The unwinding of the Old America has taken 40 years or so, seemingly stable structures firmly in place by 1960 which produced prosperity and economic justice, along with a fair amount of personal liberty and security for millions of middle-class Americans, now collapsed like pillars of salt — the farms of the Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, trade unions, responsible political parties, and California schools, just to name a few. Most of the intangibles supporting the Old America have vanished as well, taboos against fraud on Wall Street trading desks, ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, the manners and morals and TV shows of the Roosevelt social democracy all exploded, imploded, roiled or withered away amid the disorderly bombast and naked lust of organized money.
George Packer’s brilliant new book is labeled an “inner history” because it takes its inspiration from John Dos Passos’ “USA” trilogy, which chronicled another unwinding, the Great Depression. Each takes place against a landscape without solid structures, where Americans have been dashed against so much freedom it almost hurts, families without support living in the shadow of a huge military base, whole subdivisions thrown up overnight, a venerable industrial city losing its factories and two-thirds of its population in a single decade. Elsewhere churches, business, governments, charities and unions all fall flat like straw huts in a hurricane.
Staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the prize-winning “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq,” Packer conceives America as a dock unmoored from shore where Americans now have to structure their own destinies against a backdrop teeming with burly, loud-mouthed billionaires, shattered households, and busy commercial gods too big to fail. For his exemplars, Packer chooses a deeply devout North Carolina boy with a vision of how his devastated tobacco-country state can be resurrected, an Ohio girl whose life and family fall apart as she struggles to seize a chance to do more than survive, and bright young man who goes to Washington and spends his career trying to understand what drew him there in the first place. Imbedded amid these larger portraits are studies of representative Americans like Sam Walton, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Robert Rubin and rapper Jay-Z, as well as extended, in-depth, essay-like studies of Tampa, Fla., and Silicon Valley.
The Roosevelt Republic was exemplified by General Motors, the AFL-CIO, the National Labor Relations Board, the farm bloc and urban boss, the public school, the research university, the Ford Foundation, the county party, the Rotary Club and the League of Women Voters, the Bureau of Reclamation, the FHA and NATO, the GI Bill and US Army and, of course, CBS News. And the New America? Call it the din of shouting in town halls and on AM radio, cable TV and the Internet with its soft and hard porn, commercials filling the airwaves paid for by the coal and insurance companies and the Koch Brothers, spinelessness on Capitol Hill, on-going depressions everywhere, the gun culture and politicians of both parties tantalized by cash, beholden to only their sugar daddies.
Without preachy didacticism or whining nostalgia, Packer has written a book that is at the same time unnerving, inspiring and devastatingly acute, the kind of far-sighted reporting combined with beautiful writing that brought him prizes for his work about Iraq. The individual portraits in “The Unwinding” are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with the subjects, supplemented by secondary sources including magazine articles, speeches, songs, advertisements, poems, movies, television programs and books. Reading “The Unwinding,” one is brought to the purlieus of journalism from where one can glimpse the realm of real literary art.
Let us remember the bright young man who goes to Washington for public service. At the end, he retires to Savannah in despair. He’ll write a book and call it “The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins.” It will say everything.