The business of Hollywood doesn’t often intersect with the world of academia, but it did last week when actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were each charged with taking part in a college admissions cheating scheme that also ensnared dozens of alleged perpetrators beyond the entertainment business. Chris Hayes, who anchors MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” weeknights at 8 p.m., has studied the causes of such behavior in his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy,” which argues that people in society’s top echelons have grown too divorced from those in its lower ranks, and so have become more easily corrupted. Below, in an interview with Variety that has been edited for space and clarity, Hayes examines what the college scandal says about America.
Why do you think the news of this case has resonated so intensely?
It expresses something about the sort of ludicrousness of the notion of American meritocracy, right? The idea that America is equitable and socially mobile, and people from many backgrounds can work their way to the top. But the data belies that point. America actually has a very low amount of intergenerational mobility. The best measure we have is that it’s lower than other big countries. … One of the engines we have always had of this American meritocracy is college admissions. But we know that it’s a fairly rigged system, even without the obviously blatant criminal behavior we are seeing. This just makes it so totally explicit in a way that reflects something profound about how the system is already working.
Do you think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of discoveries about well-to-do people trying outlandish methods to get their kids into school?
If you give $15 million, your kid is probably going to get a pretty hard look. They are going to have to be pretty screwed up to not get in. … It’s not really clear to me that there’s a lot more to come because there are things that are stuck in place that are avenues for gaming the system in totally legal ways.
How is this different than a wealthy family making a big donation to a university with the not-so-subtle hope it might influence acceptance of generations to come?
One is legal, and one is not. One is sort of transparent, and one isn’t. But there is a great philosophical question of ‘What is the difference?’
We all want our kids to get into a good school, but why do you think the pressure has become such that people are resorting to this sort of behavior?
Even people very near the top are looking up above them and seeing people who are much bigger. The top 10% are looking at the top 1%. … On one level, all people’s kids are going to be fine. Just go to a college you don’t have to bribe someone to get into. They will be fine. They get a good education and a good life. But instead, the people in question are looking up at the top ranks. It’s people who can’t necessarily write a $15 million check to Harvard. They are very rich, but not at the very top.
Are these people evil? Or are they just trying to do the best they can for their kids in a misguided fashion?
I don’t have a final moral judgment to render. It’s profoundly wrong what they did. It’s a zero-sum game, and there are people whose positions they are taking. One of the most messed-up things about what they did is fraudulent use of dispensations for people who have disabilities. This all was really, really wrong. There are a lot of people trying to do the best for their kids who aren’t committing mail fraud.