Stuck in the Middle: George Packer and Liberal FaithHistorians in the News
tags: book reviews, liberalism
Nikhil Pal Singh is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history and the director of the Prison Education Program at New York University.
LAST BEST HOPE: AMERICA IN CRISIS AND RENEWAL By George Packer
George Packer is one of the most successful long-form journalists of his generation. For more than two decades, he has been among this country’s leading liberal commentators. Offering a political and often personal chronicle of the vicissitudes of American liberalism over the past century, he has sought at once to reclaim and repurpose a political tradition he knows is in crisis.
With each book, the task has gotten harder for him. In an early treatise, Blood of Liberals (2001), Packer reckoned with a New Deal and Great Society liberalism that had been assailed from the right and abandoned by the Democratic Party. Taking an inventory of this liberalism’s decline through the life of his maternal grandfather and namesake, Alabama Congressman George Huddleston, an agrarian populist who opposed the New Deal during the 1930s, he then followed the life of his father, Herbert, a law professor and academic administrator at Stanford who committed suicide after suffering a stroke at the height of the New Left campus protests in the late 1960s. Joining the ranks of liberals pressing for the revival of a hawkish foreign policy in the early 2000s, Packer supported the post-9/11 wars, only to see them lead to an era of futile and seemingly endless military conflict overseas. Writing dispatches for The New Yorker tracking the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, he published Assassins’ Gate in 2005, recording his disillusionment with the Iraq War, which he believed had squandered an otherwise noble purpose. Soon Packer’s liberalism was in for another challenge: the Great Recession of 2008. His next book, The Unwinding (2013), confronted the collapse of middle-class prosperity at home and the role that Democrats, as well as Republicans, had played in its demise.
Across a formidable body of work, Packer has maintained his belief in a liberalism capable of perfecting itself and in the United States’ exceptional role as the agent of this perfection. “The real question,” he wrote in The Fight Is for Democracy, a collection of essays by writers stressing the importance of liberalism and human rights in the Global War on Terror, “is not whether America is an empire, but what to do with the power we have.” The surest guide to action is not to reject liberalism, he argued, but to embrace the most “vibrant, hardheaded” version of it—the kind of assured liberalism that characterized those midcentury elites who had fought and won the Cold War. Despite the abominations of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the declining life chances of Americans of modest means, and a war in Afghanistan that (until recently) dragged on to no apparent purpose, Packer held firm to this vision of an aggressive liberalism capable of transforming the United States and the world together.
Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope, returns to this theme of liberalism in crisis and in need of renewal. Joining those who have worried that liberalism finally reached a breaking point in the time of Trump, he still insists that his strain of liberal internationalism abroad and liberal pragmatism at home is the only thing standing in the way of the excesses of an authoritarian right and an unhinged, utopian left. While this is not a new subject for Packer, the tone and tenor of his latest book is decidedly insular. At times he does not seem wholly convinced by his own increasingly abstract pronouncements. Never fully answering the question of how we arrived at our current predicament, Packer does not explain how a revitalized liberalism can get us out of it. The search for causes and policy remedies remains secondary to the reassertion of ideological precepts: above all else, that liberalism and America in general remain our era’s last best hope.