Journalist George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, has been compared to the U.S.A. Trilogy, the novels in which John Dos Passos used experimental techniques to capture the state of our union in the early 20th century. Except that The Unwinding is nonfiction.
To quote the publisher:
American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown … (Packer) journeys through the lives of several Americans, (interweaving) these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures … and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics….The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation.
Packer summarizes his view of the past 30 years in the newspaper column below: “Decline and Fall: How American Society Unravelled”. He doesn’t meet Marx’s challenge in these few paragraphs to change the world (not merely understand it): such as explaining how to get more people to vote intelligently, how to overcome the power of money in our democracy, how to avoid a race to the economic bottom in a global economy. But maybe more of us need to clearly understand what’s happened before we can do something about it.
(Or should we simply get out of the way, relying on our children and their children to do what needs to be done? Like the man said: “Your old road is rapidly agin’, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin’ .”)
When we talk about America’s decline, it’s tempting to wonder if the situation is as bad as it seems. Packer’s book and the column below are honorable attempts to counter that temptation.