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“Reserve your contempt for the people with power”: Chris Hayes on anti-elitism and Brexit

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Maybe the most striking poll on Brexit, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, asked people which way they intended to vote in the referendum and which people and institutions they trusted on the issue.

Those who wanted to leave, the polling firm YouGov found, trusted no one. Not politicians, not academics, not religious figures, not the Bank of England, not economists, and certainly not international officials.


To MSNBC host Chris Hayes, this is a familiar phenomenon. In his 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites, he argued that Americans are losing trust in their institutions and the powerful people who lead them in part because the "elites," elevated through a system that venerated intelligence and merit, has failed. (His forthcoming book, A Colony in a Nation, is about policing and democracy in America.)

Hayes’s book focused on American failures, from the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis to the fall of Enron and even steroid use in baseball. But Hayes argues that it can help explain what just happened in the UK as well.

"This is a continental crisis of authority brought about by elite failure," he told me Friday. A transcript of our conversation follows, slightly edited for length and clarity.

How the failures of elites helped bring about Brexit

David Cameron resigning outside 10 Downing Street
UK Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the Brexit results came in — an acknowledgment that his leadership had failed.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Libby Nelson: Your book was about a crisis of confidence in institutions. And it seems to me that what just happened in the European Union was a huge lack of confidence in a major institution. How does this come about?

Chris Hayes: The book was focused on the US, but a lot of the same things are in play. The central thesis of the book is you had a cascade of elite failure that really was bad elite failure. That produced a crisis of authority that was this pulverizing phenomenon whereby all kinds of institutions were utterly discredited.

For the last 30 years, Gallup has been asking about confidence in institutions, and everything was down except for the military and police. What’s going on here? What kind of society can we operate, and what does it mean for democracy, when you have this widespread crisis of authority?

I talk about this fight between insurrectionists and institutionalists: Does everything need to be burned down — is the "system" rigged? Or is it that the people are misinformed and benighted, and the folks in power are doing their best and it would be much worse if they weren’t there?

That’s precisely the dynamic that is now absolutely front and center in the US campaign vis-à-vis Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and absolutely front and center not just in the UK but also in Europe.

This is a continental crisis of authority, again, brought about by elite failure. The coup de grâce for both places was the financial crisis. And let us not also forget that one of the major pieces of elite failure, the Iraq War, was one of the first dominoes that has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe.

LN: The elite failures you write about took place primarily in an American context. Has Europe had its own version of those events, or is it mostly that the financial crisis was this giant, massive destabilizing event?

CH: The financial crisis is the one that unites them and has been colossal. Keep in mind in the case of the UK, they also had a whole bunch of their elites, although much more divisively than the US, push the Iraq War, which essentially destroyed Labour as a party, which is part of what’s given us this.

But the more intense cascade of elite failure in Europe has been the crisis and its aftermath. Just the fact that you have essentially no growth and you have this bureaucratic cutting of the pesky voters that constitute, ultimately, their constituents.

Then you have this very intense ratcheting up of immigration, and now the refugee crisis on top of that, and, alongside refugees, the threat of terrorism. It’s very hard to look at European elite leadership over the last eight years and say, "Bang-up job, guys."

The notion of a social order in which the best and brightest of all different creeds and hues rise up the ranks to become the multi-hued leadership class of the elite, based solely on merit, drive, and intelligence, and occupy the commanding heights of institutions and make the right choices — that’s the global model in many ways, and it’s proving to not produce great decision-making.

People rebel against it, and they can rebel against it in different ways. They can rebel in a left-wing, popularistic, solidaristic way that we’ve seen in Greece with Syriza, or Podemos in Spain, or Bernie Sanders. Or they can revolt against it in a Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, UKIP [UK Independence Party] sort of way.

LN: You’re very harsh on American elites and American institutions as well, and you say there’s a reason people lost confidence — the institutions screwed up. Do you think that British leadership or the EU itself bears responsibility in the same way here?

CH: Yes. Absolutely it does. In some ways it’s less about individual elites and more about this drift toward concentration of power and wealth, income inequality, and attenuated democracy. The further and further you move toward this smaller, socially and cognitively constrained group of people, no matter how individually bright or well-intentioned they are, the worse the decisions they make.

What you end up with when you create these democratic deficits is backlash that can be very ugly or very self-destructive.

Look, I would have voted, 100 percent I would have voted, to remain, and I think the Remain people had the better arguments, and I think they were right. At the same time, when you see this unleashing [after the vote] of, "These idiots are now running around trying to Google what the EU is" — it’s the fear of the mob. It’s this fear of democracy.

You need strong institutions, but you need strong and democratic institutions that are constantly holding elites accountable, making sure elites are fundamentally representative, making sure elites are being exposed to a wide variety of experiences and viewpoints. That’s not just the moral force of democracy, which is self-determination as a moral principle, but also the social benefit of it as a group exercise in decision-making.

And so it’s less "this individual leader was bad," although I think David Cameron is not going to be particularly well-remembered in history, and more that the more attenuated democracy becomes, and the more power and wealth are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the more inevitable it is you’re going to get failures. And those failures are going to breed the kinds of distrust that can lead to really terrible outcomes.

Was Brexit about anti-elitism, xenophobia, or both?

Boris Johnson with "Let's take back control" sign
Boris Johnson campaigns for leaving the European Union in April.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

LN: I want to go back to something you said earlier about the fear of the mob. One explanation we’re hearing for the vote is it was all about xenophobia, all about the racism of the Leave campaign. Do you think that’s it, or is anti-elitism also a force at work here?

CH: It’s hard for me to definitively say. I have a much better sense of that vis-à-vis our politics and Trump. But obviously and clearly there is an intense tribalist component to this. You could attach a bunch of different names to it, but clearly that is a big driving force of this. It’s a big driving force of Trump here in the US.

The degree to which that can capture people has been greatly enlarged by the actual failures, by the depth of elite failure. And we see this in the American context, right, there’s this question about Trump. And some people are like, [the New Republic’s] Brian Beutler has got this very funny joke, every time someone says—

LN: "Economic anxiety."

CH: Right. There’s a racist sign, and it’s like, wow, they’re really economically anxious! It’s funny, and I get his point; it’s true there are a lot of euphemisms to avoid talking about straight-up racism and white supremacy.

But none of that is mutually exclusive. I think the older I get, the more I cover politics, the more I feel like people’s politics are so intensely, collectively shaped and formed through so many different mediating and social institutions. It’s a really difficult question to separate that raw stuff from how that raw stuff is channeled through the political structure of a given place.

There is a desire sometimes on the part of liberals in the US and in the UK to be able to say, "Well, fuck it, these are revanchist racists who are sort of unreachable." There is some quantity of people of whom that is true.

But I don’t think it’s a majority — in the American context I don’t think it’s in a majority, and I would tentatively hazard it’s not a majority in the UK either. There’s some degree of the votes that ultimately made the difference — it’s 4 percentage points — that are from people who aren’t incorrigible revanchists and who just basically think the EU can go fuck itself.

LN: One thing I read that I found really striking was from the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. He wrote about the anecdotes circulating about Leave voters who were regretting their votes or saying they didn’t believe it would really happen. And he argued that we’re talking about people who felt the elites have been ignoring them, who felt their wishes don’t matter — naturally they would think that even if they voted for Leave, it wouldn’t necessarily happen. Because they don’t think they have any power.

CH: Totally. I think that was a really interesting idea, that it was a protest vote, and now it’s like, oh, shoot. And there are still people now saying it’s not going to actually happen — so, yeah, I think that’s a very good point.

But I don’t want to downplay the sheer terrifying, barbaric power of atavistic ethnonationalist sentiment. That is the political equivalent of enriching uranium when you cultivate that. It is ungodly dangerous and morally odious for people to cultivate, despicable and contemptible.

My feeling about all this is you reserve your contempt for the people with power and not for the relatively powerless. The contempt is not for the voters here. The contempt is for the people who went about cultivating that sentiment.

Why elites’ failures discredit experts — even if they shouldn’t

Person at Leave rally with sign that says "We don't believe Cameron"
Many British voters didn’t believe David Cameron on the likely effects of leaving the EU.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

LN: How did we get to this point — I guess it’s always been present in our history, but it seems so much more prevalent now — where the idea of expertise is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

CH: I think there have been other moments like this. I think World War I did this in a great many respects; the Depression did this in a great many respects. For a certain generation, I think the Vietnam War did it. There’s always been a popular strain in any given society of skepticism of the experts.

One thing you’ve seen in the American domestic political context is a war on expertise waged by elites themselves. For instance, the massive power brought to bear on delegitimizing the science of climate — that’s not a popular project. That’s an elite project that found a popular audience successfully. So experts can be a useful foil to all kinds of different folks at all kinds of different times.

But I do think there’s a difference between elites and experts, because someone can be an expert and not have a particularly disproportionate amount of power, right? There are all sorts of experts at the Department of Energy who are legitimately experts on whatever they’re experts on, who make whatever they make a year and aren’t singlehandedly pulling the levers of the global economy.

LN: As you cover policymaking, you learn that policy experts aren’t nearly as powerful as many people think they are.

CH: Exactly. It’s important to distinguish between the two categories, and one of the things that happens with elite failure is it conflates them. There were a lot of experts who were right about the housing stuff, and there are a lot who weren’t. Elite failure tends to discredit experts even if it wasn’t really the experts themselves who brought it about.

The other thing to keep in mind here is when you look at income growth from 1988 to 2011 by decile, the richest people in the world have gotten fabulously rich off globalization. The poorest people in the world have seen genuine material improvements — for some people, extremely dramatic material improvements — over the last 30 years.

And the middle class of the "First World" in the West has been absolutely hammered. That’s just an empirical fact. Yeah, they’re not happy with that. Why should they be?

What can Brexit teach us about Donald Trump?

LN: Is there opportunity in this crisis that you see?

CH: This is the hardest question. I think you need more democracy and you need more equality. Those are the watchwords. And you can say, "This was more democracy," and it was, in some ways, and maybe there is a way to channel that.

We saw an inverse version of this in Greece. There was a democratic uprising against the EU that was leftist in orientation, that was solidaristic. It actually included some right-wing nationalist elements in the coalition that brought Syriza to power, but that was, critically, as a rebuke to what was terrifyingly incipient fascism in Golden Dawn. I think, frankly, Europe owes Syriza for saving Greece from fascism.

And what happened there? That democratic plebiscite was put down by the freaking European Central Bank. They just continue to muddle on, and meanwhile they are also the entrance point in Europe for the refugee crisis and struggling to try to deal with the situation.

What would a more democratic Europe look like? I think that is really the question that has to be answered here, and I don’t know the answer to that. But that seems to be the right question.

LN: How useful do you think Brexit is as an analogy for the Trump campaign or what could happen in November?

CH: I think it’s pretty useful. There’s a lot that’s different about it. Even though you have big, outsize personalities in Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, there wasn’t actually a person on the ballot, and I think that probably made it easier to vote to Leave. It wasn’t "this person will now run the country" — it was a sort of principled abstraction. Whereas in our case, it’s this guy. The guy who congratulated himself after 50 people got shot. You want that guy?

There are a few other things that make the context different. America is more diverse. There are a few pieces running through the polling numbers that suggest that if the UK had our level of diversity, then Remain would have won. The rate of immigration increase has been lower here than it has been in the UK, which has seen quite a steep rate of increase. We saw higher peaks during earlier periods, but the rate right now is actually relatively low, and correspondingly American views on immigration are considerably more tolerant and liberal.

Migration Observatory, University of Oxford

But look at the crosstabs. Does that look like the crosstabs of what a Trump coalition looks like? Older, whiter, a higher probability of not having a postsecondary education, not living in cities? That’s a pretty familiar coalition.

LN: So, by extension, that’s an argument to take Trump supporters’ concerns seriously.

CH: Yes, and not to whistle past the graveyard. That, to me, is the biggest lesson and the reason I would say a lot of people, particularly liberals, found [the results] viscerally upsetting in a way that I think surprised a lot of them.

It felt like there is no guardrail. If we want to, we can grab the wheel and put the car over the cliff. There’s nothing saying we can’t. There was some sense in the UK and also watching from abroad, that, well, maybe they’ll hit the guardrail, but they’ll bounce back onto the road.

I think that’s the same way a lot of people feel about Trump: "Okay, when it comes down to it, we’re not going to elect Trump president." But no, we might. We might do that.

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