May 1, 2013 | Washington Monthly
Do not utter the words “American decline” to your conservative friends. Never mind the arguments for or against: to some on the right the mere topic is a kind of blasphemy, at once impious and infuriating. America can never falter, say its most reflexive champions. It’s America. It is not merely one of 200-odd nations constrained by geographical boundaries, political economies, culture, history, and the swinging pendulum of fortune. America is both an idea and a promise, making it no ordinary country. Its citizens work harder than other people; its soil is richer than foreign fields. America is the promised land, Americans are the chosen few, and victory, to paraphrase Mitt Romney, is their unique destiny.
The people who believe this superstitious nonsense are usually the ones cutting school funding and refusing to fix the roads. As the United States slips down the global competitiveness and education indexes and as income inequality rises, they insist that the country is great while refusing to pay for the things that make it so. Ironically, this very faith in American infallibility enables some of our most destructive public acts. Since America is exceptional, Republicans reason, why not use the threat to default on its financial obligations as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations? Defaulting would probably trigger a global financial disaster, but the far right seems to believe this would not happen, or that if it did, it would wash away our profligate sins. Yet in the heat of the debt ceiling farce of 2011, Standard & Poor’s, by downgrading the U.S. credit rating, served notice that moist sentiments like destiny do not trump cause and effect. A recent survey on American competitiveness in the Economist archly noted, “This is the America that China’s leaders laugh at.”
On the other hand, acknowledging that the United States is not immune to decline is not the same as saying it is in decline. Americans are living longer than they have ever done. Their universities (if not their primary and secondary schools) are the envy of the world, dominating the annual global rankings. Despite the dysfunction in Washington, America’s political infrastructure is broadly sound, featuring an independent judiciary, a free press, and reliably peaceful transitions of power every four years. The U.S. enjoys unrivaled military power and influence in global institutions. Its economy is the largest in the world and continues to grow, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching its highest-ever point in March.
The economic collapse of 2008 and the accompanying Great Recession have colored many conversations about a creeping American decline. But as Robert Kagan argued in an influential essay in the New Republic last year, each generation since the Second World War has worried about receding American influence. “Anyone who honestly recalls the 1970s,” he writes, “with Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation, and the energy crisis, cannot really believe that our present difficulties are unrivaled.” And this is to say nothing of the generations that endured the Great Depression, the financial panic of 1873, and the Civil War. Kagan contends that the only thing as reliable as the perennial diagnosis of American decline is American resurgence.
Tell that to a man who has lost his job, or his home, or his idealism, says George Packer. In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer puts aside economic indicators and strategic assessments to approach the topic of American decline from the most intimate of angles: the personal profile. The book follows three representative Americans: an African American assembly-line worker from Youngstown, Ohio; a truck stop owner and biofuels visionary from North Carolina; and a disillusioned Washington insider. Each section of the book begins with a collection of headlines and sound bites to give a flavor of the times.
The kaleidoscopic presentation, inspired by John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. novels, draws on Packer’s years of reporting at the New Yorker, and it takes some getting used to. Yet by the book’s end, Packer seems to have found a new way to tell a familiar story, which he describes as the slow unraveling during his lifetime of institutions like midwestern factories and California universities. The Unwinding also echoes the symphonic rage of the celebrated television series The Wire, which fictionalized the demise of the American city. Packer offers a profoundly dispiriting picture of the United States: all three of his main characters are crushed, in their own way. Yet each narrative ends on a hopeful note.
Rather than getting on a soapbox, Packer takes out his notepad. The Unwinding is, among other things, a tremendous work of reporting that pushes past abstractions and recycled debates to look despair straight in the face. Throughout, Packer offers almost no editorial comment, an approach that has its downsides. Instead he tells stories, and readers must make of them what they will. Packer is not an “America is crumbling like Rome” pessimist; he acknowledges the cyclical nature of boom and bust in this country’s history. The book’s optimistic ending suggests that he believes the United States will rise again. But the preceding chapters show that it is now at one of its periodic low points.
One of The Unwinding’s strengths is Packer’s refusal to romanticize earlier periods of American prosperity. He does not simplistically pine for a return to the 1950s and ’60s, when a factory job could support a family and companies took care of their workers. While describing the death of Youngstown, a moribund steel city, he notes that in brighter years its industry was characterized by “rapacious growth, brutal conditions, segregation of mill jobs by ethnicity and race, unalterable hostility to unions, [and] constant strife.” Tammy Thomas, the featured factory worker from Youngstown, assembled electrical components at a Packard plant for nineteen years before accepting a buyout in 2006. “The work didn’t destroy your body like in the steel mills,” she says, “but over time it beat you down.” Packer suggests that the era of American manufacturing is over, but he doesn’t argue whether this is a boon or a tragedy: it is simply a fact that has altered the trajectories of millions of lives.
The story’s biofuels entrepreneur, Dean Price, owned several truck stops and fast-food franchises before founding an alternative energy start-up. (Its prospects were still uncertain as The Unwinding went to press.) Price’s story is a case study in the way big-box competitors like Walmart and Target undercut small businesses with cheap labor and cheap wares, all while killing town centers and encouraging sprawl. Packer also follows a struggling Tampa man who scraped by on $8.50 an hour unloading inventory at a Walmart store, only to lose his job after casual grousing led to a confrontation with a manager.
Packer’s most striking character is Jeff Connaughton, a Washington power player broken by a system that slowly destroyed his idealism. Connaughton was a self-designated “Joe Biden guy”: inspired as a student by a speech Biden gave at the University of Alabama in 1979, Connaughton eventually worked on his 1988 presidential campaign and as a Senate staffer. What follows is one of the most damning portraits of the current vice president you will ever read, a master class in disillusionment from public service. Packer’s Biden is an ungrateful phony, shilling sentiment like a huckster sells miracle cures. Behind the scenes,
he ignored you, intimidated you, sometimes humiliated you, took no interest in your advancement, and never learned your name. “Hey, Chief,” he’d say, or “How’s it going, Cap’n,” unless he was ticked off at you, in which case he’d employ one of his favorite terms for male underlings: “dumb fuck.” “Dumb fuck over here didn’t get me the briefing materials I needed.” It was both noun and adjective: “Is the event leader a Democrat or a Republican? Or are you too dumb fuck to know?”
Connaughton’s first assignment on Biden’s 1988 campaign was to bring in twenty new donors. Thus he quickly learned the ubiquity of money in politics, Washington’s capture by business lobbyists, and the nature of a transactional relationship: all back scratching and IOUs, rarely or never friendship or concern. His low point was working to keep monied interests from diluting the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010. At the story’s end, Connaughton begins to write a book, which has since been published. It is called The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins.
If Washington is corroded by dollars and hacks, Packer shows that it is also beset by the rise of the total-war conservative. The breed’s avatar is Newt Gingrich, who decades ago field-tested many of the tactics that have dragged today’s Republican Party to the edge of the cliffs of insanity. Gingrich realized that voters “got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments, but responded to symbols and emotions. Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.” Thanks to these toxic methods, today we have right-wing senators insinuating on no evidence that their opponents are in the pocket of North Korea, and the moderate Democratic president is pilloried as a socialist radical with a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.
Packer’s narrative is literary rather than prescriptive: he does not offer policy proposals or routes back to greatness. Like a great political novel, The Unwinding reveals a problem with unprecedented clarity but leaves readers to find a solution. Whatever one’s views on American decline generally, it is difficult to put the book down without a distinct feeling of unease and a conviction that we can do better. And yet if it is a story of despair, it is also a story of resilience. Packer’s subjects make good and bad decisions, enjoy lucky breaks and misfortune, eke it out, give in, and try harder. The lives they lead are worth describing in detail, not only because they are instructive but also because they are beautiful.