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Book Review: Our last best hope for America

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George Packer, a staff writer for The Atlantic and award-winning author of several non-fiction books, is one of the most penetrating, persuasive, and important writers in the United States. He is consistently fair-minded, skeptical, and willing to challenge political orthodoxy and conventional wisdom. He wrote a remarkable book about the Iraq War, a probing biography of Richard Holbrooke, and a stunning account of the economic and social unraveling of America’s middle class.

Packer has written an important new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, which seeks to explain America’s current political crisis, posits how we arrived at this moment, and outlines a path to restoring national cohesion.

However, he says, it will not be easy. The road ahead is daunting and the consequences of failure are frightening to contemplate. Packer argues that the United States now faces a political crisis similar to what it faced on the eve of the Civil War in 1861, during the teeth of the Great Depression in 1933, and when turmoil and riots rocked the United States in 1968. “Something has gone wrong with the last best hope of earth. Americans know it—the whole world knows it… Only a few times in history have we been forced to doubt the survival of self-government. It takes a very large shock to alert us that the engine room has gone silent. A shock on the scale of 2020,” he writes.

Packer argues that last year, American leaders failed and key institutions buckled, and barely survived. “The year 2020 saw the most flagrant attempt to subvert democracy since Fort Sumter,” he writes. “It began with attempted blackmail and ended with attempted sedition. Between them was everything else.”

When the coronavirus surged across the United States in the early spring of 2020, it found a fragile, teetering nation. “Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition we are in the high-risk category,” said Packer.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, seeks to explain America’s current political crisis, posits how we arrived at this moment, and outlines a path to restoring national cohesion.

Packer assails former President Donald Trump for cynicism, dishonesty, duplicity, insensitivity, and sheer incompetence. However, he adds that others also deserve blame, “The country’s political class responded to the crisis incoherently, and in some cases, treacherously. The behavior of leaders charged with the general welfare was so destructive that it revealed more than ordinary incompetence. The pressure of the pandemic showed how little was left of public service and national unity even as ideals. In their place grew malignancy.”

Packer believes that the United States has fractured into two countries, and he further divides Red America and Blue America into two factions, leaving us with essentially four countries.

On the right side of the political spectrum, there is Free America and Real America.

Free America is the most politically powerful of the four. It draws on libertarian traditions, focuses on free markets, and has little sense of civic or communal life. “It’s personal freedom without other people,” he writes, adding it sees Americans as “entrepreneurs, employees, investors, taxpayers, and consumers—everything but citizens.”

Real America is embodied by former Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. “In her proud ignorance, unrestrained narcissism, and contempt for the ‘establishment,’ she was the John the Baptist to the coming of Trump,” he writes. Real America is rooted in the idea that the heart of our democracy is the common people who work with their hands. “Real America has always been a country of white people,” he writes, adding that its narrative is that of white Christian nationalism.

On the left, there is Smart America and Just America.

Smart America is comprised of established and secure professionals—consultants, journalists, lawyers, and people in higher education, media, finance, and medicine, who believe in globalization and meritocracy. “Their manners are softer than those of their ancestors, but they are fiercely driven… They believe in credentials and expertise and are convinced that if people struggle it is their own fault,” he writes.   

For Just America, the United States is “less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled… In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value—it can never be made better.” Just America sees American society not as fluid and adaptable but rather as a fixed hierarchy, like a caste system. From this perspective, American history is the chronicle of white supremacy. “Just America is about race. Everything else is adjunct,” Packer writes.

The 2020 election temporarily consolidated the narratives on each side of the divide—Free America and Real America voted for Donald Trump, while Smart America and Just America voted for Joe Biden. Consequently, we have two countries. “One country believes we narrowly averted the overthrow of democracy, and the other believes we saw its brazen perversion in a massive fraud. Each views the other as an existential enemy with whom compromise would be betrayal,” he writes. “The divide far exceeds any policy disputes over immigration or policing. Political differences are conflicts of core identity, and the mutual antagonism has the quality of hatred that precedes sectarian war. After the election, it was easy to draw comparisons with the year 1860.”

Rising inequality, according to Packer, is the paramount force destabilizing the United States, “At the heart of our divisions is almost half a century of rising inequality and declining social mobility… We have a stratified society in which not just wealth is unequal but also status, like a hereditary aristocracy in which some people are considered superior to others. We don’t look each other in the face as fellow citizens.”

Packer argues that equality is the unspoken feeling that everyone shares; it is the desire to be everyone’s equal, which is not the same as the desire for everyone to be equal. “If I were to put it into a single sentence, I would say: ‘Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy,’” he writes.

Packer argues the United States must recreate conditions of equality and re-acquire the art of self-government.

He says that it is necessary that the public view the government as a champion for all Americans and a provider of tangible benefits. Packer advocates for fixing the frayed “safety net” with universal health care, childcare, paid family and sick leave, stronger workplace safety protections, unemployment insurance, and a substantially higher minimum wage. He urges sizable government investments in clean energy, manufacturing, education, and caregiving. He supports new institutions to protect workers and urges a revived antitrust movement to break up monopolies. This would increase innovation, decentralize power, revitalize depressed regions, free workers, and energize small businesses.

Reviving the art of self-government will require Americans to find ways to come together. We have become very good at protesting, Packer observes, but much less successful at cooperating and building, “Our idea of activism has come down to the act of protest… We need an activism of cohesion. We need an activism that doesn’t separate Americans into like-minded factions, but brings Americans together across tribal lines.”

He urges a new federal law to prevent state legislators from raising barriers to voting and supports making voting mandatory, such as jury duty. He argues that a major challenge is finding ways to encourage Americans to spend time with other Americans who do not talk or think like them. He advocates a year of national service to help accomplish this.

Packer believes the near-death experience of 2020 has made it clear to most Americans that the status quo is neither acceptable nor sustainable, “Most of us still want our democracy. This is one lesson from the nightmare we’ve been through. We have learned how fragile it is—how many things that always seemed engraved in monumental stone or written on parchment on permanent ink turn out to depend on flimsy traditions and disposable norms, and how much these depend on public opinion. One unfit ruler at the head of a craven party and a nihilistic rebellion by a part of the people nearly destroyed self-government, doing it great harm. Our institutions sustained a tremendous shock, but they survived.” 

Packer’s depiction of the Four Americas is evocative and persuasive. I agree that we need an economy that works better for middle and low income Americans, and that government at all levels must become competent. Clearly, we need to become better citizens and national service is an important tool for national cohesion. I wish Packer had developed this idea more fully. I also wish he explained how his ambitious social and economic agenda, which seems laudable, would be paid for. Tax reform alone will not be enough to generate the requisite revenues.

Packer does not place much hope that we can expect—or even should hope for—inspired political leadership to help reunite this nation. However, I have not given up on the idea that strong, respected, and visionary leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Dwight Eisenhower could bring us together—and forge one country again.