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Jim Cullen: Review of George Packer's "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media, will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

Though probably unfair, my graduate school recollection of the three books comprising the John Dos USA trilogy of novels -- The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) -- is that of a better idea than reality. The sheer sprawl of the work, a veritable scrapbook of experimental prose that sought to encompass a broad swath of American experience, was impressive in ambition, but a bit tedious in execution. In terms of scale, at least, George Packer's The Unwinding is a more modest enterprise. It's also a piece of reporting rather than fact-based fiction. But the effect of such relative trimmed sails is a tighter, if more melancholy, book. And one at least as resonant in capturing its historical moment.

Coming in at over 400 hefty pages, The Unwinding offers a granular, empirical confirmation, at the level of lived experience, of what many of us experience as the defining perception of our time. And that is that we are moving backward, that the hard-won gains of the welfare state -- a story whose lineaments Richard Hofstadter sketched in The Age of Reform (1955) and whose trajectory extended into the Great Society -- are unraveling at an accelerating rate. This unspooling, or unwinding, became discernible during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and its effects have been shaping the lives of an ever-greater proportion of Americans. For the few (i.e. those at the top), this has been an experience of liberation; for the many, it amounts to a dismantling of the American Dream among people reluctant to relinquish their loyalty to a myth that is ossifying into a lie.

Like Dos Passos, Packer's signal strategy is biographical. He gives us a kaleidoscopic array of characters centering on a three not-quite undistinguished Americans: North Carolinian Dean Price, a southern entrepreneur pursuing the promise of biodiesel fuels; Tammy Thomas, an Ohio factory worker turned community organizer; and Jeff Connaughton, a Washington DC political operative who struggles to maintain his optimism amid his growing disillusionment with American government (and, in particular, his disillusionment with his one-time hero, Joe Biden). These three portraits are augmented by others, among them Michael Van Sickler, a Tampa-based journalist with a front-row seat for the real estate crash of the last five years, and the Hartzells, also based in Tampa, a family perpetually poised on the brink of poverty-induced disaster. 

These primary-source sketches are mixed with ten other, secondary source ones of famous Americans, among them Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, and Sam Walton, each of whom embody different aspects of our zeitgeist. These pieces are short, self-contained, and written with an edge that seeks to puncture the prerogatives of self-presentation that are the particular province of our celebrity aristocracy. "They had the things she didn't -- children, debts, spare time," Packer writes of Oprah's audience. "They consumed the products she advertised but would never buy -- Maybelline, Jenny Craig, Little Caesar's, IKEA." Packer notes that anyone who met Oprah had to sign a non-disclosure agreement signing away the right to talk about it, and notes similar excesses among the much lionized Gingrich (low-hanging fruit, to be sure) and Jay-Z (perhaps less so). His portraits of Raymond Carver and in particular Elizabeth Warren are more charitable; that of Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel attempts to be fair-minded, but the more time you spend in the company of the man the more repellent he becomes, however perspicacious his observations. Packer's compassion -- and he has plenty of it -- is largely reserved for his primary subjects like Tammy Thomas (so deeply admirable in her quiet decency) and Dean Price, who, from the perspective of a bi-coastal liberal seems seriously deluded in his affection for crackpot New Thought disciples like Russell Conway, but who you nevertheless find yourself rooting for.

In a recent review in the New York Times, David Brooks expressed admiration for the quality of Packer's reporting -- he first rose to promise on the strength of his 2005 book on Iraq, The Assassin's Gate -- but lamented the lack of an explicit ideological scaffolding with which to interpret his subjects. Brooks is certainly right that Packer avoids prescription, but such a criticism probably misses the point (indeed, it seems at least as likely that in the event such scaffolding was evident, Brooks and others would complain that Packer was too polemical). Here I'm reminded that Dos Passos, who certainly did wear his politics on his sleeve, moved sharply to the right later in life and became a staunch champion of Richard Nixon. Such an outcome seems less likely for Packer (who himself comes from a storied, and quite politically diverse, family -- see his memoir Blood of the Liberals), if for no other reason that his deep personal engagement in the lives of his subjects, many of whom have a skepticism about politics that often seems misguided to elites but all too often has a sensible foundation rooted in memory and history. One could accuse Packer of fatalism, but as he reports, that's not a perspective that's the sole property of the left -- Thiel seems to arrive at a similar conclusion from a very different direction. But where Thiel's fatalism leads him inward toward a literal quest for immortality, Packer takes his cue from his subjects, all of whom look outward. If this particular unwinding -- Packer begins by suggesting there have been many in American history, though he never really returns to the point -- is final, it really does seem better that we go down together.