A version of this story ran in the June 2013 issue.
Above: The Unwinding: An Inner History of
the New America by George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In his new nonfiction opus The Unwinding, author and New Yorker staff writer George Packer ties together the various strands of American decline in a way that no contemporary novelist has managed. The Unwinding is an apt title, since the book unfolds at a measured pace and with great attention to the connections between apparently unrelated occurrences: deindustrialization in the Midwest is bound to Wall Street shenanigans; an energy sector too beholden to the past meets an information technology sector just as delusional about the future.
Thus does Packer paint a picture of the competing push-and-pull forces that cause the imbalances and inequalities to which we’re becoming accustomed. The Unwinding’s compelling virtue is that it refrains from the didacticism of recent books on American decline (by Morris Berman, Chris Hedges, Matt Taibbi, Chalmers Johnson, James Howard Kunstler, et al.) and adopts instead a novelist’s open-mindedness toward ideologies in contest. Packer is skeptical enough about his own liberal political tradition to give us entrée into the emotional lives of his four main subjects and their conflicting convictions.
And what a cast of idiosyncratic characters Packer follows through years of disappointment and success. There’s Dean Price, descendant of North Carolina farmers and believer in Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy of positive thinking, who comes around to the idea of sustainable energy prompted in part by worries about “peak oil.” His Red Birch Energy becomes a pioneer in producing biofuels from local waste products and holds great promise, especially as the price of oil rises—but Price can’t catch a financial or political break. There’s always some vicious fossil-fuel competitor trying to push him out of business, and the government—despite Obama’s promise to emphasize green energy, and visionary Virginia congressman Tom Perriello’s determined support—seems always behind the curve. Dean is left with shattered dreams, unable to scale his big idea to profitability, and we’re left to wonder if perhaps optimism itself is a sickness.
Another of Packer’s entrepreneurs—with considerably more success to his credit—is Peter Thiel, born to German immigrants in Palo Alto, California, and embodying that region’s geekiness, at times useful (as with his roles in PayPal and Facebook), at times kooky (as with his funding of life-extension projects). Thiel starts off as an Ayn Rand acolyte at Stanford, and while Packer is hardly a sympathizer, he gives Thiel’s evolving libertarianism a respectful hearing.
In fact, Packer never resorts to easy demonization—even of figures like Alan Greenspan, Dick Cheney, or the head of Goldman Sachs—to explain American decline. If Packer’s protagonists share no particular ideology, they do hold in common that things don’t seem to work in America anymore. And his unwinding is more than a temporary “malaise”—to use President Carter’s infamous 1979 phrase. The booming 1980s and 1990s, in Packer’s view, were likely just temporary reprieves from a decline that began in the 1970s and has reasserted itself in the 21st century.
This part of the story is brought out most trenchantly in Packer’s sustained profile of Tammy Thomas, an African-American resident of Youngstown, Ohio, descended from slaves, whose town, like so many in the Rust Belt, has been devastated by the erosion of traditional manufacturing—steel, in Youngstown’s case. Thomas’ grandmother, who raised her, worked as a maid for one of the town’s elite families, owners of a mill, and Thomas witnesses, within her lifetime, that family’s unraveling. With the mill’s closure, the widowed matriarch is left with only Thomas’ grandmother at her side. Thomas’ childhood memories of time spent in the family’s doomed mansion add a human dimension to the class schism in which she grew up.
Thomas’ subsequent road to success is rocky, but with help she gets there. Despite having a child at age 15, she becomes the first in her family to pursue higher education. After years on the assembly line at Packard Electric, she finds her true vocation as a community organizer. She turns out to have great leadership skills, and fosters the skills of others. Through her story, and the story of Youngstown’s collapsing housing market and industrial economy, Packer creates a portrait of a once-vibrant city succumbing to international dynamics well beyond the frame of individual responsibility.
Finally, there’s Jeff Connaughton, a bright Alabama native who becomes an admirer of Joe Biden when the articulate young senator visits Connaughton’s university advocating an arms treaty, and who sticks close to Biden as a staffer through three decades of Washington ups and downs. Connaughton later becomes a successful lobbyist, though whenever he can—once for Clinton, once for Obama—he returns to public service pushing financial-service reform, his particular bailiwick. Ted Kaufman, who replaced Biden when he assumed the vice presidency, tries hard to give financial regulation teeth after the economic collapse of 2008, but fails, bringing a disappointing end to Connaughton’s lifetime of political ambition.
Packer’s is a sprawling story, cutting across vast differentials of region and class. He unifies his disparate strands by borrowing John Dos Passos’ collage technique—called “Newsreel” in the latter’s U.S.A. trilogy—of inserting news headlines and song lyrics into the narrative flow. Capsule biographies of celebrities Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and Alice Waters (an early proponent of the health-food movement in California) similarly add cohesion.
These longer biographies reveal the distance between the lives of celebrities and ordinary citizens and undermine the value liberalism places in rags-to-riches stories. Nothing makes this clearer than Packer’s tracking of the continuing reverberations of Walmart’s ascendancy, responsible—along with deindustrialization—for emptying America’s main streets and eviscerating its middle class, the foundation of a functioning democracy.
But illustrative ground zero for the destabilizing forces of two generations is Tampa, Florida, Packer’s case study in corruption. Developers connive with local government—both aided by Wall Street sharks eager to securitize lousy mortgages in pursuit of outsized profits—to bring middle-class investors to their knees. This tale has been oft-told, but Packer’s skill in deploying novelistic depth of characterization makes the connections between high and low—normally segregated classes—all too apparent.
Along the way, Packer’s liberal convictions run up against paradox: If America buys into global connectedness, what can be done when industry moves abroad? Can we support economies of scale and still honor and enable the petite bourgeoisie? Can we maintain individualism without succumbing to tea party zealotry?
There is a larger conceptual paradox still. Once the institutional forces of the global political economy are in play, what room is left for individual initiative? Liberalism reinforces faith in entrepreneurship and activism, while Marxism sees science and technology—and in turn the economy—as drivers of social change. Packer, who explored the liberal faith of his ancestors in Blood of the Liberals, is caught on the horns of this dilemma.
A lot of well-meaning, even noble, characters in The Unwinding feel betrayed by selfish elites who wear the resplendent cloak of liberalism, yet Packer is too jaded to issue calls for public-spiritedness, or cries to save the decaying commons. He also seems to realize that his identification of the sources of American misery isn’t likely to break through the clutter of information saturation. Even the Occupy movement, prompted by spectacle, fizzled, as Packer relates in the moving story of young Brooklyn activist Neelini Stamp’s disillusionment.
It may well be that liberalism has run out of ideas. In the context of Packer’s open-ended curiosity, that may not be the worst fate in the world.