Revisiting Bernays’ Propaganda in the Age of Trumpism and Post-Truth

The past eighteen months can be characterized by wildly variable political expectations, forcing many to search the depths of their consciences for explanations of the domestic and global emesis of id that embraces aspects of racism, misogyny, and even fascism. The rise of Trump in the United States and various nationalist parties across Europe demands that we examine the causes and processes that enabled it. Enhancing this demand is the shifting analysis following the U.S. election. Much of the pundit class is ignoring previous campaign analysis, instead attributing Trump’s success to external influence and opponent mistakes. Surely there is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is no sound reason for abandoning previous observations that Trump taps an anger that evolved out of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Although Tea Party members are firmly entrenched in the Republican Party and revile Trump, their candidates could not shake the “establishment” label hurled by Trump supporters. What, then, is this force that provided Trump with a swift consolidation of power in a political party hostile towards him, and at the same time guaranteed an overwhelming flame-out for recent political darlings? A return to the Edward Bernays 1928 classic, Propaganda, provides much insight into the process.

Bernays defines propaganda as “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” The word dates back to the 17th century, when the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide) was established to oversee the Church’s missionary efforts. Until the Great War, the term’s meaning remained benign, but with the aggressive psychological tactics employed on the American and British people to maintain support of the military effort against Germany, it gained the negative connotation it still holds today. Bernays worked in the war effort with Walter Lippman and emerged as one of many practitioners who believed that the future of business and commerce relied upon the scientific use of propaganda to shape consumer attitudes. The book is thus both an attempt to reform the word and also an argument for why his corporate clients should engage his services. While he was wildly successful with the latter goal, he failed with the former.

At the core of Bernays’ work is the distinction between the individual and the group mind. Both are resident within each of us, and they operate independently of one another. The individual mind projects what we recognize as the self; the group mind penetrates myriad networks of interests that define our social being, ranging from book preferences to attitudes about labor unions. While specific individuals may share interests in one network, they may be opposed in other networks. It is not unusual for a person to join a network that is contrary to her individual interests. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The sheer complexity of information assaulting the group mind necessitates the acceptance of what Bernays refers to as the invisible government. The members of this government — small and often unknown, even to each other — are responsible for shaping expectations of the group mind. The invisible government is not evil or conspiratorial, nor is it threatened by the knowledge of its existence. It is merely a mechanism of conferring credibility, prioritizing needs and wants, and shortening the process of selecting goods that will improve our lives. It falls to a few select individuals “because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses.” Whether we seek to purchase a fifth of vodka or a book on Atlantic history, we first filter the possibilities through early adopters, celebrities, thought champions, and product experts.

The propagandist, also referred to by Bernays as the public relations counsel, employs the invisible government to shape the group mind so that the goods and services offered are what the customer desires. There are various ways of achieving this, which Bernays touts in the book (remember, the book itself is propaganda for his firm.) While the archaic method involves repeatedly asserting a direct message[1], such as “Buy X for good health!”, by the 1920s a more scientific approach was advocated. The propagandist undertakes a study of customer needs and beliefs, and then executes a campaign to address the drives which might underlie the acceptance of a product. For example, instead of telling customers to buy product X to relieve stress, a campaign to set expectations of stress-free living makes the customer want to buy product X. This campaign employs members of the invisible government as well as public thought champions.

Bernays believed that checks on this process exist: customers react negatively to fabrications and dishonest propaganda. The professional public relations counsel demonstrates integrity in order to build credibility and maintain acceptance of the consuming public. Methods and messages lose effectiveness if they fail to satisfy the group mind.

Although Propaganda addresses product consumption, Bernays recognized its value in politics. Indeed, he found it ironic the original champion of the practice lagged so far behind in the precision and skill business had achieved. He devoted a chapter to entreating politicians to adopt the scientific methods of modern public relations in order to effectively engage the body politic. From page 119:

In actual fact, [molding the mind of voters] can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the public.

Bernays realized that tapping into the networks of influence was infinitely more effective than “pressing the flesh”, making stump speeches, and kissing babies. The successful politician recognizes the desire of a network and offers the product that satisfies the voter’s need.

Which brings us back to Trump, his unfathomable behavior, his unflappability, and his success despite being profoundly unprepared for the task at hand. To understand his achievement we must examine the networks of influence he utilized to ascend to power. Were these networks available to Trump’s rivals? How were Trump’s tactics more effective than up-and-comers like Marco Rubio, or proven gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich?

The first step that Bernays prescribes is to create a need or expectation in the customer (in this case the voter.) This is not something Trump did himself, but he correctly identified it. The American Right has received a consistent narrative of “reverse oppression” across multiple media. For over two decades right-wing media has relentlessly “othered” liberal and non-white members of society. The breakdown of the social order, reverse racism, job loss, and faithlessness have been attributed to “coastal elites” and immigrants. Homosexuals are recruiting children in bathrooms. Liberal humanities professors are teaching young adults to hate their nation. These are not propaganda strategies to invoke direct action, instead they are designed to create a feeling of siege, a notion that what was once a position of wealth and power is now ephemeral. Despite the fact that individuals live in affluent, white suburbs (or other homogenous enclaves), their group mind is wracked with anxiety about losing everything at any moment.

Looking at Fox News (cable news on the Left has tried to copy but without the same success), it is obvious the opinion personalities highlighted during the evening hours are the network’s thought leaders, nurturing and shaping the prized networks of influence. “Real news” is relegated to the daytime hours when the audiences are smaller. Unleashing O’Reilly and Hannity with their fear-mongering and message of imminent social destruction helped form the network of influence that has driven the Republican Party (until recently the GOP considered Fox News a mouthpiece.)

One important factor that is different from politics in the days of Propaganda is the lack of overlap. Bernays spoke of myriad networks all overlapping. Today, ideological isolation is more pronounced than at any time perhaps since the Civil War (I will yield to constructive criticism on that judgment.) These silos of belief make it harder for people to find some common ground, even if it isn’t the topic under discussion. The idea that we might interact with a wide variety of people based on social contacts, church affiliation, work experience, or recreational endeavors seems less credible today than it did in Bernays time[2].

By the time Trump takes the idea of candidacy seriously, the infrastructure is already in place. It is important to give him credit for realizing it’s potential; no one else seemed to. “Gaffes” like calling Mexicans rapists or accusing the Chinese of fabricating climate change actually fueled his popularity, not because individuals accepted the veracity of these claims, but because a group mind had been conditioned to be satisfied by the slaying of these demons. Trump’s GOP rivals who tried to navigate a more responsible path were quickly vanquished, because there was no network of influence they could utilize. Their message didn’t resonate; they were irrelevant.

Those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power. Click To Tweet

Trump is a current crisis, one that Bernays did envision, albeit indirectly. The consummate professional, Bernays believed that integrity is the hallmark of the public relations counsel. He practice what he preached, dropping large tobacco clients when it became clear that smoking was harmful to consumers (long before the Surgeon General’s report.) And in fairness, he did believe that communists were a threat in Guatemala when he orchestrated the public relations campaign that encouraged lawmakers to support the CIA coup. He cautions politicians in Propaganda to be honest, lest the public punish them (page 113.) It appears that we are now in uncharted waters. The notion of Trumpism as “post-truth”, with the employment of “alternative facts” to present a fictional narrative, demonstrates that those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power.

Trumpism presents the United States with a seemingly overwhelming set of obstacles, which may destroy the republic or take decades to repair. We must accept the asymmetrical political networks of influence that divide our body politic and spread a false narrative (alternative facts.) Our group mind is reliant on propaganda to filter and coordinate the overwhelming number of social signals that are presented to us each day, yet the only thing separating us from the responsible assimilation of information and misdirection by influential people is the integrity of those shaping the message. Propaganda is our drinking water, and we rely on the invisible government not to poison it. This is not to say that we can fight propaganda by appealing to the individual mind; Hillary Clinton made a strategic error by focusing on policy and how it appeals to the voter. We cannot separate ourselves from the group mind; it is a facet of our personality unaffected by awareness or education. Those opposing Trump can only formulate their own group narrative, one that is more effective than the current one. Ultimately we can only campaign against corrupted networks and champion those that provide honest influence (as opposed to those that align with our ideology.) Finally, working to re-establish the myriad overlapping networks that Bernays described in 1928 may help people reconnect at the civic level, tearing down the ideological silos that separate us.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing, 2005.

[1] For an interesting read and discussion about cumulative advantage, see Roger L. Martin’s post in Harvard Business Review, “How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy.”

[2] I realize I have stepped in a large pile of goop here. For the purpose of this essay, we do not need to discuss the race and sex segregation of the 1920s. I only wish to assert that Bernays’ suggestion of ideological interaction is less likely today.

Neoliberalism and the God Emperor

I had the television on the other day while talking heads preached the gospel of low taxes and small government inducing economic growth and innovation, and I was overcome by the image of the God Emperor of Dune, Leto Atreides II. What would prompt such an association, short of powerful hallucinogens or a vacuum of social interaction? It is the quandary that we share with Leto II (or he will share with us, since his time is still several aeons in the future.)

Leto, the son of the prophet Muad’Dib, undergoes a physical and mental transformation from man to sandworm. For 1500 years, Leto crafts a new narrative of the human place in the Universe. He squelches independent thought and provides the tyranny that comforts so many in their banal lives. The God Emperor becomes the repository of ambition, risk, and power.

At the time of the story, Leto falls in love with Hwi Noree, the Ixian ambassador who speaks to his lost humanity. He faces two pathways: the most likely and necessary is his death and consequent reorganization of the Universe; but for a time he contemplates a life with Hwi as a human. The important point is that Leto can reverse his metamorphosis, yet he realizes that it will take another 1500 years. And here we come back to the talking heads on television…

For decades we have been sold a narrative that not only prescribes an optimal economic model, but defines our relationship to the community. Despite the fact that considerable evidence demonstrates the deficiencies of this economic model, we continue to build our identity around it and accept the bondage that it imposes. Much as humanity watched the transformation of the God Emperor and accepted his tyranny and order, we fling ourselves down the road of neoliberalism, without questioning its consequences or even our eventual destination.

This may sound trivial, but there are serious implications for the New Left, or whatever is out there in opposition to the American Right. Policy change is difficult and circumscribed without first changing identity through messaging. At present, a unified message does not exist, whether you are watching a Democratic spokesman like Chris Van Hollen on television or following the various fractured factions of the Occupy movement on social media. Until a coherent, alternative identity exists to challenge neoliberalism, catastrophes like the 2008 financial collapse will be inadequate to drive change, and leaders like President Barack Obama will operate within existing political confines. Even failures of the Right will be softened by the framework they have already built.

Too many people see themselves in a rising boat, even if it’s a dinghy. Much of the population matured in an era where no other message was communicated. The reality is that thought leaders are seeking a permanently impoverished working class to provide cheap labor for capital. Until I hear the opposition articulate that far and wide, I will remain skeptical that change is on the horizon.

Identity Through Fundraising

I was stopped on the sidewalk the other day by a young person soliciting memberships for Save the Children. This is really common in Chicago, and the solicitors are trained to employ techniques of humor and flirtation that is creepy. Needless to say, getting accosted raises my hackles.

This day I had a question to ask: if Save the Children wanted my money, could someone tell me what concrete goals were being achieved? The young woman was bright and friendly, but concrete was not an adjective that described her answer. I bid her good day and moved on.

Later another solicitor stated, “Good afternoon, sir. We’re shutting down violent hate groups.” Wow. How do you say no to that?

The day ended with a message from Senator Sherrod Brown in my inbox. He is not my senator, but I get solicitations from him all the time. This one asked for money not for his campaign, but so he could give it to other Senate candidates around the country. They wouldn’t be my senator, either.

All of these examples raise questions about the purpose of giving. What is it that people seek when they donate to a cause? Surely people want to improve the world, but more prominent in this activity is the formation of civic identity. The formation of identity through giving provides fundraisers with a powerful marketing force: in a society that is targeted based on Facebook Likes, loyalty card activity, and web browsing activity, group association can easily displace a process that once required commitment and involvement.

This got me thinking about how our political parties have embraced bifurcated ideologies in order to create indelible identities in their constituents, and insure loyalty and support.

Political parties have always sought to provide identities for their members, but we are returning to the Manichaean worldview found in the antebellum era. This offers a sub-optimal choice. We can no longer even vote for the “lesser evil”, because the adversary of our candidate promises an existential threat. If you identify with one party, then the only way to preserve your lifestyle is to oppose everything the other party represents.

Mark Sanford encapsulated this attitude recently, when he published this tweet on his Twitter timeline:

He is telling his audience to send money, because the liberals identified with ActBlue are threatening the independence and representation of South Carolinians (you can get more context by following the link to Sanford’s blog.) I absolutely agree with him, although his argument is surely disingenuous, himself being the recipient of PAC money.

Recently, political activists Lawrence Lessig (from Rootstrikers) and Mark Meckler (founder of Tea Party Patriots) spoke at a forum in Seattle. I encourage you to watch the video. Both men have come together to avoid the binary ideology of national politics and find common objectives. Meckler actually makes the point that the parties want us to remain separated.

We were warned about this nearly two hundred and twenty-five years ago, when James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

George Washington refined the point further in his Farewell Address by noting, “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” Parties thrive by instilling fear that other factions are fundamentally different. The assertion that there is no common ground between groups, and those who identify with them, is vital for the perpetuation of the faction.

I don’t want to get too far afield, but instead come back to why we want to identify with factions. In a complex and hectic world, group identity is being made easy by those who promote it. You can donate $10 via SMS, sign an online petition, or Like a Facebook page. It is important to understand that these activities are controlled by people guiding your behavior and controlling the civic narrative. The first step in avoiding this trap is finding more individualized methods of projecting identity.

The term “slacktivism” is used to describe someone who supports causes in ways that are ineffective but promote a good feeling. Not everyone will carry signs in the street, but there is more to civic engagement than group identity. Until we all understand how our attitudes are being shaped and why, we will fail to find common values with our neighbors.

QOTD: Douglas Hurd

I found this while reading for my examination of the British response to famine in the nineteenth century. It is a 1994 quote from then British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd speaking to the scope and limits of capitalism and the free market (emphasis is mine):

But capitalism without the community is an empty husk. Capitalism does not on its own possess some supreme moral quality, regardless of its consequences for people. It is a technique rather than a religion. … The market can only deliver its promise within a social and political context.

I think the American Right could use a small dose of British conservatism these days.

Possible Cause for Hope?

I know I have reached rock bottom when I post video of Joe Scarborough on Meet the Press, but there was a glimmer of hope embedded in the roundtable discussion yesterday.

This is like layer cake: a conservative defending Ronald Reagan for being considered a RINO by the Tea Party; that same conservative undoubtedly seen as a liberal media stooge by those he criticizes; the admission that the next century will require soft power in order to project influence; the lack of acknowledgment that American Empire stopped providing dividends long ago and is responsible for much of the fiscal trouble driving the right-wing into a frenzy. I am unwilling to attempt an assessment of the net value of all this.

But let us reflect for one moment on what happened yesterday. A former congressman from the Republican Revolution has recognized that hard power is not a sustainable mode of operation. Never mind that he invoked Reagan — one of the most ardent enthusiasts of American Empire — in nearly the same breath. Let us simply appreciate the fact that the goals of fiscal responsibility and reduced militarism were, for one moment, conflated.

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Paranoia and Conquest

A strange thing happened this week. And while it garnered attention by many for what has become known as the GOP’s characteristic lack of empathy, there was something even more strange operating at a different level. Senate Republicans voted down the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty with roots in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) It marked another withdrawal of the party from international cooperation at the same time the party is becoming increasingly belligerent toward foreign nations.

Tuesday, members of the United States Senate walked past former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole on their way to the Senate floor. Dole, seated in a wheelchair, was there as an advocate for passage of the treaty, which has already been signed by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations. In a succinct demonstration of how far the Republican Party has shifted over the past two decades, thirty-eight Republican Senators rejected the treaty and Bob Dole’s leadership.

Judging from the recent column by hyper-conservative Rick Santorum, many Republicans feared that the treaty would infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States. That in and of itself is not surprising, for it has long been the modus operandi of the conservative movement to engender fear of outsiders among its members. Using the United Nations as a bogeyman is old news.

So what is different? The paranoia of international institutions and belief in military projection are not conflicting attitudes held by different factions of the party, but exist within individual party leaders. While Rick Santorum advocates for withdrawal from cooperation with international bodies, he beats the war drum for military intervention in countries like Iran. Mitt Romney spent his most recent campaign for President beating up the United Nations while warning that Russia requires military containment. This bipolar view is emblematic of the Republican Party.

Shrinking from involvement in international relations while advocating the projection of military power demonstrates a lack of coherent strategy in foreign policy. The successful implementation of a nation’s will is dependent upon cooperation and negotiation with global partners. The current attitude of the Republican Party denies agency to other nations that play a significant and legitimate role in global politics. Military projection is symptomatic of a belief in American empire, yet the rejection of cooperative international institutions abdicates the responsibilities of leadership. Demanding conformity to the will of the United States while denying agency to other nations reflects an authoritarian outlook that is counterproductive to stability.

It would be understandable if these conflicting attitudes were visible in different factions of the Republican Party. What is troubling is that they coexist within individual party leaders. The maintenance of United States dominance across the globe is dependent upon encouraging interdependencies and regional cooperation with other sovereign partners. Rejecting such cooperation jeopardizes that dominance. If Republicans expect to claim a leadership role in the future, they need to resolve this dissonance between isolationist paranoia and imperial conquest.

Perpetual Empire

I have been on vacation for the past several weeks, enjoying the hospitality and climate in the southeast Mediterranean. As a vacation destination, it is in many ways ideal: fresh food, a beautiful environment, friendly people and a gentle pace.

Like most tourists, I made a lot of photographs. Mostly they are iconic images that will evoke memories of my time there, and some include the people traveling with me. But one day in Thira, Santorini, I took the image below and slipped back into a mode of critical analysis. I believe this image says a lot about the past of Europe and the future of the United States.

"Residential Solar Collectors"Many of my friends will criticize the composition, but this snapshot from a back alley is all about the content. On the rooftops of many residences throughout the region are passive solar collectors and their corresponding hot water tanks. These collectors, the numerous wind farms throughout the region, and what amounts to $10 per gallon gasoline are many symptoms of a society that has freed itself from the myth of maintaining a perpetual petroleum empire. In contrast with the United States, Europe has rejected the folly (either presciently or out of necessity) that ever-increasing power projection will maintain cheap, abundant petroleum.

The United States is reluctant to even admit our imperial achievements, let alone discuss the level of commitment and costs we are willing to bear in exchange for them. But after a century of uncontested imperial rule, it is time to make sober decisions about the road forward. Even if we agree with founding fathers like Madison and wish to remain in the existing paradigm, episodes like Afghanistan and Iraq make it clear that the expense of fueling domestic growth by expanding the imperium will continue to increase. How much of our societal output are we willing to commit to conquests that return fewer and fewer benefits? If we cannot make that decision as a society, then most of us will not like the answer made by those in power.

You can follow the ideological debate domestically by listening to voices of climate change. One side claims that the next century will provide unlimited petroleum and no climate consequences. Their voices also champion a greatly expanded military force and confrontations with other global powers. The other side recognizes the threat of climate change, the limits of a petrochemical economy, and the need to restrict military growth. These two sides align with the paradigms of ever-expanding empire and a more strategic, managed empire (nobody is seriously considering dismantling the United States empire, which is too bad.)

When we visit countries like Greece and Italy and remark on the balanced lifestyle of their denizens, it is the issues of empire that underlie our observations. Empire has provided the United States with cheap energy, imported goods and subsidized lifestyles. In return, it demands that we contribute social resources that others channel towards healthcare, pensions and a slower pace of living. It is time that we recognize why we cannot emulate our brothers around the world as long as we remain within the imperial paradigm, and then begin the debate on what level of commitment is desirable for our nation.

The Nation as an Idea

But America is more than just a place … it’s an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

After Paul Ryan’s remarks on Saturday following his selection as the vice-presidential candidate on the GOP ticket, journalist Chris Hayes posted the following to Twitter:

It received a number of good responses, and got me thinking that — looking back over the past three centuries — the birth of the United States was like that of many other nations. There is a lot to discover simply by looking at the concept and formation of national identity.

An understandable yet costly mistake that many U.S. Americans make is believing that we have always had a common national identity. The truth of the matter is that in the late 18th century citizens of different colonies were likely to feel more kinship with Britain or her Caribbean colonies than with other North American colonies. South Carolinians may not have liked the policies of Parliament, but they didn’t consider New Englanders family (consider the Rutherford’s behavior in the Continental Congress.)

Business motives united the colonies and federalism held them together. Along the way we strived toward certain political ideals, although this effort has been fraught with setbacks (e.g., the Civil War, Jim Crow.) Today we all identify as American above our regional or political identities.

Looking around the globe we find many instances of nations being born of the same process. As I pointed out in a recent post, Simón Bolívar viewed the American Revolution as a model for emancipating Latin America from the Spanish; that he was unable to unite the continent under a single government was attributable to a lack of common identity. He was, however, responsible for the independence of many nations. Not only were these nations “founded on an idea”, it was a very similar idea to the one that we had.

Recently, I examined the formation of national identity in British India. Although imperial rule had consolidated the sub-continent for many centuries, the people did not have a common identity. When the East India Company gained control in the late 18th century, it began imposing a common framework over the empire to simplify administration (and increase profits.) This framework and many policy decisions led to a series of reactions that began defining an Indian identity. Like the United States, the process was difficult and slow, and not fully consolidated as late as the 1930s. [Certainly, like any nation, differences persist to the present day.]

Returning to Paul Ryan, I can understand that he is proud of his country, and the line worked well in a political speech. But I would caution that to take the myth of American Exceptionalism seriously places us in danger of misjudging the rest of the world. To borrow an idea from Reinhold Neibuhr in The Irony of American History, failing to understand our place in history affects not only our standing in the present but also our future.

A Thing of Beauty

I am currently reading Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (a review will follow.) I want to share the following quote, because it illustrates a beautiful symmetry that compels me to study history. It is a symmetry willfully overlooked in politics.

Postwar foreign policy derived its legitimacy from a widely shared perception that power was being exercised abroad to facilitate the creation of a more perfect union at home. In this sense, General Curtis LeMay’s nuclear strike force, the Stragtegic Air Command (SAC) — as a manifestation of American might as well as a central component of the postwar military-industrial complex — helped foster the conditions from which Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women emerged.

Twilight of the Elites

Chris Hayes – Washington editor of The Nation magazine and host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes – has just completed his first book on the dysfunction of United States’ élite and prescriptions for social change. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy asserts that our society’s obsession with the notion of meritocracy has led to a self-serving leadership caste, loss of social and economic mobility, unresponsive government representation, and social distance between those at the top and the majority of society, which has precipitated a “Crisis of Authority” among those now commonly labeled the “99 percent.” The irony, which he ably demonstrates, is that the very process of rewarding those who strive and succeed creates an environment that calcifies the innovation and creativity necessary to responsibly guide our society in a productive direction.

Book CoverThere are a number of positive things about this book. Hayes formulates a reasonably novel thesis and supports it well, with [not too] lengthy discussions about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, various financial crises throughout what he labels the “fail decade,” the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball, and an incestuousness between powerful private interests and our public government. He finds common ground between disaffected Tea Party members and Occupy Wall Street protesters. And importantly, he does something many other authors of this book genre fail to do: he identifies where the possible solution to the problem lies.

If you are not familiar with Hayes’ political perspective, prepare for a leftist view that is fairly far from the center. I found myself in disagreement with him at a number of points in the argument, but that certainly does nothing to diminish the value of it. If you can not get something positive out of this book, then my suggestion to you is that you are too dogmatic.

Fine, so buy the book. That said, I have a number of criticisms.

The book more-or-less occupies the recent past, which is common for such a work. Unfortunately, this misses many opportunities for a more robust argument. My own bias as an historian compels me to discover continuity between Hayes’ “fail decade” and other periods of United States history, and I believe they exist. Twilight of the Elites might demonstrate the failure of the élite to act responsibly in the present day, but the United States was specifically designed to be ruled by such a group. James Madison rejected democracy as an effective model, choosing a republic instead. Distance between the citizen and decision-maker was always desired. Was Madison wrong? Have there been other “crises of authority” in the past? How were they overcome and is that process relevant to today?

Another point I struggled with was the bipolarity of insurrectionism versus institutionalism. While I am far from a conservative, I do fall into the latter sphere. And yet, I recognize the need for serious reform. Early on in the book he draws a sharp distinction between the poles, and later only gives a brief nod to the possibility of a broader spectrum of possibilities (by using Julian Assange as an example.) My concern is that this polarity is fundamental to the modern political worldview in the United States, and tacitly accepting it reinforces something unhealthy in our civic discourse. Although nuance is often difficult to communicate, opinion-molders have a responsibility to advance complexity when and where it exists. More of us would discover that we have common ground if we reject polarity.

Finally, my own pragmatism (many might call it cynicism) has difficulty accepting the notion of a middle-class insurrection toppling the élite. Perhaps Hayes would not disagree that the masses – mostly working poor – will always be uninvolved in civic discourse, and thus dispossessed of power. Any change in the roster at the top will be just that: a change in the roster. The very nature of politics demands that complex interactions in a pluralistic society be stratified. Hayes identifies tactics that will lead to more equality and consequent social mobility, but in the end only diligence can fix and prevent this problem now and in the future.

The United State is facing a lot of challenges. Twilight of the Elites is an excellent way to begin a discussion on how to face them. Regardless of your political persuasion, there is a lot of value to be gained from it.