Part of my Pandemic Reading series
Journalist and author, George Packer has produced a potent and timely book in the tradition of the political pamphlet. A tradition often utilized in times of crisis, with examples ranging from “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, to “Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman among many others. Packer’s contribution to this tradition, “The Last Best Hope” is an engrossing read and tough examination of modern America’s decaying ability to govern itself. I blew through this book a day after listening to an interview Packer gave to The Book Review podcast produced by the New York Times. I found his taxonomy of the four narratives driving American life quite compelling in their overlapping, interlocking complexity. Are they comprehensive? No. Nor are they intended to be. Packer describes these narratives, saying in an interview with WBUR, “These are the dominant ideas of the country in the last generation, let’s say.” I’ve seen in reading subsequent interviews with Packer that interviewers sometimes wander into the mistake of calling Packer’s four narratives “groups.” Reading and listening to George correcting people making that error revealed something to me about the zeitgeist. We are all seeing America through the dangerous and unproductive fever of polarization and tribal conflict. But it is in the narratives where power is born and the kind of change we seek is first imagined. Political ideologies and movements draw their power from stories.
Packer’s conception of modern America’s four competing narratives, the meat of his book, are as follows: Real America, Free America, Smart America, and Just America. Before you reflexively plant your flag in one of these narratives, it’s worth noting that none of these narrative categories are intended to be complimentary. Packer details what he sees as the appeal, the limitations, and the drawbacks of each. Here are the broad strokes as described by Packer himself:
“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.”
“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 the economy, by a few corporations, by all the wealth flowing upward to a few people and a few corporations.”
“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.”
“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.”
As he delves into the details of these four narratives, their fallout, their implications for the future, and their interwoven overlapping nature, Packer illuminates a portrait of a country that resonates when viewed in emotional terms. If we understand that these narratives have all sprung from a well of emotion (fear being a big driver here) in reaction to consequential trends and developments over the last forty or so years; it becomes much easier to see one another and understand what is driving the chaos and continual failures that dominate the society. Packer makes the argument that one of the problems is in fact that we have, in a real way, lost sight of one another.
“I see the appeal and the persuasiveness of all of them,” he says. “I don’t accept any of them as having the answers. I think they all lead to hierarchy, in some ways to more inequality, to division. We are desperately polarized, and there’s no way around that. I’m not saying if we would all just drop our preconceptions, we could get along. Because we can’t. There are these fundamental clashes of values in this country that are expressed in politics, and that’s not going away. But I think we’ve lost the sense of a common American identity, which I do think still exists, even though it’s been buried.”
Far from diagnosing America’s current divisions as terminal, Packer reminds us that the project of a self-governing pluralistic democracy is still possible and that the future of the experiment is still in our hands.
“It really is in our hands if only we are willing to take on the responsibility of governing ourselves. But as Walter Lippman wrote, people would rather do almost anything than govern themselves. It’s hard.”
“Last Best Hope” is a thought-provoking read. I was moved by Packer’s thesis and the elegant delivery of his ideas. Though Packer readily admits that “this book was written in the middle of a pandemic in a mood of despair and dread.” He did put hope is in the title for a reason. Packer sees the desire in the country to “examine deep structures in our economy and in our society. Not to take anything for granted, to accept that there have been massive failures over the past decades, both at home or abroad, and to change course,” as evidence that we all share a similar desire for change, thinking in particular of his children, Packer says, “…really this book is for my children because it’s going to be their world. And I refuse to give up on this country as long we all have children who are going to have to inherit it.”