Andrew Bacevich reviews George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker.
According to Bacevich, Packer’s book examines “what happens to a society that privileges unencumbered individual autonomy over all other values?” Here is a taste of the review:
Surveying the last several decades of life in the United States, the author recounts the demise of what Packer calls the Roosevelt Republic, the arrangements dating from the New Deal and World War II that had provided the foundation for the postwar era. However imperfectly, those arrangements had benefited ordinary Americans, most notably in the realm of economic life. A steady job that paid enough for your average working stiff to buy a house and raise a family—this defined the signature of the Roosevelt Republic. As long as the norms governing that republic prevailed, the leaders of basic institutions, public and private alike, displayed a modicum of responsibility and self-restraint. It wasn’t utopia, but for tens of millions of beneficiaries, it wasn’t half bad.
Those norms have now collapsed, the resulting void being filled by a predatory combine of Big Money partnering with Big Government, with doleful consequences for society as a whole. To illustrate those consequences, Packer charts in sympathetic detail the struggles of ordinary people hammered by bewildering economic upheaval, social dislocation and moral anomie. His principal protagonists—a single mom in a dying Rust Belt city determined to do right by her kids, the son of a tobacco grower vainly pursuing up-by-your-own-bootstraps dreams of entrepreneurial success, a college kid fired by a determination to redeem politics who ends up a self-loathing K Street lobbyist, a newspaper reporter clinging to the belief that blowing the whistle on wrongdoers ought to generate outrage and action—demonstrate a sort of stubborn gallantry. But faced with a system rigged in favor of those who already wield the power and have the money, their heroics prove futile.
Interspersed in this bleak chronicle are shorter profiles of those who preside over and sustain the new order. Although Packer adds little to what we already know about these figures—among them, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin and Oprah Winfrey—his account affirms the mediocrity, shallowness and mendacity of what passes today for an American elite. Once admitted to its ranks, members of this elite play by a different set of rules. “The establishment,” writes Packer, “could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino.” To the game’s beneficiaries, the rules—and the protective provisos they enshrine—make perfect sense.