by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp., $27)
Journalist and novelist George Packer begins his latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, with a joke. “I am an American. No, I don’t want pity.” This humble, witty self-deprecation doesn’t come naturally to a country that habitually claims it is the greatest in the history of the world. We still haven’t yet passed the national Covid test, and there is the very real possibility that someone will attempt to overturn the next election, which is exactly what traditionally made Americans pity other countries. Packer is kidding, as Al Franken used to say, “on the square.”
Given this dismal picture, it’s encouraging that Packer has emerged from Covid’s imposed isolation still committed to working through the American democratic experiment. Inspired by political pamphlets such as Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) and George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), Packer mixes mordancy and hopefulness. “Are my fellow citizens the people I’d choose to be quarantined with? Well, there’s no choice. They’re mine, and I’m theirs.” As long as we’re all still Americans, at this chaotic moment we need to take stock of the true state of the Union.
To this end, Packer maps out what he calls “the four Americas.” Of course, this is bound to be reductive in some ways. American life is too open-ended, multifaceted, and improvised to be neatly placed into specific categories. Packer acknowledges this, letting that complexity inform his understanding. A novelist and a playwright, his schematic is infused with history and literature as ways of judging each narrative’s virtues and vices.
We begin with “Free America,” the most politically influential, which “draws on libertarian ideas … install[ed] in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism. The freedom it champions is about personal and corporate freedom—the negative liberty of ‘don’t tread on me.’” The foundational texts are from Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and the steely selfishness of Ayn Rand. It appeals to Silicon Valley types and anti-government militias alike by reacting to any regulation on the market or the individual as vampires respond to garlic.
Free America fully emerged in the Reagan era. “For Reagan and the narrative of Free America, it meant freedom from government and the bureaucrats.” Naturally, there was a catch: “[T]he majority of Americans who elected Reagan President did not vote for the destruction of the blue-collar workforce, or the rise of a new plutocracy, or legislation rigged in favor of organized money.” The economic precarity still felt all across the country can be traced to that laissez-faire mentality.
The gradual allegiance with so-called “Real America” seems counterintuitive. Depicted in a million gauzy, nostalgic political campaign ads, this is the land of small towns, family farms, community churches, and town diners. Real America touts faith, physical work, honesty, modesty, decency, and patriotism. Nothing wrong with any of these, of course, but the dirty little secret is that Real America doesn’t adhere to those standards any more than the rest of us. Packer cites Sarah Palin as a representative and she was indeed very popular for a time, but this gives a media creation far too much credit.
Consider Palin’s very American slide from vice presidential candidate to reality TV star. Palin had not much more to offer the American public than platitudes about hockey moms and stock phrases such as “you betcha.” The deeper you look, life in Real America isn’t as it seems, partly due to the policies of Free America, whose winner-take-all economic vision left Real America in the lurch, ravaged by opioid addiction, defensive, and conspiratorial. Packer’s quote from Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom (2010) elaborates:
If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.
The “conservative orderly heart” that Norman Mailer sniffed at during the 1968 Republican Convention has mutated into ressentiment and self-pity. You can’t uphold traditional values while proudly supporting the blatant crassness and corruption of Trumpism unless life in Real America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
On the center left, there’s “Smart America,” the people from the fanciest colleges with the highest test scores, educated professionals who rode the meritocracy escalator. Globally minded, data obsessed, and tech literate, Smart America always has a new project or product that will “make the surface of contemporary life agreeable: HBO, Lipitor, Mileage Plus Platinum, the MacBook Pro, Amazon Prime.” The technocrat class is fine with diversity, gay marriage, and legalized pot, but they balk at raising taxes or unionization.
Bill Clinton, the two-time President and Rhodes Scholar from rural Arkansas, is the exemplar of Smart America. “The Clintons were policy wonks who mashed together idealism with business-friendly ideas for economic growth. Instead of speaking for the working class, the Clintons spoke about equipping workers to rise into the professional class through education and training.” The famed bridge to the 21st century paved by the information superhighway may have sounded amazing in the late Nineties, but it ended up dwarfing anyone who couldn’t cross it.
When Clinton exuberantly claimed that “the computer and the internet give us a chance to move more people out of poverty more quickly than at any time in human history,” Packer perceptively counters that “you can almost date the election of Donald Trump to that moment.” This might be overstating the case, since Trump never came close to winning the popular vote either time he ran. Yet out came the class-based ressentiment: “the nationalist mantle was lying around, and Trump grabbed it. I am your voice.” If there is one thing Trump has always known, it’s how to give the audience what it wants.
On the farther left there is “Just America.” This comprises the millennials, the “woke”, the social justice warriors on social media—a generation raised on meritocratic promises (get into the right schools, get a good job, ride off into the suburban sunset) that have been faltering for some time due to a wobbly economy and exploding living costs:
[T]his generation had little faith in ideas that previous ones were raised on.… In their eyes ‘progress’ looked like a thin upper layer of Black celebrities and professionals, who carried the weight of society’s expectations along with its prejudices, and below them, lousy schools, overflowing prisons, dying neighborhoods.
Identity politics predates it, but the idea that the holy trinity of one’s race/gender/class is the major determinant of one’s consciousness has become an article of faith for the Left. The humanities are rife with the idea that all art is ultimately forged by the relations of power. Of course, social conditions play a role in everything, but they can’t possibly be the whole story. If everything is political then ultimately nothing is: necessary debates about inequality and inclusivity are drowned out whenever some comedian says something outrageous or when people debate whether the ingredients of a cafeteria sandwich provide glaring evidence of cultural hegemony.
Packer admits that “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them.” And from what I’ve seen of each of these four Americas, I can’t say I blame him. I’ve been around in all of them and never feel at home. As a progressive, I profoundly distrust the totalizing ambitions of Free America, and the world of Real America bores me to tears when it’s not outright contradictory. Having fundraised plenty from the bien pensant Smart types, their stated enthusiasm for causes is inversely proportional to their interest in doing anything about them. And after plenty of marathon debates with my friends the Just, I can only say that a pound of condemnation ultimately weighs less than an ounce of affirmation.
Last Best Hope’s insights and assessments of the Covid-ravaged, bitterly partisan, media-saturated landscape are bolstered by the novelistic example of forgotten figures in American history. Journalist Horace Greeley, activist-turned-stateswoman Frances Perkins, and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin are all examples of putting ideas into action: “[T]hey show us ways of being American that we’ve forgotten—that can fortify and instruct us in our own crisis.”
Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when people like Perkins, the first woman ever to serve in any presidential cabinet, fought vigilantly to end child labor and for a sixty-hour work week. Today we like to lament that we have it hard, but Greeley’s anguished reckoning with the Civil War and the consistent harassment of poor Rustin, which harmed his brilliant record of activism, demonstrate what happens when the ideological rubber meets the road.
It’s always easier to criticize than to offer alternatives, so it’s a gutsy choice for Packer to include specific policy proposals. Packer offers a new political narrative: “Equal” America. Americans mistake social equality for the real thing, which is economic and institutional. Packer encourages us to strengthen the media, education, and labor through deeper and wider civic participation and more financial autonomy.
Eventually political reform must ultimately address how and why institutions function, and on whose behalf. We Americans don’t trust institutions by nature, and there has been a concerted effort from the right to make them seem farther removed from our daily life. It doesn’t need to be this way. Hopefully we’re not so infatuated with the constant melodrama to ignore a careful, nuanced, literate book that challenges every side’s tacit assumptions, which would make Packer less the heir to Whitman or Tocqueville than to Cassandra.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.
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