Four years after Obama took office, George Packer sees little hope for the liberal project. Why is he—along with many, many others—so depressed?
George Packer’s brutal and riveting new book, The Unwinding, was supposed to have a happier ending. Passionately and meticulously reported during the Great Recession and the rise of Barack Obama, Packer’s work awaited a “Rooseveltian moment,” one of those “big bangs” of history when an epochal economic crisis meets a leader and a movement that have emerged to solve it. For all the positive accomplishments of the Obama presidency, that moment never arrived—or at least hasn’t yet. And so Packer and his subjects and his readers are stranded in history, trying to make sense of the unraveling of the American economy, maybe the whole damn American experiment.
I’ve struggled with how to describe a book that I think people should read in terms that don’t make it sound like a grim slog. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner (who loved it) compared it to “a three-day flu.” I’d say the flu lasts longer than that. It’s like reliving the last 30 years of political history but really paying attention this time, and knowing how the story ends for most of us, at least for now: badly.
In a book that stubbornly resists prescription, and maybe even argument, this widely quoted passage from the prologue has to suffice:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Packer keeps himself out of The Unwinding, but he was born in 1960 himself, and graduated from high school in 1978, which is where he places the beginning of “the unwinding,” and where he starts the book. (This is roughly my own timeline, which is why the book was sometimes painful to read.) It opens with what becomes a recurring device throughout the book: a pastiche of headlines and pop culture detritus from that year, from the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” to a sentence from a Jimmy Carter speech about inflation to an ad for Vantage cigarettes to a headline about Jonestown. You know from the beginning you’re going to wander through some depressing precincts.
If you require such wandering to lead you from despair to hope and a renewed sense of political direction, this is not the book for you. The Unwinding has its heroes, but their heroism lies in perseverance, not achievement. A committed liberal optimist (like myself) may come away from it with his or her optimism unwound. But spending time facing how feebly we’ve met the challenges of the last 30 years and how much harder life is for so many people despite our political exertions can be restorative, too. Sometimes it’s bracing to admit: Yes, things are as bad as they seem. Sometimes we have to hit bottom. We can only hope that what The Unwinding depicts is the country’s bottom.
An inspiring and sometimes inscrutable work of memory and witness, The Unwinding tells its story through the experiences of five main characters: Dean Price, a Reagan Republican turned Obama supporter with a “Think and Grow Rich” optimism and a passion for alternative energy; Tammy Thomas, an African-American factory worker who sees one job after another disappear as her city, Youngstown, Ohio, slips under the waves of deindustrialization; Jeff Connaughton, a career lawyer/politico who early in his career attaches himself to a young pol named Joe Biden and goes almost everywhere Biden goes, but with a growing sense of futility; a character whose chapters are named “Silicon Valley” but who is actually Peter Thiel, the libertarian co-founder of PayPal; and finally, an actual city, Tampa, Florida, whose chapters deserve a whole book in themselves.
Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, tells their stories (even Thiel’s) with patience and empathy, and they’re so very distinct you’re never at risk of getting them confused, even if you wonder what they’re all doing in the same book.
The Unwinding makes you feel, almost physically, the downward spiral of wages in the lives of Tammy Thomas and her family and Youngstown neighbors, and the horrifying and inexorable momentum of the foreclosure courts in Tampa. (Packer’s portrait of Tampa and the reporter who documented the scandal there may well be the best part of the book.) The writing is almost uniformly vivid, beautiful, and bleak. Here’s how he describes Dean Price, whose North Carolina gas station and restaurant are being ground down by big chains, musing about what’s happening to his business and his country:
Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.
Feeling fluish yet?
The Unwinding has almost everywhere been compared to John Dos Passos’s famous U.S.A. trilogy—a comparison encouraged by Packer, who openly cites Dos Passos as his model. But it might be more usefully compared to his 2000 memoir, Blood of the Liberals. It sometimes reads as a sequel.
Blood of the Liberals told a three-generational tale of Packer’s remarkable family: on his mother’s side, Southerners and former slaveholders whose story is carried along by Packer’s grandfather, George Huddleston, a Democratic congressman from Birmingham who turned on Roosevelt and the New Deal; on the other side, middle-class Jews, strivers who rose to be elites, most notably his father, Herbert Packer, a rare New Haven Jewish kid who made it to Yale.
The liberal Herbert eventually became a Stanford University dean in the 1960s—just in time for the New Left to decide that liberals were the real enemy, more loathsome than even conservatives. Ironically, the excesses of the student protests—the fringe of violence as well as the much more mainstream narcissism—helped unravel the world that made them possible. Those student radicals don’t show up in The Unwinding, but they played a role in our coming unwound. They may have also played a role in Herbert Packer’s disabling stroke, which came after years of ugly campus battles.
Packer told that earlier story with palpable anger and grief, inspired at least partly by his father’s suffering. Those same emotions also power his new book, though it lacks the memoir’s animating narrative and strong (if even then waning) faith. Searching for his own way to be an idealistic reformer after the collapse of official liberalism in the 1980s, Packer joined the Peace Corps, and then for seven years worked for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He put out the DSA newsletter in a little office in Boston, folding and labeling with a crew of volunteers, supervising moves from building to building, carrying boxes full of Xeroxed position papers on the Reagan tax cuts and the Panama Canal treaty, one day laughing as he realized that “the failure of socialism was killing my back.”
Still, he was waiting for one of those rare but reliable times when the liberal impulse reasserts itself: “not much more than once a century—it suddenly reappears, and our slackness produces a wave of self-disgust, and we hurl ourselves into reform.” That’s what was supposed to happen in the Obama Administration, and it didn’t, or at least it didn’t to the extent required.
Back when Packer wrote Blood of the Liberals, he retained a flicker of optimism. But today—after two wars, a financial crisis, and a supposedly transformational Democratic President—his vision is far bleaker. The animating idea of liberalism’s revival is gone. Yet he still falls for the strivers tilting at windmills: Price, the entrepreneur trying to bring jobs to the Piedmont; Thomas, the factory worker turned community organizer who won’t let Youngstown die; Connaughton, the lifelong political staffer who gets his one big chance to make a difference on breaking up big banks (and fails).
The one person that gets a lot of space who’s conventionally successful, wildly so, is Thiel, the lonely libertarian. He funds projects to cure aging (yet drives without a seatbelt) and declares “capitalist democracy” to be an “oxymoron.” But even though his stated goal is preserving capitalism, not democracy, he also understands that the American opportunity society has collapsed. He sees debt-bound college graduates as “the last indentured workers in the developed world, unable to get free even through bankruptcy.” After he’s hosted a salon of tech moguls railing against higher education, Thiel closes the door to his bedroom “to answer email alone.” It’s the last time we see him. Given that the final remnants of Packer’s faith lie in community and connection, Thiel emerges as one of the saddest characters in the book. (Since he contributed financially and otherwise to the rise of the awful, red-baiting Ted Cruz, Thiel is not a person I’m normally inclined to care much about. That’s the power of Packer’s prose.)
If there’s one of Packer’s five “characters” that deserves more attention than given, it’s the city of Tampa, which he chronicles through the rise and spectacular bust of the housing boom. This is when the book hums, because you know who the villains are, and the heroes too. (He loves Senator Elizabeth Warren.) It’s a city that was deliberately suburbanized by developers and bankers, built out farther and farther, reliant on increasingly shady lending practices—until it all fell apart, crushing not the bankers and developers and politicians, but thousands of ordinary people.
Packer takes us to a foreclosure court that is in fact more a foreclosure factory, where we meet members of “the formerly middle class”—the heroes of this book—as well as lawyers and activists fighting to keep struggling homeowners in their homes while an indifferent justice system just keeps kicking them out, with most judges doing little more than rubber stamping the banks’ requests. “I spend more time at the McDonald’s drive-through window than people who were losing their homes got” in court, says one foreclosure victim turned activist. Mike Van Sickler, a St. Petersburg Times reporter who covered the greed and fraud that led to the boom, gets assigned to another beat in 2010; the housing bust was no longer a story, even though the villains were never punished. Banks are made whole. Consumers are not. Empty neighborhoods of foreclosed homes begin to fill up again with anxious renters.
And then there are Tampa residents who could barely afford to rent, like Danny and Ronale Hartzell, a couple who worked hard and played by the rules, albeit with some mistakes along the way, but just can’t make it. We watch them fall out of the working class and into desperate poverty, tumbling in an ever steeper trajectory once their daughter is diagnosed with bone cancer. They lose job after job and home after home, all while fiercely loving each other and refusing to be unwound as a family. The Hartzells do everything Charles Murray, moral scold of the American poor, says they should to keep their family intact and out of poverty: get married, treasure their children, and take low-paid work to support themselves. In a recent interview, Packer revealed they are now homeless.
Reviewing the book in the Times, David Brooks praised Packer’s work, but complained that it lacked Dos Passos’s animating political passion—the U.S.A. trilogy is a story told in service to a vision of a better Marxist future (though Dos Passos had actually started moving away from the left by the time the trilogy reached its end six years after he started it). Sadly, Brooks also thought we should be debating whether the Hartzells’ occasional bad choices are more to blame for their poverty than the economy. But Brooks was right about one thing: No driving argument for a political ideology and no apparent faith in a brighter future under a better political establishment vivifies The Unwinding. And that’s the reader’s loss. Or at least it was mine.
I hate to say a writer has tried to do too much when most of us fail by attempting too little. But in his effort to encompass the entirety of our experience, Packer lets his ambition get the best of him. His inclusion of famous people—not in the narrative, but interspersed throughout in short, discrete chapters—was ultimately distracting. The device appears to be Packer’s attempt to spotlight people who have a genius for the self-propulsion and self-promotion that, for good or ill, is over-rewarded these days. It’s notable that he seems to feel a little more disappointment, even disdain, toward successful characters on the liberal side, like Alice Waters, Oprah, and Jay-Z, than for, say, Newt Gingrich, who comes off slightly more sympathetically.
One of those liberals hovers on the book’s margins: Barack Obama, who seems to disappoint Packer so much that he doesn’t even merit his own chapter. Obama wanders through The Unwinding like a ghost or a rumor or maybe Zelig: Here he is meeting Dean Price as he announces stimulus spending on renewable energy in Virginia. Price later told Packer that “it was the softest of any man he’d ever shaken hands with,” and “it told him that Obama had never done a lick of physical work in his life.” The 2012 election barely registers in the book, because it clearly strikes Packer as missing the point: No one in that campaign talked about the extent of the country’s unraveling or sorrow.
“President Obama probably believed that there wasn’t much to be done about decline except manage it,” he writes, “but he couldn’t give another ‘malaise’ speech (after what happened to Jimmy Carter, no one ever would again), so his picture of the future remained strangely empty.” Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney in 2012 “was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again.”
The Unwinding offers a provocative contrast to the rah-rah tone of Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal, which depicts Obama’s 2009 stimulus as being roughly as momentous as FDR’s transformative accomplishments, especially for its green-energy investments. As with so many of President Clinton’s achievements, Obama’s accomplishments with both the stimulus bill and health-care reform relied, to some extent, on stealth, which is why Grunwald’s book was able to “uncover” them and compare them to FDR’s triumphs. Neither Democratic President believed he could come out and boldly declare his intent (and therefore his ultimate success) to use government to create opportunity and redirect the economy. But The New New Deal is probably a necessary corrective to Packer’s dire pessimism. For all its inadequacy, the stimulus bill prevented a second Great Depression, and health-care reform should, over time, make life easier for families like the Hartzells (if Republican governors don’t manage to nullify it by obstruction).
Regardless, in this book—and even more clearly in his New Yorker articles at the time—Packer argues that Obama had an opportunity to do something bold about the economy, particularly reining in the ever-growing power of the financial sector, and he either whiffed or didn’t try. “I hope this is going to be a Rooseveltian moment, when the president stepped up and took the action that was needed,” Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer told The Wall Street Journal during the 2009 debate over the stimulus, and she might have been speaking for Packer. Romer added, “I think it will be.” It was not. In interviews, Packer has filled in some of the analysis and judgment that’s missing in the book. He told Salon:
I’m angry at what’s happened to our country and what it’s done to a lot of Americans. I’m angry at the elites who have proved so self-interested and short-sighted that time and again they’ve led us to disaster. To some extent the elites in the book are constantly building their own empires at the expense of an idea of community…. What will be the mechanisms of self-correction? I thought 2008 was it. The total collapse of our financial system and the election of our first black president. Those two things happening simultaneously were going to be a big historical turn along the lines of Roosevelt and Reagan getting elected. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to make that case today, for a lot of reasons. So I don’t have the answer that I think you might be looking for.
I reviewed two great books by liberals in the last two years—Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality—that were being completed as Occupy Wall Street seemed to be making a difference. They’re disturbing books that nonetheless end with a little optimism. Packer has chosen not to be among them. The Occupy vignette in The Unwinding displays his affection for activism, even a trace of hope, but the furious anti-politics of the movement’s anti-leaders doomed it to the margins of relevance. That movement popularized some important terminology about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but it left the power relations that created that crushing inequity standing, unscathed. You can tell that Packer, the aging activist and optimist, regrets Occupy’s defaulting on the political change it once promised—although he regrets, and resents, Obama’s defaulting on change much more.
And yet I felt my own sense of regret, if not quite resentment, that Packer refused to make a more coherent argument with this book. What’s going on here, George? What are we supposed to do now? You’re the guy who carried boxes of outdated DSA position papers up and down stairs in Boston. Surely you can carry the torch for the social justice movement a little longer?
But he can’t force what he doesn’t feel, and he’s a reporter, not a fabulist. If Packer doesn’t know what the future will be like, he does a haunting, maybe unrivaled job telling us about the grim present, and it will stay with you. In the end, his resignation about the future is almost as disturbing as the present he’s so chillingly chronicled.
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