MSNBC's Chris Hayes goes all in with Syracuse

The talk show host discussed America's meritocratic system and how it has led to elitism in his University Lectures Series speech.

At the beginning of his lecture Tuesday night, political journalist Chris Hayes asked the audience to participate in a thought experiment. He asked everyone to create an alternate universe consisting of sociopaths with no moral conscience.

“If you have a sense of superiority, that the laws don't apply to you, and combine it with a sense of precariousness, you would get something potent. You would get subjects that would be willing to do anything,” Hayes said. “This accurately describes the characteristics among groups that lead to dominance and success in America.”

Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s primetime show All In with Chris Hayes, spoke about achieving democracy in America. His speech, held in Hendricks Chapel, was part of the University Lectures Series, a cross-disciplinary lecture series that brings individuals of exceptional accomplishment to speak at Syracuse.

Much of his lecture came from his newly released book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which outlines worn ideological categories to come up with a fundamentally new answer.

In his talk, Hayes discussed meritocracy, which he defined as when the power of a government lies within people based on their ability. “Meritocracy is a new version of a very old, old America,” Hayes said. "The American Dream has always been that a man can fully flourish and live up to his destiny and achieve a life equal to his merit, regardless of his surname or where he was born." Hayes went on to say that this American Dream has a new manifestation in the 20th century due to social factors, such as elitism.

Hayes explicated the effect standardized testing has on elitism. “Beginning with the dawn of the SAT, we created a society of elite institutions that find the best people out there no matter where they’re from,” Hayes said. “We break free from geography, religion, cast and lineage and make it possible that the smartest, most talented, most driven individuals from all over country can be a part of American elite.”

He appeared to be passionate about the democratic vision behind this notion, while drawing attention to the fact that placing extreme weight on test scores results in students becoming products of test preparation. Although he agreed that education is a worthwhile fight, he did not agree with the notion that education is going to solve the problems of inequality.

“Inequality finds its way into the meritocratic project you have set up because test preparation is only available to the people who can afford it. What develops is a rigged game,” he said.

Hayes then began a conversation on the vicious cycle of concentrated power and social distance. He argued that when the majority of the members of Congress are affluent, it creates social distance between the elites who hold power and the people who their power affects.

“Everyone agrees that jobs is the most important issue in America, yet we can’t have unemployment insurance passed in D.C., Hayes said. He also said that the people in society who need things like unemployment insurance are ignored because “they are the ones who don’t vote and don’t write checks.”

Hayes ended his lecture by saying that democracy is a process, not a result. Achieving a final state of equilibrium isn’t attainable. “It is the act of engaged citizenship, trying to perfect the union each and every day that makes this country great. That is what secures us for a comparative democratic well-being,” he said to end the lecture.

During the question-and-answer session, several audience members asked about education, inequality and the polarization of government.

In response to a question about inequality in America compared to other governments, Hayes said there is a rising trend toward inequality across the entire developed world. Still, Hayes maintained that the United States is accelerating the fastest of these countries.

Freshman Meagan Solano, who had never watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC, said she likes how he approaches politics. “I'm motivated by the way he thinks about issues," Solano said. "He's trying to promote equality with a more intellectual idea of democracy being a process and not a result."

The lecture also drew a large portion of its audience from outside the Syracuse University community. Some audience members have been regular attendees of past University lectures. Syracuse resident Davis Fisher attended the lecture and described Hayes as "articulate" and "very knowledgeable."

Hayes, a graduate of Brown University, hosts MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, which focuses on current political news. He previously hosted the weekend morning show Up w/ Chris Hayes on the same network.

In addition to hosting his own show, Hayes is an Editor-at-Large of The Nation, a weekly political magazine. Prior to joining MSNBC as an anchor, he was a frequent substitute anchor on The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Hayes has been with MSNBC as a contributor since April 2010 and The Nation since October 2007.


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