Packer has a story to tell about our decline, and he tells it well. As industrial America gradually yielded to services and the information economy, rising inequality “undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy,” he asserts. “The post-industrial era has concentrated political and economic power in just a few hands and denied ordinary people control of their own lives.”
As the industrial era waned, the New Deal party alignment gave way to four Americas:
●Free America, economic conservatives and religious traditionalists whose organizing principle is a leave-us-alone, “Don’t Tread on Me” conception of liberty.
●Real America, an assemblage of white Christian nationalists for whom the principle of moral equality has curdled into resentment against experts and bureaucrats.
●Smart America, the winners of the new economy’s meritocratic competition for wealth and status.
●Just America, the home of identity politics with race at its core.
Each of these new Americas reflects the broken promise of equality, Packer says, and all are driven by a competition for status, which is inherently zero-sum.
Packer’s sharp portraits of these new tribes are the heart of this book, and his critique of them reveal his central concerns. Free Americans’ individualistic, leave-me-alone conception of freedom is fundamentally flawed, he insists; freedom rightly understood is “the ability to participate fully in social and political life.” Real Americans’ legitimate economic complaints take the unproductive form of resentment that can level others down but cannot elevate themselves. Smart Americans have decoupled themselves from their less fortunate fellow citizens, so much so that the lives of the working class have become unknown territory and their beliefs, objects of disdain.
Packer’s toughest criticisms are reserved for Just America, in which he discerns tendencies toward “monolithic group thought, hostility to open debate, and a taste for moral coercion.” Just Americans, he charges, cannot talk about the hardest racial issues: the role of individual agency and responsibility, not just structures and systems; young Black men, not the police, as the “main source of violence in Black neighborhoods”; the “stubborn divide between Black and white students in academic assessments.” For Just Americans, he says, “any disparity is by definition racist, as is any attempt to analyze the disparity with other terms” — a perspective that chills scholarship and frank conversation.
Packer is horrified by the impact of mostly young Just Americans on journalism. He regards the departure of a senior New York Times editor for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton as a supine abdication to staff pressure with broader implications for the profession: “The parameters of publishable opinion are a lot narrower than they used to be. A written thought can be a form of violence. The loudest public voices in a controversy will prevail. Offending them can cost you your career. Justice is power.”
Just America’s “origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of left-wing ideology in the 1930s,” Packer writes. Not only is Just America’s post-liberal attack on liberal values such as free speech and individual responsibility deeply unfair, he says, it is dangerous. Its rising power in culture and politics is likely to produce a backlash that will weaken the forces of progress and leave the country even worse off.
Packer’s account of America’s decline into destructive tribalism is always illuminating and often dazzling, even though it leaves out tens of millions of Americans who belong to none of the four tribes and see them for what they are. His account is distorted, however, by its core premise that economic inequality is driving all our other pathologies (including, apparently, Just America) and that increased equality can cure them. The consequence is tunnel vision; place, culture, religion, demography, even immigration go largely unseen and are treated as effects rather than causes when they make cameo appearances.
Packer occasionally reveals some ambivalence about his emphasis on economics. “Culture usually beats class in American politics,” he acknowledges at one point. But he fails to integrate this insight into his narrative. Despite his strictures against Just America, he ends up telling today’s Democratic coalition what it wants to hear: you can succeed by focusing on economic equality and political reform without revisiting the positions on issues such as crime and religious liberty that have driven much of the opposition to the left since the 1960s.
Although Packer is right to focus on the revolt of the White working class against the Democratic Party — one of the most important political developments of the past half-century — he gets the story backward. “The more the party identified with the winners of the new economy,” he alleges, “the easier it became for the Republican Party to pull away white workers by appealing to cultural values.” This is not true; the White working-class revolt, which began in 1968, was sparked by the antiwar movement, patriotism, the counterculture and school busing — not economics. In 1972, George McGovern, tagged as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” received the lowest share of the White working-class vote Democrats have ever received, before or since.
“The 1990s,” Packer says, “were the years when Democrats embraced Smart America and lost the white working class.” This is not true either. Bill Clinton received a larger share of the White working-class vote in 1992 than did George H.W. Bush, and he repeated the feat against Bob Dole four years later. Although Al Gore lost the White working-class vote to George W. Bush in 2000, he still got a larger share than had Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 or Michael Dukakis in 1988.
There are reason for this: not only did the Clinton/Gore administration steer a moderate course on cultural issues such as welfare, crime and abortion, but also the 1990s were reasonably good years economically for the White working class. The number of manufacturing jobs remained roughly constant through the 1990s, and working-class wages corrected for inflation rose by about 10 percent.
The turning-point came not in the 1990s, but in the first decade of the 21st century, when the United States lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs (about one-third of the 2000 total), and working-class wages fell by 10 percent. China’s entrance into the WTO was responsible for part of that decline (economists debate how much), automation and the Great Recession for the rest. By the final year of the Obama administration, six years after the official end of the Great Recession, few of the lost manufacturing jobs had been regained, and working-class wages remained below their 2000 peak. Many working-class voters felt ignored by elites in both political parties (including Barack Obama, the avatar of the meritocracy), setting the stage for the showdown between Smart America and Real America that opened the door for Donald Trump.
The presiding heroes of this book are Walt Whitman and Alexis de Tocqueville, a pairing that points to a tension at the heart of Packer’s program. While Whitman worshiped equality, Tocqueville worried about it. Americans’ passion for equality is so intense, Tocqueville said, that they are prepared to sacrifice everything else in its pursuit, including freedom. In the concluding section of “Democracy in America,” he sketched what he regarded as a possible outcome — a distant central power that takes care of our needs and levels our condition in return for the surrender of self-government and individual liberty.
This tension sounds abstract, a philosophical construct. It isn’t. For example, locally controlled public education is one of the principal remaining sites of self-government. Packer is concerned — rightly — about unequal and inadequate funding for schools that serve minorities and immigrants. His proposal is to shift the base of school revenue from local property taxes toward resources from the federal government and the states. But these nonlocal funds come with mandates and restrictions with which local authorities must comply. More equality can mean less self- government.
Despite our passionate divisions, Packer rightly insists, separation is a fantasy, and so is the permanent victory of any side. We have no choice but to live together — with our disagreements intact — far into the future. To make this work, accepting pluralism must be the rule, imposing national uniformity the exception. This means recovering the virtues of federalism, local self-rule and judicial restraint.
For nearly a century, liberals and progressives have believed that we can only solve our problems by nationalizing them, and there was much evidence to support this view. But we have reached a point of internal division at which the impulse to nationalize has become part of the problem.
Rather than imposing a uniform view from the center, we must focus on persuasion and relearn the art of compromise, which Packer calls “empty.” He is dead wrong. In all but the rarest moments of national unity, honorable compromise is what makes liberal democracy possible.
Last Best Hope
America in Crisis and Renewal
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 226 pp. $27