Of all the compliments I’m inclined to pay to George Packer’s new book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," the one worth paying first is that it’s a pleasure to read, though not in the way I anticipated.
Packer is intelligent, explicitly analytical and happy to give himself plenty of word count to interrogate his subject from every angle. It's a style he brings to his reporting in the New Yorker and to books like "The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq."
"The Unwinding" is complex and intelligent, but these qualities are coalescent rather than explicit. And the narrative space of the book is highly pressurized. The chapters are short. The sentences shoot forward. The descriptors come quick and sharp and loaded for bear. The perspective jumps from one protagonist to the next rapidly, with nothing connecting the many characters -- knowns like Newt Gingrich, unknowns like struggling biofuels entrepreneur Dean Price -- except for Packer’s masterful location of them within the larger drama of the “unwinding.”
“If you were born around 1960 or afterwards, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding,” writes Packer in his prologue. “You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape -- the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition -- ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”
I spoke to Packer by phone for about an hour, primarily about two things. One was the challenge of finding a way to tell this huge story in a way that felt intimate and narratively compelling. The other was about what I sensed was a fierce moral indignation at the core of the book. Packer wasn’t just acting the reporter, telling all these stories about how America had changed. He was saying that something has gone very wrong in this country. People are suffering. And there are people to blame.
Describe the genesis of the book for me.
It began from the events of the financial crisis and the recession. I had the sense that America was going through a wrenching transformation and then the transformation didn’t really happen. A lot of the same problems persisted after 2008, and a lot of the same ways of thinking about the problems. So I began to think that we were in a longer period of decline. Not necessarily permanent decline, but decline over a longer period than we normally think.
Many books have been written about this, and many of them are good books. I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the policy debates about problems like inequality, polarization, the hollowing out of the middle class, institutional decay. Instead what I wanted to do was describe what it’s been like to live in America over the past generation, from the late 1970s to the present, which has basically been the period of my adult life. And how to do that? I wanted to do it in a way that was both panoramic and intimate. It would look at many different parts of the country, many different sectors of society, at people who had made it, people who had not made it, people who were struggling, celebrities, obscure people. I wanted to do it with a bias toward the human voice and the human face rather than the big historical trends and events.
So how did you arrive at this structure?
I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do when I started. I began to just go out and do a lot of looking and reporting, starting with Dean Price, the entrepreneur down in North Carolina who is one of the central characters in the book. I just kept traveling and reporting and absorbing people’s stories. Toward the end of this process, as I realized I was ending the gathering of stories, and the book was coming due, I began to panic because I honestly didn’t know how it all fit together. That was when my wife reminded me that I had actually come up with an idea at the very start of the process. That was to model the structure, loosely, on the trilogy USA by John Dos Passos, and to cut between all these characters, moving back and forth, from one to another, as they all passed through the same historical timeline.
I’ve been reading your stuff in the New Yorker for a long time, and have read "The Assassins’ Gate," and it felt to me like this was very different not just in terms of the overall structure of it, but in the flow as well. You sounded like a different writer.
"The Assassins’ Gate" is a very tightly controlled story of the ideas that led to the war and the consequences of those ideas in Iraq, and there is no doubt about where it is going and what kind of groundwork is being laid. Whereas if you start reading "The Unwinding," the first thing you encounter is a two-page prologue that’s more an overture than an analytical introduction. It doesn’t lay out a set of arguments, but evokes a set of concerns and a feeling. Then you encounter a kind of news crawl from 1978 that is a mashup of a bunch of different sources from that year -- Jimmy Carter, the Ramones, "Animal House" -- in order to give you a sense of what the collective mind of a year felt like. Then you meet Dean Price, this guy down in North Carolina, and you hear about his early years. Then in comes Newt Gingrich, and his story, which actually is very relevant to the late ’70s and early ’80s. Then you meet Jeff Connaughton, this guy who goes to Washington and works there for the rest of his career. It demands a certain amount of patience, and it puts a lot of pressure on each of these individual chapters to hold your attention.
If as a reader you ran into two in a row that were slow, you might be done.
You might be done, absolutely, and it’s a risk I’m taking. I’m just hoping the stories themselves, and the sense they are going to tell a larger story, are strong enough to hold readers’ attention. The book lives or dies by whether it gathers speed, intensity and meaning as it goes along.
How did you find the people who were lesser known but are really at the heart of the book, like Dean Price?
I found him while working on a New Yorker piece that I wrote from the point of view of a freshman congressman from Virginia named Tom Perriello, who won in a squeaker in 2008 and was subsequently defeated in the Tea Party wipeout of 2010. One of his staffers put me in touch with a bunch of people in the district who were working on alternative energy projects, which Perriello was very interested in. One of them was Dean Price, who had a farm-to-pump biodiesel refinery and truck stop in Martinsville, Va.
I called Dean and within about 30 seconds of hearing him talk about how he had an epiphany with Hurricane Katrina, that the only answer to the depressed economy of his region was the new green economy, I said, OK, hold it, don’t say anything else, I’m coming down to meet you, let’s not squander it on the phone. (I subsequently found out that Dean can tell that story 100 times and it gets you excited every time). There was something in the excitement in his voice and the grandeur of his vision that just got me going.
So that is how I first met him, while doing some reporting for the magazine. It was again my wife, who had a lot to do with my pulling together this book later, who later said to me, when I was trying to figure out who were the characters for my book, “What about that guy Dean Price? He was really interesting.”
That raises an important question. What’s the relationship of the book to your job with the New Yorker? Is this basically a collection of magazine pieces?
No. In this case it was just the opposite. I went out looking for characters for a book, and happened to write about a few of them in the New Yorker. I would say 80 percent of the book is new material. The magazine enabled me to write this book, but the book did not come from the magazine.
Dean only plays a small part in that New Yorker piece. It was later that I went back down and said, “Dean, I’d like to put you in a book.” We were sitting on the front porch of the store he owned, and he said, “I’d be honored.” So I ended up going down and staying with him in his little town in North Carolina about a half-dozen times.
What about Tammy Thomas? How did you find her?
Tammy Thomas was a more deliberate find. I wanted to write about a woman. I wanted to write if possible about a black woman. I wanted to write about the Rust Belt, about deindustrialization in the industrial Midwest. And I wanted to write about someone who was trying to revive her own community. With those qualities in mind, I started asking around and finally several different people mentioned the name of this community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio.
This was very near the end of putting the book together, and I am very glad I found her because I think her story is powerful. She was a single mother of three, a former assembly line worker in a factory. She had gone through all the upheavals and difficulties of Youngstown, and she had reinvented herself as a community organizer in middle age.
Was Tammy Thomas charismatic in person? She seemed that way in the pages of the book, like someone you would meet and be blown away by.
She is charismatic but in a very quiet, self-deprecating way. You don’t see it immediately. Several times she asked me, “Why do you want to hear my story? Is it really interesting? I’m not sure it’s interesting.” It came from spending many days with her and just talking and talking and talking. It was a subtle but deep passion that she had, but she is so self-effacing I would often come back home after talking to her and think, I’m not sure what I’ve got here. Then I would listen to the recordings and think, my God, I’ve got a remarkable woman’s devastating and inspiring story. What else could I want? But that gives you an idea of how unassuming she is. It may be a working-class trait, to assume that your own life, your own experience, is not remarkable.
I’m curious about Jeff Connaughton, the longtime Joe Biden aide. In the book he comes off as a very lonely, rather sad figure. There’s this pattern of repeated sucking up to Biden, and then rejection after rejection, with occasional moments of phony companionship. Did he tell you his story in that way, or was that the frame you imposed on it?
All the portraits of these characters are heavily influenced by the way they portrayed themselves to me. I’m telling it really in their terms, even to some extent in their language. I think that’s how Jeff saw his career. There is something unrequited in his pursuit of Joe Biden, and then finally there is a kind of disillusionment, the realization that it’s an entirely instrumental relationship. They are using each other, which is true of many Washington relationships, and even many Washington friendships.
He actually is at his most fulfilled professionally when he goes into the private sector and becomes one of those despised things called a lobbyist, because he is given real stuff to do, and is good at it, and isn’t ground down by being in the shadow of a powerful boss.
He had a kind of transformation with the financial crisis, and went back into government in order to make the banks pay, and ends his career in Washington in a burst of angry idealism. It’s not just about being close to power. It’s not about getting to the White House, or making money. But it’s interesting that he could spend 25 years in Washington and only have a couple of years when he felt that. So there is a lot of darkness about Washington in his story.
"The Unwinding" is written in the third person, but I felt a strong implicit politics coming from you, an idea of what a healthier political culture would look like. For me it was most striking in the Tammy Thomas story and the sense that she became larger than she was through community organizing, through connecting to other people, and connecting in a political way. Is that a fair assessment of where you’re coming from, or am I just projecting?
I think it’s fair. I wanted to get out of the way of the story, and not use the easier tools of argument and essay writing, which are very comfortable for me. But yes, there is a pronounced point of view and I would say it’s an angry point of view. I’m angry at what’s happened to our country and what it’s done to a lot of Americans. I’m angry at the elites who have proved so self-interested and short-sighted that time and again they’ve led us to disaster. To some extent the elites in the book are constantly building their own empires at the expense of an idea of community.
The people who are the main characters never give up on trying to make life better right where they are, but they have to do it in this vacuum, because the story the book tells is of institutions failing. Government fails, corporations fail, unions fail, the media fails, banks. So they’re left with this unprecedented freedom. We are all more free than any human beings have ever been in the history of the world, but what can we do with all this freedom when there are no structures to channel it? They have to find their own ways. Tammy’s own way, of becoming a community organizer, however much or little she is able to achieve, is a great example of someone refusing to be worn down and beaten by the history that is the story of the book.
Tell me a bit more about Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist. You have that dramatic last line at the very end of the last chapter on him: “Thiel retreated upstairs to answer email alone.” It’s this stark portrait of a brilliant and in many ways well-intentioned man who is building these larger and larger fortresses around himself, to separate himself from society. What was the experience like of talking to him and his group of friends? They seemed a bit alien to me.
Really, you don’t hang out with people who are creating independent states on the high seas and who are trying to cure death?
But I think that’s right. They are alien to me too. I grew up out there. I’m from Silicon Valley, before it was ever called Silicon Valley, but I left before the future arrived. These guys are visionaries of the techno-future, and it’s sort of utopian but it also has a dystopian tinge to it. I don’t see the place for society in it. Peter was once asked to name an investor whom he admired as a model, and the name he came up with was Howard Hughes, the billionaire recluse. Peter’s not a recluse. He has this group of like-minded friends, but you don’t hear much about family, and the things that make life ordinary.
You seemed to have some affection for him.
He’s a complicated thinker. He is the most libertarian of them all in some ways, but he is aware that Silicon Valley hasn’t come close to solving the country’s problems, and in fact the arrival of the Internet has coincided with bad times for a lot of Americans. Whether there is a causal relation or not, it certainly has not fixed the problems of the middle class, because at the very moment that Silicon Valley is turning into this golden paradise, Youngstown and Tampa and rural North Carolina and all the other localities of the book are falling apart. He knows that. So I respect him and am interested in him because he is able to talk about these things, whereas a lot of people in Silicon Valley don’t even know the rest of the country exists. I don’t agree with his answers but he does ask the right questions.
When I got the angriest, while reading the book, was when you were talking about the foreclosure courts in Tampa. We encounter a lawyer who’s advocating for people who were in danger of losing their homes. He discovered that the banks’ cases fell apart if he put up the least resistance. At that point, reading it, I assumed the court would dismiss the banks’ cases against these people, let them stay in their homes. Instead the default assumption was on behalf of the banks. It was infuriating.
There is something almost Dickensian about those foreclosure courts. You just want to come up with some elaborate metaphor out of "Bleak House" to describe the remorseless, inhuman, machine-like quality they have, just grinding through case after case after case, totally disconnected from what we think of as justice, and certainly from what seems best for the human beings involved. Thirty cases in an hour. As one woman said to me, your house is gone in less time then you spend at the McDonald’s drive-up window.
I had thought of the courts as one institution that was still functioning reasonably well, but these state foreclosure courts were a picture of chaos. Documents are missing. There are phony signatures. No one is even asking the basic question: Can’t we find a way to keep people in their houses?
It’s just not good for anyone for millions of people to lose their homes. It’s not good for the bank. It’s not good for society. It’s certainly not good for the homeowners. But we just did not have the wherewithal as a country to come together with a solution. Tampa is kind of the heart of the matter. It’s where the problems are at their most palpable.
It’s also where we meet that heartbreaking family that is just struggling to get by on these incredibly meager wages.
The Hartzells, who by the way are homeless right now as we speak, which is terrible, since they have children. The remarkable thing about this family is they have hung together and truly love each other and support each other through these tremendous setbacks. Losing work, losing a home, the daughter getting bone cancer. Without money, without social capital, without knowing how to work the system, they are at the mercy of ill fortune, all the time. I think there are a lot of people in the country like that.
It made me furious.
There is an elemental unfairness about it. Obviously life is always unfair, but today this unfairness is encoded in every aspect of life, and there seems no way around it. There are so few mitigations or remedies for it, and we live with it. We’ve gotten used to it. We don’t have a solution so we learn to accept it.
Did you find yourself thinking of possible solutions?
I don’t have any that would persuade you. I don’t have a policy answer. I have some of the usual notions. Let’s get rid of the carried interest loophole, things like that. Those things that are always there to get done and never get done, and would probably help a little if they did get done.
But honestly, the phrase that kept coming back to me was a sense of shame. We really don’t think it’s good for families to be homeless, or for people to lose their houses because they lost their jobs. Or for whole cities to go into a state of collapse. Is it really a natural process? Is there really nothing a well-organized and competent society can do about it? It seems more like a lack of will and maybe a lack of a sense of shame, and there are individuals who bear some responsibility.
I had this vision after the financial crisis that the leading Wall Street bankers would do what their Japanese counterparts did and essentially bow deeply from the waist and ask for forgiveness from society. That would have been the most appropriate response. We don’t need to prosecute you. We just want you to ask for forgiveness.
Not even close. There is no sense of shame at the high altitudes of our society. Certain social norms and taboos have disappeared. The idea has gone missing that there are certain things you really shouldn’t do, like firing 20 percent of your workforce while giving yourself a big raise as a CEO, which is a very common thing. Forty years ago people didn’t do that. They might have smoked and drank and had affairs with their secretaries, but they didn’t do that, and that taboo has been broken. That’s why I keep coming back to shame.
I’m curious about your chapter on restaurateur, local/organic food guru Alice Waters. It seemed to me like there was an edge of hostility toward her that was more visceral than with somebody like Newt Gingrich, who seemed so buffoonish he almost wasn’t offensive.
No. I think of Newt Gingrich as a destructive figure. I don’t think of Alice Waters as at all destructive. I am a little bit wary of the local and organic movement. I think it’s done a lot of good. I hope that good is there in the portrait of her, but I think it’s become almost a form of class prejudice. This hysteria that people in my class have about what they eat, and what they allow their children to eat -- it’s almost as if they’re afraid that the world out there is going to contaminate their family. It also feels a little bit defeatist for that much effort to go into heirloom tomatoes. Since we can’t solve any other problems at least we can keep our bodies purified. But I’m not at all hostile to Alice Waters. I love her restaurant, and I respect her achievement. It’s more that she’s helped create a movement that’s taken a turn toward the divide that is part of the entire fabric of our society. You can’t escape it. Food is part of that fabric, just as politics and finance and education are.
In the prologue you talk about how there have been “unwindings” every few generations, followed by rebirths. What should we take from that?
First of all, I didn’t want to fall into the fallacy of imagining that this is all brand-new and nothing like this has ever happened before. Imagine what it was like to be an American during the Civil War, the Great Depression, or even that post-Revolutionary period when everything seemed to be degenerating into a squalid, squabbling farce. After each of those calamities, there was ultimately a widening of the circle of opportunity, and that’s what has made the country a great country. We keep correcting our own sins. There is a mechanism for self-correction in America, and in Americans. There is enough fluidity and flexibility in the system, and in the institutions.
What about this time around?
Right now I’m struggling to see it. What will be the mechanisms of self-correction? I thought 2008 was it. The total collapse of our financial system and the election of our first black president. Those two things happening simultaneously were going to be a big historical turn along the lines of Roosevelt and Reagan getting elected. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to make that case today, for a lot of reasons. So I don’t have the answer that I think you might be looking for. I hope readers will come up with answers, and the book leaves a lot of room for people to come away and offer their own visions as a sort of sequel. It doesn’t tell you what the future’s going to be like, because I don’t know.
It felt like a challenge to me.
I do hope it will be like the experience of looking in the mirror, like the experience of hearing yourself speaking, or having someone tell you what you’ve been doing. It’s a narrative, and narrative has this amazing capacity, if it works, to offer understanding. I don’t want to be grandiose in my expectations of the book, but if it does something like that I will feel like it was well worth the effort.