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In 'Last Best Hope,' George Packer asks if America can unite again

(Karsun Designs Photography/Flickr)
(Karsun Designs Photography/Flickr)

This rebroadcast originally aired on July 2, 2021.

Journalist George Packer has reported on strife and division around the world.

Now, he trains his eye homeward, and finds an America divided into four factions: the market-enthralled Free America; meritocratic Smart America; aggrieved Real America; and the impatient, rigid young activists of Just America.

It’s afailure laid bare by the largest-scale problem in a generation. Packer says of COVID: “The pandemic exploited our system weaknesses.”

So, not one America, but four. Can our country be reunited?


George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic. Author of “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.”

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

Is America a failed state? 

George Packer: “Last year, I wrote an essay for The Atlantic called We Are Living in a Failed State. And the headline got a lot of attention. I didn’t mean it literally. I have reported on failed states, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, places where the state is simply not present, or is actively a force of destruction against its own citizens. We’re not there. Last spring, at the worst moments of the pandemic, you could still get an ambulance to the hospital if things went right for you, if the hospitals had a bed for you. The police were functioning in some way. Social Security checks were being mailed out. So it wasn’t as if the state had collapsed.

“But what happened last spring was that our government, our national government, sort of abandoned us to our fate in the face of a once-a-century pandemic. It had no plan, it had no structure. And it seemed to have no desire, as if it didn’t care whether we lived or died. And so that gave me the sensation I’ve had in some of these other countries, less fortunate countries, that there’s no state here to take care of us or to even do minimal things.

“We’re not nearly as far along as others, but the worst thing is to imagine we can never move in that direction. Because we’ve had a functioning government for centuries, and because we’re used to a certain level of comfort. We should never imagine it can’t happen here. It is happening here. And I wrote Last Best Hope both to point out how far along we came last year toward a real collapse of self-government, and also how much it’s up to us. Because there is no foreign power that’s going to come in and either make things better or worse here. We’re on our own.”

On the four factions of America, starting with ‘Real America’

George Packer: “These are narratives. I don’t see them as groups, although some groups adhere to the narratives more than others. But I don’t want our listeners to think I’m simply describing everyone in the United States as falling into one of four types. These are the dominant ideas of the country in the last generation, let’s say. And other ideas that we could talk about later that have not been dominant, and maybe need to come to the fore, are left out of this taxonomy. Real America, it’s a phrase Sarah Palin used in 2008 during the campaign.

“And she was referring to, as she put it, the hardworking, patriotic Americans in towns and rural areas who grow our food and fight our wars. So we know who she meant. She meant white people. She meant Christians. She meant small town folks, folks who work with their hands, folks who work on farms. And it had an invidious quality because it was so divisive. It meant some people are not Real Americans. People who live in cities, people who live on the coasts, maybe Black Americans, brown Americans, immigrant Americans. She was being categorical in her sort of explosive way in setting us against one another by calling it Real America.

“She said it at a fundraiser. And I’ve concluded that politicians really tell the truth in front of their donors. They say exactly what they mean only when they’re in front of people who are writing checks for them. This became Donald Trump’s narrative. I think there’s a direct line from Sarah Palin to Trump. She was his John the Baptist. And Trump took this narrative and really made it the Republican Party’s narrative, at least the base of the Republican Party’s narrative.

“The elites in the party had a different narrative. And there’s a struggle going on now between the two. But for Trump, nativism, anti-globalization, xenophobia, antitrade, anti-immigrant, all those things that are conveyed by this kind of exclusive phrase, Real America became Trump’s America. And it had an enormous appeal for large numbers of people. Enough to get him elected.”

On ‘Free America’

George Packer: “Free America, I think of as Reagan’s America, the America of market fundamentalism, low taxes, deregulation, get government out of my life and I will be free and we will have prosperity and we will become the shining city on the hill. This was of the four, I think, the most potent politically in my adult life. And it really has dominated our politics for decades. But in people’s lives, it became more and more of a hollow promise. I mean, whole areas of the country have been hollowed out both by trade deals and by monopolization of of the economy, by a few corporations, by all the wealth flowing upward to a few people and a few corporations.

“And people in small places with industries that were dying have been really left behind. And so freedom, which had this idea of let the invisible hand of the market rule, no longer has that appeal for a lot of Americans. They still use the word freedom, but it means something different. It is less about taxes and regulations and more about don’t tread on me, it’s an identity. Get off my property. It’s the Gadsden flag that we saw waving all over the Capitol on January 6th. It’s a more threatening and threatened freedom. It’s not optimistic.

“And so in that sense, Real America has inherited some of the terms of Free America, but they’ve been transformed by conditions which have been deteriorating in Real America. So Free America remains the orthodoxy of the Republican Party. All you have to do is read when they used to have platforms, before they stopped doing that, the platform of the Republican Party remained just identical for decade after decade.

“No matter what the data showed about its effectiveness. And it turned out low taxes did not create more jobs. It did not raise wages. In fact, it had the opposite effect, low taxes on wealthy Americans. So the promise of a Free America failed, but it remains the mantra, almost like a cargo cult of the elites of the Republican Party. While the base of the Republican Party has moved into what I call Real America, which has echoes of Free America but in some fundamental way, has rejected the policy menu of Free America.”

On ‘Smart America’

George Packer: “Smart America, I think of as Bill Clinton’s narrative. It’s the narrative of the educated class, the professional class who really did become the heart of the Democratic Party, along with nonwhite working class Americans. And that narrative says that if you get an education, and get into the right schools and into the right professions, you’ll have a successful life and you will pass it on to your children and they will do the same thing. And in the end, it’s open to all talents, as long as there’s a certain amount of help. Whether it’s in the form of child health insurance, or affirmative action or things that smooth out the rough inequalities that we all acknowledge.

“The basic meritocratic system is a fair one, and it will create the best possible society where the intelligent essentially rule. Well, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with it, first of all, is it hasn’t really been that. It’s more like an aristocratic system where your ticket is punched at birth by … where you’re born and to whom. And what kind of family you come from and what kind of pressure they put on you.

“And what networks they have, what connections they have, what work ethic they give you, what you’re surrounded by. So the meritocracy, I think, has become a kind of a top 15% aristocracy and a new form of inequality. But you’re absolutely right. It shares some of the free market tendencies of Free America, free trade, open to globalization and a certain skepticism about too much government. It’s a softer narrative, but I think like Free America, it has not made good on its promise.”

On ‘Just America’

George Packer: “I think of Just America as parallel to Real America. They’re both populist rebellions from below against the failures of the more elite narratives that had been in place. And so chronologically, they come later. Just America, I think, is quite recent. Obviously, social justice has been a passion and a thread throughout American history. But I think really, since about the year 2014, a certain version of social justice has become extremely powerful in some of our cultural institutions, like media, and academia and the arts. And more and more in politics, it’s dominant.

“What is Just America? … It’s a view that rejects the idea of incremental progress toward a more perfect union, which was a phrase Barack Obama loved to use. And in a way, it’s a bit of a rejection of Barack Obama himself. It says, No, we are not making progress. In fact, there’s a sort of … stagnancy to American history. So that you can draw a straight line from slavery, through Jim Crow and the era of redlining, et cetera, to the present. To the second class status that so many Black Americans still hold today as citizens of this country.

“And so, in a way, it’s Faulkner’s line, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Which is why there’s so much attention in our culture right now to periods from the 19th century civil war, segregation. Philosophically, it sees people as members of groups, and groups as either oppressor or oppressed. And a key word for Just America is caste, meaning a permanent hierarchy of groups in which some are above and some are below.

“So it has a kind of monolithic view of individuals as members of identity groups. And identity groups, as in this kind of permanent state of conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed. It was in the streets last summer in the social justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. And it’s in our schools, and it’s in a lot of the culture wars today … about the claims of the narrative of Just America.”

What could be different now that could bridge the divides and get us closer to equal America?

George Packer: “I think we’ve been through a 20 year decline since 9/11 with one shock after another. And there are more to come if we don’t change course. First of all, there’s a policy agenda. It’s not mine. It’s well known. And I think it’s finally beginning to have some play in Washington. It’s essentially, give workers more power, give them more money, rebuild the safety net so that people’s daily existence isn’t simply a struggle for survival, which makes being a productive citizen almost impossible.

“Attack monopoly, which holds so many people in states of inequality and unfreedom. And break up monopoly where it deserves to be broken up. And in education, find a way to change the financing base of our schools so that the quality of your school doesn’t entirely depend on the zip code where you live. These are basic things. They’ve been around for a long time, but I think we’re finally beginning to see how important they are not just for our economy, but for our democracy.

“And that’s the other side of it. Self-government depends on a sense of equality in this country. Which is the basis for a feeling of shared citizenship. Self-government is an art we’ve lost. And to regain it, I think we need to rebuild our skills as citizens. Journalists have a role to play here. And I think one way journalists can play their role is by remembering the story isn’t about them. The story is about the Americans out there, who they need to listen to. Especially those Americans who don’t sound or look like them.”

Book Excerpt

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: “How America Fractured Into Four Parts” — “Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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