According to New Yorker writer George Packer, there used to be a kind of deal among Americans — a deal in which everyone had a place.
“People were more constrained than they are today, they had less freedom,” he says, “but they had more security and there was a sense in which each generation felt that the next generation would be able to improve itself, to do better.”
But over the last generation, that deal has come undone. As Packer explains it, “many Americans feel that they’re all alone, that no one is going to help them and that, in a way, there’s a kind of unfairness at play in our society where elites seem to do better and better and ordinary people who might have once even thought of themselves as middle class, struggle more and more. That’s what’s unwound in my adult lifetime.”
And that’s what Packer explores in his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. It’s filled with vignettes and profiles of famous and ordinary American lives. He joins NPR’s Rachel Martin to discuss the book’s characters and how he first became aware of the unwinding trend.
On Tammy Thomas’ story
“Tammy was born, raised and still lives in Youngstown, Ohio. She’s African-American. She grew up during a time when Youngstown was a steel town and it was a union town, but around the time she was a teenager the steel mills just collapsed one after another in rapid succession and Youngstown collapsed with them so quickly that it became a kind of icon of de-industrialization. And I spent a lot of time with Tammy driving around the city, looking at the landmarks of her life and hearing her story, which was an incredible story of a woman who — her mother was a heroin addict, she was not close to her father, she had three children without their fathers really being in their lives. But she got a job in an auto parts factory and that allowed her to raise the kids and to hold herself and them together amid an absolutely disastrous situation in Youngstown.
“And then, around the time of the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, having lost her job because the auto parts factory went bankrupt, she remade herself as a community organizer and that’s what she’s doing now. She has not given up on Youngstown and I think even though these institutions are collapsing and people do feel they’re on their own, the individuals in the book … there’s a resilience and even an optimism that’s kind of remarkable given what’s going on around them.”
On Dean Price’s story
“I’ve never been anywhere that felt so old and so traditionally American as the Carolina Piedmont, which is the region that Dean comes from. It’s tobacco country; there used to be textiles and furniture-making. And then tobacco, as we know, fell with the ‘90s and the investigations and the tobacco buyout and it kind of laid waste to what had been a very intact middle class and working class part of the country. Dean Price is a son of that region. His father was a Bible Belt preacher; his whole family had been tobacco farmers since the 18th century; they all live within about 10 miles of each other in Rockingham County, N.C.
“And again, around the time of the financial crisis, Dean, who had this truck stop business, watched his business fail — so he turned to biofuels. And he has this whole vision, which I think is a very American vision, of resurgence, a kind of renaissance of the countryside through alternative energy. But he’s doing it on his own. No one is telling him to; there’s no organization he’s part of; there’s no union or business trade association or newspaper that he’s connected [to]. He’s a loner out there; he’s a Johnny Appleseed spreading biodiesel across the countryside.”
On how American communities are suffering
“As Dean said to me while we were walking around Madison, N.C., the town that he grew up in, the shoe store was closed down, the pharmacy was shuttered, the restaurants were closed, there were just a couple people on the sidewalk — you see this in little towns all across the heartland. He said the guys who used to own those stores were the pillars of this community — they coached the little league teams, they were on the town council. They’re gone and communities can’t suffer that way without great consequences.”
On how he started to hone in on the unwinding trend
“I think it began with the Iraq War. I covered Iraq for The New Yorker, I wrote a book about it, and I’d begun by seeing that war as a failure of individual leaders, but over time I saw that whole institutions were failing. The military at the beginning of the war failed; intelligence, the media failed. And then the financial crisis made it seem as if there was something epical going on. And that’s when I began to think, ‘How would I write about a country that is watching its core institutions collapse?’ I wanted to do it as a narrative; I wanted to pull together stories of Americans whose lives have kind of moved to the pulse of this recent history. And so I went about the country trying to find people whose stories fit into that larger narrative.”
On whether the unwinding trend is cyclical
“In some ways it is cyclical. I think we’ve been through it many times before when ideas about how democracy should work ran into the reality of how it did work. It happened right after the founding of the country when the first generation of founders died out and what replaced them were these fractious, squabbling, rather noisy factions. The Civil War was a gigantic example of the country being unable to solve its problems democratically. The Great Depression, which created the structures — many of them — that I’ve been talking about, was another one. So I don’t want to say this is it, you know, we’ll never come back from this. We’ve come back before; we often come back stronger.
“What I see happening is not just cyclical, though, it feels like a real cultural shift where the value of the community, of what makes this a coherent society, has really been submerged. And it’s not all dark — we’ve been talking as if it’s a completely dismal picture, but what isn’t dark is the energy and the vitality and the humor and the dreams as well as the screw-ups and the setbacks of the characters in the book. When I stop thinking about the big picture and institutions and leaders, and I think about these people who I got to know so well, they still give me hope.”