America Unwound

Reporter George Packer explains how the erosion of American institutions led to an unwinding of our society.

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The financial crisis of 2008 is commonly seen as the cause of today's challenging economic landscape, but some say the changes actually began decades ago. In "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," New Yorker staff writer George Packer explores, through individual stories, how the erosion of America's institutions over the past three decades has impacted lives. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the source of the breakdown, the role of celebrities, and what the unwinding means for American society. Excerpts:

Where did the idea for this book come from?

I was a reporter in Iraq and wrote a book about the war, and over time I began to feel that what went wrong in Iraq wasn't just individual leadership but institutions failing: government, the media, banks, corporations. I began to think of it as not just something that happened once in one year but a long period of things coming undone in this country. I wanted to write a narrative and find the best stories that would allow me to tell the story of the last 30 years in America.

How did you select which stories to tell?

Some of it was by chance. I met Dean Price, who is an entrepreneur in North Carolina, while working on another story. His chain of truck stops in North Carolina and Virginia was struggling, but Dean had a vision that all the problems in rural America might be solved if only they could start producing things again. He was on such a quest, and he was such a deeply American person that I felt this is a man I want to put in the book. The others were similar; people who were both representative of things larger than themselves but completely compelling as individuals.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

What did you hope to show about American culture by writing this book?

Our institutions no longer support the aspirations of our people. Instead, we have a culture in which elites have their way and wealth concentrates more and more at the top. Once the bonds that tie different groups of Americans together are severed – and I think that's what's happened in this unwinding – people take shortcuts. They think the game is rigged and, if it is rigged, why keep playing by the rules when the people you see winning are not?

When did the unwinding begin?

I don't think there's any particular moment. The book begins in 1978 somewhat arbitrarily, but also because around that time certain things stopped working. The idea that business and labor needed each other for both to thrive began to come apart in the '70s, when business turned into a big lobby in Washington, and labor became calcified. The tax revolt and really the revolt against government began during that period. De-industrialization began in Youngstown, which is an important city in the book because one of my characters, Tammy Thomas, has lived there all her life. Youngstown fell apart in the late '70s, and also the new economy of the information age began at that same moment. So a lot of things can be dated back to that period.

How is the U.S. different from what it was in the past?

One example is the role celebrities play. Because institutions began to decline, celebrities sort of rose in their place. And now, instead of a healthy school system, we have the head of Facebook [Mark Zuckerberg] saving a school system. Instead of a healthy literary culture, we have Oprah saving books. We have celebrities taking over institutions and becoming godlike and a kind of class unto themselves.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

What has been the media's role in the unwinding?

The media has unwound. Basically no one trusts the news anymore. There's not a common set of facts that we can all agree on as a starting point for discussing public policy. Instead, everyone has their own facts bolstered by their own favorite websites and cable news programs. The figure that represents that in my book is Andrew Breitbart. He stepped into the void and polarized the media, which is a perfect example of how the old institutions that used to support the majority of people eroded away.