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Q. & A.
The Collapse of American Identity
In a new book, the journalist George Packer argues that the country is divided into four warring factions.
By Isaac Chotiner
June 29, 2021
If you bloc most Americans into identity groups, George Packer says, “if you create monoliths, you will end up not speaking to their actual, as people say, lived experience.”Source photograph Shutterstock
In his new book, “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal,” George Packer writes that the United States is in a state of disrepair, brought about primarily by the fact that “inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” The book opens with an essay on the state of the U.S. during the pandemic, and then offers sketches of four different visions of the country: Free America, of Reaganism; Smart America, of Silicon Valley and other professional élites; Real America, of Trumpist reaction; and Just America, of a new generation of leftists. “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” Packer writes. He proposes a different vision, which he thinks offers brighter possibilities, centered around the concept of equality and non-demagogic appeals to patriotism.
I recently spoke by phone with Packer, who is a staff writer at The Atlantic and was previously a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is also the author of the books “The Assassins’ Gate” and “The Unwinding.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Barack Obama failed to change the direction of the country, whether a more progressive form of patriotism is possible, and whether the cultural controversies roiling American institutions are an inevitable result of inequality.
Why did you decide to structure this book around four Americas?
We’ve all lived with the red-blue division for about twenty years. And it’s true. We are divided that way. Every passing year makes that clearer. But I felt that in the last few years, politically and culturally, things have happened that showed that there are divisions within, as well as between, those two big blocks of Americans. The basic division that I began to see begins with libertarianism, which I call Free America, which is Reagan’s America. And this is really the story of my adult life, from the late nineteen-seventies onward. It’s been the most dominant narrative in our society. And it says, “We’re all individuals.” We all have a chance to make it. The best way to make it is to get government out of the way and to cut taxes and deregulate and set us free in order to use our industry and talent to make something new. And that was a really potent story that Reagan told, and that the Republican Party lived by for decades, and to some extent still does.
It doesn’t quite apply to a different group of Americans, and a different story, which I call Smart America. There’s an overlap. Smart America is the meritocracy. It’s the professional class. It’s Americans who believe that talent and effort should be rewarded but who also think we’re part of a society and that society has to make sure that everyone has roughly an equal chance. So there’s affirmative action, there’s diversity hiring, there’s children’s health insurance. But, really, Smart America takes on the parameters set by Free America: deregulation and free trade and open immigration. And in a way you can see they have followed each other in power from one decade to the next. Free America in the eighties, Smart America with Clinton in the nineties. To me, he embodies it.
And this is also the Democratic Party going along with the Reagan consensus.
Exactly. Bitter political fights between the parties in the nineties, all kinds of scandals and impeachment. But underlying that there was a consensus about what the economy needed and what society needed. And Democrats of Clinton’s generation moved way over toward the Free America side, in terms of their willingness to see the private sector as the main engine of both growth and fairness.
Sarah Palin was the early warning sign that Free America was breaking up. There was a rebellion from below within Free America. And that rebellion was out in the heartland. It was a white Christian-nationalist narrative that said, “Your free trade, your immigration, even your corporations and monopolies have not improved a lot of towns, and rural areas have sunk and are in deep trouble, and have some of the same serious problems that the inner cities have had for decades.” And so, when Trump came along, in 2015, he intuited in his reptilian way that the old, sunny, optimistic Reagan message didn’t cut it, and that something more dark and nativist and ugly would appeal—that people didn’t want to hear how good things were. They wanted to hear how bad things were. I’d call that Real America. It’s a phrase Palin used during the 2008 campaign.
The fourth America is also a rebellion. As Real America is a rebellion against the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America—which is a difficult term, because it doesn’t quite capture it—is a generational rebellion against the complacency of Smart America, which had promised, “As long as you get an education and work hard and play by the rules and go as far as your God-given talents will take you, you will have a successful life.” And the generation that came after Clinton, the millennials, found out that this wasn’t true, and that the sanguine promises of their liberal parents just didn’t resonate. And that generation has embraced a different narrative, which sees us less as striving individuals with an imperfect but ever-improving society and more as a fixed hierarchy of groups, some of which are oppressive and some of which are oppressed. And both are in an almost permanent state of conflict, in which the country really isn’t progressing. It’s stuck in its original hierarchy, and that hierarchy has to be overthrown in order for justice to come.
A lot of people think of Just America as a response to Trump, too, which is why it’s interesting that you’re defining it as just as much a reaction to Smart America.
Well, I think Smart America is the one it’s closest to—in a sense, it’s one generation overthrowing the previous one, children overthrowing parents. In many ways, this reminds me of the nineteen-sixties, and millennials and boomers have a lot more in common than either side has acknowledged. I think you’re right. Trump threw a great deal of accelerant onto smoldering discontent. But it preceded him. And one thing that’s interesting about both Real America and Just America is the rate of change, how fast they’ve come on and how quickly they’ve seized a lot of cultural ground—at least, a lot of the discourse, if not the institutions of power.
Joe Biden was elected last year with more votes than any candidate ever, and it doesn’t seem to me that he fits into any of these Americas exactly. How do you understand that?
He doesn’t fit. He really doesn’t. Generationally, he’s closest to Clinton. But somehow, maybe because of where he comes from or what kind of career he’s had, he doesn’t feel like a very modern figure. His reference points all seem to go back to Roosevelt and Truman and trade unions. It’s as if he didn’t experience the late sixties and the seventies in the way, say, Bill Clinton did. And maybe we needed that. Maybe we needed someone who could think outside the really toxic divisions that we live with. He has done more to pursue social justice than any President since Johnson. It’s really early, and we don’t know how much he’s going to get done. He has certainly made it clear he’s trying. But it seems to me to come out of a pre-modern sensibility that goes back to the New Deal.
Almost any Republican now can be slotted into the Reagan mold or the Trump mold, or they’re pretending to be one but they’re clearly the other. But with Democrats it is harder. Where does Bernie Sanders fit in? Maybe this says that the Democratic Party is about to undergo something big.
I think you can include Elizabeth Warren in that, as well. She changed a bit during the campaign, but I think of her as something of a throwback. Her influences were Brandeis, La Follette, Frances Perkins. Her passions are breaking up monopolies, regulating corporations—class struggle, really. And that’s Sanders, as well. And that was the animating idea of the left in the first maybe two-thirds of the century. And, if there is a return to that, then I’m happy. The book proposes my own narrative, although it doesn’t claim it as a narrative. I don’t want to say too much for it. It’s more like a bunch of instincts and prejudices. But I would like to call it Equal America, which is a deep, old American drive to be as good as anyone else, to have no one able to say, “I’m better than you. I can do what you can’t do.” It is not the same as the ideal of everyone being equal, which is in the Declaration of Independence, because of course throughout our history lots of people have not been equal. But the desire to be equal, I think, is still there as a driving passion. And if we have a politics that focusses on that, and tries to bring us closer to that, I think that’s a healthier narrative than any of the four I’ve described.
You write, “Because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify . . . patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.” How do you do this without engaging in a nationalism that people don’t like, which is I think the reason that liberal, progressive politicians have always had trouble doing it?
Nationalism is a word I avoid as a positive. I think nationalism is destructive. It has an aggressive quality. It means we’re better. We are not just different but better, and in some ways we must crush you. Patriotism, to me, is closer to what I’m trying to describe because it’s like loyalty. It’s like loyalty to what’s yours. Just as you’re more loyal to your family than to people you don’t know. I feel the same about our country. And I know that that’s a tricky and maybe dangerous thing for some Americans, but the first thing I’d say is, if you suppress that in yourself, or if you refuse to acknowledge it in others, you will insure that the worst versions of it, like Trumpism, will have the field, because most people still feel that. And, if they don’t hear it from the side that wants equality and inclusiveness, then they’re going to hear it from the side that wants hierarchy and exclusion.
American history is one way to get in touch with it. We are having history wars at the moment—in state legislatures, in school districts—and we are bringing up parts of our history that have been suppressed and that have to be brought to the surface. Biden going to Tulsa was, I think, such a crucial moment in putting the Presidential stamp on that effort. The stories I tell in the book of Horace Greeley, Frances Perkins, Bayard Rustin, are of progressives—not quite in the same way that people are today, but certainly reformers, and even radicals—who nonetheless see themselves as working on behalf of the whole country, and trying to bring it together, and trying to hold it to its promises in a way that’s generous and not punitive or resentful.
When you say that if liberals do not engage in a certain form of patriotism then that space will be taken over by the right, are you talking about winning votes? Or are you making a larger point that, for liberals to achieve something beyond just winning elections, they have to inculcate a sense of patriotism and national spirit?
The utilitarian reason is a good one. It’s not smart to lose touch with the basic feelings of large numbers of voters if you hope to get those votes. But I mean it in a larger sense. The country itself needs us to somehow be committed to it, and not just to ourselves and to our political tribe, and to our cohort and the people who share the bubble with us. I have a bunch of ideas at the end of the book. None of them are original, and a lot of them are long shots. And one of them is national service. It would be giving young people a chance, whether through military or civilian ways, to serve the country and one another, and to get to know one another across all the lines that divide us. I don’t know where else it could happen. It doesn’t happen in neighborhoods. It doesn’t happen in schools. It doesn’t happen in jobs. This seems like the only way that face-to-face interactions between Americans from wildly different backgrounds could happen. And I think that’s necessary, because we’ve demonized one another through social media, through isolation during the pandemic, to a point where people are unrecognizable and have been cast in terms of good and evil. We found out last year we had something really big to do. We had to end a pandemic. We had a President who sowed division, and the result is that hundreds of thousands are dead.
Obama did what you are talking about, in terms of making compromises in the way he talked about certain issues. And Obama was also trying to put forward an idea of America that is patriotic, that is aware of its flaws, and that says the arc of history bends toward justice, and so on. And it then felt like half the country, in 2015, responded to seven years of this by choosing a lunatic white nationalist to be its nominee for President. I wonder how much it’s in the control of, say, one side of the political spectrum to bring the other side back.
Well, I agree. First of all, I agree about Obama. His decency, his dignity, his ability to explain what democracy is—I’m not sure we’ll ever see that again. We’ll be lucky if we do. And you’re right that eight years of Obama in some ways gave us Trump. Trump barely won, and I think Obama would have been elected to a third term. So it’s not as though there was a wild rejection of him. But there was a rejection of perhaps some of the things he stood for, and perhaps of the multicultural, multiracial America that he embodied, by forty-six per cent of the country. Or maybe a little less, because the motives of Trump voters are very hard to break down. The Democrats did all they could in the early Obama years to find some common ground, even with large majorities in Congress. And instead they got the back of the hand of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, just as Biden is getting it now.
I’m really quite divided about this, Isaac. The book is kind of a quarrel with myself because, on the one hand, I am in a state of utter disgust and rage at the Republican Party, and its lies, its conspiracies, its racism, its cynicism. Really, nihilism is the only word for it. And that’s with us all the time, and we have to fight it. When someone’s in a fight with you, you can’t just say, “We’re not fighting.” You have to fight. And yet I wrote the book with both despair and a need for some hope. Am I really prepared to say it’s over? That we’re two countries, and one of them is going to have to defeat, and in some ways destroy, the other? I just couldn’t quite face that thought. I still am looking for some way to describe us as a people, as Americans. I have a list of qualities that I think apply to most of us, that foreigners immediately pick up as American traits. We use first names with strangers. We’re informal with waiters. We’re loud. We’re naïve. We’re arrogant. We’re nice. We are blunt. These are gross generalizations, but I think they have some truth to them. And they all come, in some ways, from that original passion for equality. I don’t want to become two countries. I just think it’s a nightmare scenario, and so I’m maybe a little bit quixotically doing what I can to put a thread in us.
I think there are two questions. Can you do things in your rhetoric or in your politics to make your party less toxic for the six percentage points of people between forty-seven per cent and fifty-three per cent? Absolutely. Can the rightward forty-five per cent of the country at this point be talked to? That I have much more skepticism about, because of social media, because of the conservative information environment. It’s hard to even begin to think how you start reaching a giant chunk of Real America. It’s even hard to understand how you get your message to them.
I agree. I don’t think you can persuade people. Persuasion doesn’t work. I had this idea about the way international organizations go into Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Israel and just get the warring sides to build a school together, or put on a play together. Projects on that scale—which is where national service comes in again—seem like a better way than just attempting to give a big speech in the Obama mode, saying, “There is no Red America, there is no Blue America,” because that doesn’t work.
The other thing that I hold some hope in, in lowering the temperature, is simply improving the material conditions of people’s lives through government. That is Biden’s project. I think it’s exactly the right one. It’s the first time since Free America emerged, in the nineteen-eighties, that we’ve had a serious new political project as ambitious as that—of simply improving people’s lives in jobs, in working conditions, giving labor more power, breaking up monopolies, providing health care. These are all obviously pie in the sky, because people are trying to do this and right now, with Congress, it isn’t happening. But this is the direction we have to go in. Because I think the two things that have driven us to the state of frenzy we’re in right now are, one, the rise of a multiracial, multicultural America in the last half century and, two, the decline of industrial America into the postindustrial service economy, which has been so bad for so many people. Those two things together, I think, have given us Real America.
You say at the end of the book that you don’t particularly want to live in any of the four Americas you define. I think a lot of liberal readers who read the book will feel that maybe they want some combination of Just America and Smart America. But why does neither of them appeal to you?
Smart America is where I mostly live, but it’s no longer a meritocracy, if it ever was. It is a new aristocracy of credentials, and people are born into it. The chances of a poor American kid getting into one of the top Ivy League schools today are the same as they were in 1954. There has been no progress in terms of higher education opening up to Americans of lower classes. And so, if Smart America is a new aristocracy in which families essentially pass on membership to their children, then it’s in the end going to be a destructive force, even if a lot of good things have come from it.
And Just America: it’s a necessary slap in the face to my generation and to the complacency of most Americans, who don’t want to know the history of race in this country. Remember the slogan when Obama first ran? “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run, so we could all fly.” It was a really optimistic picture of incremental but inevitable progress. And Just America has rightly said, “That’s not working for a lot of Americans who still are second-class citizens.”
But I think Just America has gone in the direction of a dead end that has some of the illiberal qualities of Real America, and that comes up with a politics and policies that aren’t working and which are going to doom it. And we can get into the reasons why, but I think it’s both increasingly illiberal philosophically—which scares me, since we have so much illiberalism in our society right now—and it’s politically perverse and fails to understand American voters in some basic ways that it needs to if it wants to make real change.
One thing that’s been said is that people on the left claim to speak for women, or people of color, and then, when it comes to the ballot box, Joe Biden overwhelmingly beats all the other Democrats with Black voters. Do you think the fights embodied by Just America at a lot of institutions are going to manifest themselves in politics soon? Or has the threat to liberalism by Just America been overstated?
I think its illiberalism is mostly in our culture: in media, in universities and schools, in philanthropies, arts organizations. That’s where it’s strongest, and at this point it’s dominant. And it’s also becoming more illiberal. But you’re right: in politics, it’s barely got a toehold. And the reasons are complicated, but I think the basic one is that most Americans do not identify, fundamentally, as members of identity groups. They have all kinds of identities. And if you bloc them that way, if you create monoliths, you will end up not speaking to their actual, as people say, lived experience. Instead, you’ll be speaking to them ideologically, and they might tune you out. They might even be repelled by it.
I think there was some evidence of that in the results of the 2020 election, and I think it’s going to continue to happen. For me, material conditions are where the Democratic Party has to put its focus. That doesn’t mean it ignores racism, discrimination, disfranchisement, and the history of all of these. This is a really important impulse and corrective that we’re going through right now. But politically, if that is its message—if identity is its message—I think it’s going to be an uphill battle. I think you lose a lot of people who simply don’t see themselves that way.
That gets back to the question of whether we’re trying to make good policy or win elections, right? One point of view is that you have to be aware of racism and different identities and different inequalities if you want to take the step of improving everyone’s life. At the same time, you may not sell those policies through the frame of specific identities.
Right. So, for example, in the covid-relief bill, there’s several billion dollars for disadvantaged farmers. And those are mostly Black farmers who have been dispossessed through decades by the Department of Agriculture and by state and local governments. To me, it’s a kind of reparations, and a necessary one. It wasn’t highlighted in the bill. Biden didn’t announce it as an important new policy development. But it’s in the bill, it’s in the law, because fairness demanded it. And now it’s the subject of lawsuits. And that’s probably an inevitable outcome. But, for fairness, it was necessary.
But there are other issues where I don’t think this helps at all, either in politics or policy. For example, do we get rid of standardized testing because there are disparate outcomes between groups? To me, that’s like saying “Do we stop looking at the data on poverty because there are disparate outcomes among different groups?” No. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help in policy because you won’t know what works and what doesn’t, and it doesn’t help politically because I think most people still have the idea that individual effort makes a difference and that it should be rewarded.
You described Just America’s feelings, or their actions, as a slap in the face of previous generations. Another way to describe those feelings is the inevitable result of the inequalities that your book sketches. Do you think you’re more likely to say, when looking back on Just America in this period, “Wow, that was a crazy time that many of our institutions on the left went through, and they did a lot of harm,” or “You know what? There was some craziness there, but over all this was inevitable, and it had to happen, and this is how history functions”?
The nineteen-sixties are on my mind a lot. I’m identifying, to some degree, with my parents, who were in their forties and on a college campus during the student revolution, and it was not an easy time. And I think we’re going through something not unlike that: a generational conflict in which the young think the old have sold them out, and the old think the young are arrogant and foolish. The answer to your question depends on how much can be achieved by this movement. The Vietnam War ended, and it ended to some degree because of the antiwar movement. Even more, segregation ended because of the civil-rights movement. If Just America can reform policing, and make our criminal-justice system less barbaric, and close the wealth gap, and close the achievement gap, then I’d say all the angst that comes from reading Twitter and the exchange of vitriol that goes on all the time in our culture and in our media will seem trivial. My worry is that the philosophical and practical direction of this movement is making those achievements less likely. And, if I’m wrong, then I’d be actually quite happy.
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Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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George Packer
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Identity Politics
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