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Is America Coming Undone?
Detail from the book jacket of "The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America" by George Packer. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Detail from the book jacket of “The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America” by George Packer. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Earlier this week New Yorker writer George Packer joined us to talk about his new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America.”

Packer talked about the failure of American institutions and of democracy. Here are some of his main points.

How ordinary people’s dreams are no longer supported by American institutions:

What’s happened over the last generation is certain institutions that used to support the aspirations of ordinary people — didn’t guarantee that everybody was going to make it or be the same but supported the dreams of ordinary people and gave them the sense of having a place in the larger society — have begun to corrode and even to collapse. Government, business, banking, the media, schools, all the key institutions that supported middle class life in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, which you could call the Roosevelt Republic, about half a century in which America was truly a middle-class democracy — obviously excluding some groups, many groups: women were second-class citizens during that time, blacks were third-class citizens. But the country had the institutions that could correct themselves. It had the ability to widen the circle of opportunity, and it did. And it began to do that in the 1960s and 1970s.

But simultaneously with that widening of opportunity has come this contraction where the middle class has been hollowed out. And many of the people who might have benefited from the greater exclusiveness have actually seen their fortunes diminish and even drop them to the bottom. This strange parallel phenomenon of greater tolerance, greater openness, greater freedom. Freedom is the bottom line for the era we live in. I’d say what we’ve traded is we’ve gotten more freedom, we’ve given up more security. All you have to do is travel to any small town or old industrial city or rural area around the country and find the cost of that trade and how it’s hurt ordinary people and how they feel they’re alone. Those structures that used to support their dreams are no longer there, and they have to make their own way.

How previous times of upheaval compare to now:

One way to see this is there are these periodic periods of upheaval and of radical change and transformation. The period right after the founding of the country was one such. The Civil War was another. The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression was a third. And in each case, the country found a way to create new structures that continued to make it a democracy that included larger and larger numbers of people in opportunity. We haven’t figured out how to do that.

On eroding taboos and no sense of shame:

This is more a result of what we’ve allowed to happen. Changing laws, changing norms — I focus a lot in the book on how certain taboos eroded. It became thinkable for bankers to create products that they knew were going to blow up in a few years. It became thinkable for corporate leaders to lay off 10 or 20 percent of their workforce and get a gigantic bonus from  the board for doing so. These were things that were not done in that earlier period because it would have violated the sense of there being something tying people together. And once you start breaking those taboos, it’s really hard to reestablish them.

How Obama has failed to leverage the presidency:

The election of Obama coinciding with the financial crisis — which did seem like a kind of end of part of our system as we knew it — signaled to a lot of people, including me, that we’re at one of those transformational moments like 1932 when Roosevelt was elected in the middle of the Depression. Or 1980 when Reagan was elected in the middle of the economic disasters of the late 1970s. And it didn’t happen. Obama just has not been able to leverage the presidency into a new way of thinking, talking and acting. It may yet happen — these things can take a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet, and part of that is because these institutions don’t work.

How democracy isn’t working at present:

The Senate, which was created to be the most-far sighted, broadest, able to see the whole national interest and not just sectional or narrow interest — the Senate is now, in some ways, I’d say it functions less well than the House. There is no such thing as a statesman in the Senate. There is a group of people who use its rules and precedents in ways they were never intended in order to thwart democracy. And that’s a fundamental institution that’s broken and seems incapable of fixing itself. That’s what I keep coming back to — the regenerative powers of our democracy, which we’ve seen over and over in our history, are not making themselves felt these days when we most need them.

How both the 1 percent and ordinary people share the blame:

On the one hand, I put a lot of blame on the 1 percent because they are the leaders and they have benefited the most. There is a sense in which they have not kept their end of the bargain of being leaders and elites in a democracy.

I think you can also say — perhaps in response to this sense of being left behind — a lot of people have also stopped keeping their end of the bargain. Regular folks who maybe haven’t made sure their kids got a good education, people who haven’t made sure their families stayed healthy.

In Dean’s part of the country for example, which is really heartland America — very conservative, Southern culture — there’s been crack and crystal meth in a big way. There are lots of people living on disability who could be working. There’s a lot of obesity. And there’s just a lot of sense of people sinking into their own discontent and disaffection rather than struggling to rise out of it. I don’t like to put the blame on people who are at the bottom end of society.

When Reagan talked about “welfare queens”…he sort of gave us the green light to be unkind to each other. But we have to be realistic and see that people can become responsible for their own problems.

On America’s decline as a “great” power and how Obama needs to “manage” that decline:

What we’re seeing is a kind of inevitable decline in a country that really had enormous power for most of the 20th century. We know that great powers decline. We’ve seen it over and over again, and there’s nothing exceptional about America as a great power.

It maybe that Obama’s job is to manage that decline, to make it as tolerable and equitable and successful as possible. Maybe that’s what our leaders should really be aiming for and talking about in a way that doesn’t leave two-thirds of the country behind. It could get a lot worse than it is now. But you can’t talk that way if you’re in a position of power; you have to say America’s going to come back as strong as before.

I would rather we said we’ve had our moment as the great power; now we’re going to be a power, and we’re going to be a more just and fair and free power.

 

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