly I would say the West, even though that’s a problematic concept in this era.
What do you make of Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit vote? At one level he was doing the opposite of what some people complain that technocratic elites don’t do: empowering people. On the other hand …
I feel weird. I feel an emotional devastation at the Brexit vote that I think is something that a lot of other liberals felt and were surprised by. Someone said on Twitter that it felt like we were watching Trump be elected in the sense of, “this can’t happen.” There’s no secret mechanism or invisible hand or guardrail on the highway that’s going to keep the car on the road. This is it. If enough people vote in one direction this is what you get.
At the same time, Europe has a real democracy deficit. It has been manifest in 100 different ways. Sometimes it manifests in ways that are offensive to me as a lefty, for instance the insane use of the European Central Bank to essentially waterboard the people of Greece against the wishes of the Greek populace, the very clearly stated majority wishes of the Greek populace.
Waterboarding’s not torture, though. Don’t forget.
[Laughs] Sometimes it’s anti-democratic in the other way in terms of some of the positions, particularly right now, on refugees that are not in line with the actual voters of many of these countries. In some ways I think this is to the good; I think there is a moral obligation. But there’s still a democratic problem.
You have seen a lot of smart conservatives, such as Ross Douthat and David Frum, say after Brexit, essentially, “Oh you liberals who made Angela Merkel Time’s Person of the Year and cheered her on, well, here’s the result.”
Right, but let’s just be clear that Merkel was awful on the [Greece] issue. In fact, I thought the Time magazine Person of the Year was pretty offensive because of what she had just done to Greece. There’s the grinding austerity on one hand, the acceptance of refugees on the other, but the problem is the entirety of the project. Sometimes it’s a really admirable project. Sometimes it’s really noble and morally elevated. Sometimes it’s a ruthlessly brutal project, but the project lacks a certain amount of democratic legitimacy at the moment. That is just the fundamental problem.
Merkel is so fascinating for this reason: She embodies so much about what different sides like and dislike about elites.
Right, and she has come to embody the European project, which in itself is a grand irony because it’s like, once again, Germany is ruling over Europe. That’s hyperbole, but to get back to the question about Brexit and whether it was it a good idea or not to hold the vote, I think it was a bad idea to hold the vote, fundamentally, just because I think it was a craven political move. I also can’t bring myself to be like, “You idiots.” There’s a sentiment of “these morons voted for this and now they’re all, whatever, Googling the EU.”
There has to be an escape valve for the sentiment that’s going to be there and going to be brewing. Maybe this is not the best one because it has massively destructive consequences, but if all the different major countries of the EU have majorities that want to leave the EU, that’s not the problem of those majorities. That’s the problem of the EU.
You mentioned the sneering at “Leave” voters. Are you surprised that the commentary about it has broken down the same way it breaks down on the left with Trump voters, with a lot of mainstream liberals sneering at racist fools, and people further to the left saying, “No, elites screwed up, these are the consequences, and calling people racist idiots is insufficient”?
I’m not surprised because it’s precisely the sort of institutionalist/insurrectionist line that I talk about in the book. There were Tea Party folks that were praising Edward Snowden while the elites of both parties were condemning him. It’s like, Do you think the elites are screwed up, or do you think that people are dumb and irrationally distrustful?
Can I vote for both?
I don’t think you have to choose. I feel like I am always sympathetic towards the genuine grievances of voters and try to extend to average people, working people, a charitable interpretation of their angers and frustrations. There are limits to that. The guy outside of a Trump rally screaming at protesters, “Go make my tortillas,” is an asshole and a racist. On the whole I think that the story about elite failure and backlash is the more both accurate story and, instrumentally, a more important story from the project of trying to build a coalition that’s as large as possible.
One of the things I think it’s important to say about Brexit is that there was a pretty big racial division. Of course, Britain’s a much whiter country, but there are a lot of working class Labour voters who voted for Brexit. You can say that it is about immigration, but immigration can be extremely disruptive. It’s an actual thing that you need to talk about and discuss and not just say, “These are irredeemable racists.” Sometimes I think it’s tempting to go that route.
You mentioned building a bigger coalition, but I think the question there is how many people will never choose to be part of a coalition that is increasingly nonwhite, no matter the economics.
Right. I think as a descriptive matter, it is the case that, say, the white working class of West Virginia and Kentucky, to just choose two places, are not going to be a part of the Democratic Party coalition or, really, the progressive movement’s base, but that doesn’t mean that you write them off or that they deserve their lot or that you shouldn’t be thinking about what you can do to deliver for those folks.
Even if people don’t vote for you that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve good health care.
I think most people get that. A huge part of the problem is that there are no mediating institutions. Labor unions used to be those in a lot of cases. What are the mediating institutions that would make those folks part of a coalition?
I’ve remained neutral in the Democratic primary partly as just an important professional principle in covering it closely, but obviously I have a lot of admiration for Bernie Sanders. I’ve known him for a long time. I would say my politics are fairly close to his. Brexit is a reminder that having a version of left populism that is also about tolerance and inclusion, that stands up for immigrants and Muslims and people of color, and also says that the elite screwed up and the game is rigged—to be able to combine those two messages is really important and really powerful. It’s really important that there’s a political space in which that message is being articulated because if you don’t have that then what you end up with is, on the one hand, people in the City of London being like, “You idiots, if you do this our financial sector’s going to take a hit and you’re all racist morons.” The other is [UKIP leader] Nigel Farage and his ilk running this ethno-nationalist backlash.
I think in many ways Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate to bridge this gap, both because of her troubles speaking to white working-class voters and her closeness to our version of the City of London.
I also think that I would also say in a way that’s true for Barack Obama but even more so: She’s just a really dyed-in-the-wool institutionalist. That’s not an act. I think there are people who think that’s corrupt, that she’s this corrupt crony person that sits in the nexus of all the nefarious lattice work of elite quid pro quo. I don’t really buy that. I think structurally there’s part of that critique that’s true, just the fact that she has been so close to both the political and economic power in various ways over a long period of time. I think that just personally Hillary Clinton is a hardcore institutionalist who genuinely believes in institutions, believes it is important to make them work as well as possible, thinks that if you put the will and the time and the diligence into them you can make them work and deliver and make the world a better place. I think that is, in certain ways, a belief system that is somewhat out of touch with the moment.
You mentioned knowing Bernie, and so I was wondering what you think his calculations are right now.
I think they’re trying to figure out what to do and I think it’s a hard thing to figure out. People talk all the time about the Hillary and Barack race in 2008. With the exception of the war, which is important, there was not a huge substantive space between them. Not only was there not a huge substantive space, but they were both institutionalists, fundamentally. In this case you have an institutionalist in Hillary Clinton and a genuine insurrectionist in Bernie Sanders who genuinely comes by honestly to every cell of his being his insurrectionism. He thinks that these structures are corrupt, whether it’s the structure of the Democratic Party or the structure of American democracy as we plunge further into plutocracy. That’s not a shtick. That is a deeply help belief, one that is in many senses supported by a huge amount of evidence.
Yes, although his Democratic Party process critique seems to be in line with the particular way in which he lost, which gives it less credibility. One day he is arguing superdelegates are undemocratic and the next day talking about lobbying them.
I think that’s actually been a mistake on their part. I actually think they’ve stepped back from that. I think what they ended up doing is they mapped their correct critique of American governance and finance capitalism onto the Democratic Party in a way that had something to it but also wasn’t really the point. OK, there are superdelegates blah, blah, blah, but also the caucuses benefited him and those aren’t particularly democratic. The idea that the final result of the Bernie Sanders campaign was going to be reforming Democratic Party nominating process seemed to me like losing the plot.*
I think they never thought they had a shot. Then all of a sudden they had a real shot. They didn’t actually run a race as if they had a shot until it was too late. I think that probably haunted him and the people around him because I think they realized, after the window had closed, that the window had been open. He could have beaten her.
When you say “could” we get into a huge conversation about cause and effect and the course of the universe.
She’s always going to be a favorite and obviously you can’t win a Democratic primary if you lose African American voters by the margin that he did consistently. That’s just not going to happen, but it’s not impossible to imagine a few counter-universes in which he does much better. Now he’s trying to figure out how he regains the potency of this pretty remarkable political movement that’s been built around him and doesn’t betray it, but also channels it towards the defeat of Donald Trump, which is something he wants. Knowing him, he has no illusions. He’s said this, that he wants to see Trump defeated. I think that’s a pretty tough set of principles to all tie together.
Any thoughts on that? I have a lot of thoughts that I’ll keep to myself.
*Correction, June 27, 2016: This article originally misquoted Chris Hayes as saying “moving the plot” rather than “losing the plot.” (Return.)