The New Yorker journalist on the decadence of Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley; institutional decay; and the widening gulf between rich and poor in America.
Image by Guillermo Riveros
I’m sitting across from George Packer at a calm coffee shop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights discussing his recently published narrative of middle class stagnation. In the work, Packer surveys the massive social and economic changes of the past three decades, and maintains that “the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip” has given way. His phone rings, he looks down to check the caller, and finishes a thought. “Somehow the democratization of everything from politics to media has not made for a more egalitarian state,” he says. “We’ve traded security for freedom.”
Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker, whose other works include The Assassins’ Gate, an award-winning book about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Taking a cue from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America offers a mixed portrait of the national fabric being ripped apart by decadence and new norms of poverty. As a work of history, the “unwinding” refers to a protracted process of ideological decay, moving from the relative assurances of the 1960s and 1970s that jobs awaited high school and college grads to a present culture that wantonly foists or withholds its rewards. Assembled as a series of profiles through history that span Silicon Valley, Washington, Wall Street, and the heartlands, the work covers the likes of Oprah, venture capital giants like Peter Thiel, and “ordinary” Americans like the Hartzells, a family staggering their way through the modern economy between bouts of near homelessness, unemployment, medical bills, and chronic demoralization.
Later in our conversation, Packer abruptly shakes his head and apologizes. “I’ve lost my train of thought. That was the Hartzells on the phone. I wonder what’s going on now.”
—Katherine Rowland for Guernica
Guernica: Was it the 2008/2009 financial meltdown that prompted you to write The Unwinding?
George Packer: I think it came out my work in Iraq, where I had seen the spectacular failure across the board of individuals and institutions. I came home in 2008 and covered the election and financial crisis and it seemed as if some historic collapse was going on with the banks, with automakers, and housing. It made me think in larger terms than just one election cycle. I saw Obama as a transformational figure coming out of the collapse, which proved not to be true—not necessarily by fault of his own. Somehow, the rot was so advanced that he would reach for a lever and it didn’t connect to anything.
So, I thought this has been a long period of institutional decay—how do you write a book about that? It’s a big subject, it’s worthy, but I was bored at the mere thought of writing a book about that with the kind of analysis and prescriptive writing that comes and goes very easily. There are a lot of books like that. Some of them are very good, and some of them aren’t, but they’re all kind of forgettable.
Guernica: And there have been so many in recent days. In a recent piece for The New Yorker you touched on the glut of new depression journalism.
George Packer: That was a little more what I was thinking I wanted to do, in the narrative mode, travel around the country. My instinct told me that the more vivid and dramatic way to get at this was to leave New York and Washington, which is where 99 percent of the journalism takes place, which means in this redux of the 30s, a ton of it’s about hedge fund managers and fights in the Congress. My instinct was to leave the centers of power, but I still didn’t know how that would all be a book. I just started doing a lot of reporting without a structure, which is a very frightening thing to do.
Dos Passos once said that he was writing history as it was felt in people’s nerves, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.
Guernica: What was your first dive into these subjects?
George Packer: The first dive was a piece about the housing bust in Tampa, which I did for The New Yorker right after the election of Obama in ’08, and it told me that something new was going on. The way people lived was changing dramatically: abandoned exurban communities, the heartbreaking stories, some of them pathetic, and it told me there’s something here, this is a big shift away from the sprawl model, away from the Sun Belt. But that too doesn’t seem like it’s connected to the other things I wanted to write about—such as the failure of Wall Street, the failure of Washington, the bottoming out of the economy.
Guernica: How did you find the characters to start telling this bigger story?
George Packer: It was serendipity to some extent, and it was because I was working as a journalist at The New Yorker and reporting around what’s happening in a recession in America. I was writing about Tom Perriello, a one-term congressman from Southern Virginia, a democrat in a very red district, barely got elected, and his office was looking for alternative energy projects to get stimulus grants for, and I heard about this biodiesel truck stop in Martinsville, Virginia—farm to pump—and got on the phone with this guy Dean Price. Within thirty seconds of hearing his pitch—a very passionate and original pitch about what’s happening to the Piedmont, to the jobs, how the big box stores are sucking all the money out, he had this worked-out story about why you needed to get back to the local production—I told him to stop talking because I was afraid he would spend it. It turned out he didn’t––we went over and over and over that pitch, I heard him give that talk about a hundred times and it always sounded fresh, always sounded like he had just had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, like a religious revelation had come down upon him. I met him, put him in that story about Obama’s first year.
Later that year I was telling my wife, I don’t know what to do with this book, I’ve got a contract, I’ve got an idea, but I don’t know how to put it together. And she said, you were interested in that guy Dean Price. So I headed back down there—he was sitting on the front porch waiting for me—and I sat down and said, I want to write about you, about the changes happening in America, and he said, I’d be honored. That was the beginning of two years of visit to his house, staying off and on, in a bedroom without a door on it. That was maybe the key turn: to find him and realize you could make a book about a guy like Dean Price.
Guernica: Did you then begin to identify characters who you felt conveyed a particular story, captured some particular aspect of this unwinding?
George Packer: Yes, I was spending a lot of time with Dean and realized there are a lot of really interesting things happening out in the country: people are in a state of agitation, alertness, they’re asking fundamental questions about their life, their government, their country. I thought this is the way to do it. But I also felt that Washington had to be in there. Once I stumbled on the idea of doing it through people’s lives, I just needed one person from Washington. The thing that had me defeated was thinking I had to wrap my arms around the entire country, around a whole generation—who can do that? What kind of book would that be? I would die before I could get that done. I kept thinking about V.S. Naipaul’s book, The Loss of El Dorado, which was supposed to be a travel book about Venezuela, and ended up being this hybrid about the world, and nearly destroyed him.
I had been thinking about Dos Passos’s U.S.A. as a kind of hail mary model for this because his project was similar, but at the other end of the century when we were a rising power. U.S.A. is really about the making of the country as a great power and the unmaking of what traditionally held it together.
I wanted to do something full of juxtaposition, with connections that aren’t made explicit, history as the throughline. Dos Passos once said that he was writing history as it was felt in people’s nerves, and that was exactly what I wanted to do. I had never written a book that was as hard to figure out. So what I did was write each of the stories through, which is something I’d never done. So I had a puzzle with all these pieces. And then I thought, well I need to read about the world of celebrities and the world of the history-makers, which has so many interesting resonances with the bottom world for most Americans.
Guernica: You included a newsreel component as well.
George Packer: Yes, which my editor and I called mashups, which would put a window into the collective mind. What I needed was some apparatus of history, but not conventional history.
Guernica: There’s also a story that reads almost like a parable of the fall occurring between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What’s happened in that period with regard to the middle class?
George Packer: That’s part of the story. I had seen this in more political terms as sort of the end of the conservative era. The Reagan era began in 1980 and ended in 2008, that was my historical hypothesis. Now I’m remembering other false starts, like I spent months reading the literature of the neoconservatives of the 1970s to get into the mindset of the early Reagan years. But all of that fell by the wayside when I figured out I could do it through characters. It was these people who took me to the big theme of the social contract. It was in all their lives. It used to be that jobs were going to be there when you left high school in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Screw-up students went to textile factories, and better students went to the RJ Reynolds Warehouse, believe it or not, and the really good students went to community college. And that doesn’t happen anymore, those jobs aren’t there. The screw-up students are doing meth and hanging out at the pool hall and the bowling alley.
If it had been a plague it would have been a historic event, but it was economic dislocation, so it’s considered a natural process.
I didn’t look for it, it was there everywhere—the sense that not necessarily a wonderful life, but a decent life had been available to the majority, and it was gone. You could see its absence on these main streets. It was traumatic. It’s become normal to people who live there, but you get people talking about it and there are ghosts everywhere. As one man said to me, if it had been a plague it would have been a historic event, but it was economic dislocation, so it’s considered a natural process.
Guernica: It was your sense that it had become normal for the people going through it?
George Packer: I didn’t sense that they thought it was normal, but that they had stopped thinking about it all the time because they had to live in it.
It began to seem like we’re talking about vastly different Americas.
Guernica: Like the Tolstoy line—“There are no conditions to which a man cannot become accustomed.”
George Packer: Heartbreaking line. But you start asking people about the middle class, and people say there is no middle class here, there’s only rich or poor, a lot of poor. When I chose to go through the characters, that was the story of their lives. It began to seem like we’re talking about vastly different Americas, and I thought about the America of the 1960s and 70s, which I grew up in, and I have to issue a lot of caveats about how many injustices there were—there was a lot of poverty and it was rigid; people’s lives were constrained—but there were places for opportunity and for people’s lives to work out, and the difference was the gaps weren’t so vast. I would go on these trips to Youngstown, or North Carolina, or Tampa, and feel like I was getting farther from Brooklyn than when I went to Burma or Baghdad. Somehow the democratization of everything from politics to media has not made for a more egalitarian state. We’ve traded security for freedom.
Guernica: You also discuss the erosion of taboo. What activities are we seeing now that weren’t really conceivable before?
George Packer: Taboos and norms are maybe undervalued as bulwarks of society. In the 1970s a CEO would unthinkingly have an affair with his secretary and would crack an ethnic joke or use a racial slur. He would not lay off 20 percent of the workforce while the board gave him a big pay raise, because that violated a norm. It wasn’t written anywhere, there was no law saying here’s the limit to what the difference between what CEO and average worker pay can be, but it was kept relatively low because that kept the peace.
But now that’s gone. The affair would get him in trouble; the racial slur would probably get him fired. But he’s rewarded for trashing his workforce. It’s considered a good move by Wall Street.
Guernica: I wonder if the idea of the bottomless fall is now a norm, something we accept as a society as a corollary to the eternal ascent.
George Packer: If there is going to be Oprah, there’s also going to be the counter Oprah, where there is no bottom to the fall.
One of the families that I wrote about was the Hartzells in Tampa, and these people are alive and their stories continue in this tragic way, and partly through their own doing—the counterpart to the awful CEO behavior are demoralized workers. Danny Hartzell got fired from Target, got fired from Walmart, stopped working, relied on his daughter’s SSI check, his brother’s Walmart check, had a falling out with his brother and suddenly the bottom in the trapdoor opened up. This all just happened in the past few months—their pets died. They lived out of a motel.
They finally got an apartment in a bad neighborhood, a crappy place and meanwhile, they haven’t been able to pay for the storage and the storage company auctioned off everything. So what is the larger lesson? Thirty years ago, Danny Hartzell would have kept working because there would have been some kind of blue collar job that would have kept him afloat and he would have been able to do it with self-respect. But in the age of Walmart that doesn’t exist anymore. He got demoralized and there’s no floor underneath him. I’ve been living that day to day. I get text messages and phone calls.
Guernica: How do you handle that?
George Packer: I just let them know that I care. I write back from time to time, I help as much as I feel like I can. Other people have come forward and helped them when they heard the story. But there is a huge need and this is not the way to fix it. We have a welfare system, but there’s no glue holding it all together. They’re on their own. They’re so alone.
Guernica: I’ve been interested in how, with the crumbling of these taboos, there is a rise in myth and magical ideation, like the idea that positive thinking can create positive circumstances. Can we think of that as a symptom of sorts of the failure of the social contact?
George Packer: Absolutely. That thinking tends to flourish in times of dramatic upheaval, like the “mind cure” in the late nineteenth century, when industrialization and urbanization were changing American life and tearing up the old social contract.
I think it becomes strongest when the older channels of upward mobility are blocked off, or the older fixed identities start to melt away. And so a gilded age, robber baron-era school of thought has come back today. Dean has found all these older preachers of it. He has all these books, one is The Prosperity Bible, which has instruction and essays from philosophers from the last 150 years who subscribe to the idea that there is a secret to success and it’s in your mind.
Guernica: Like the Law of Attraction—
George Packer: What was that book that Oprah touted?
Guernica: The Secret.
George Packer: It seems harmless and maybe even beneficial for people who don’t have an advanced degree or a secure income, but I think it can actually be quite dangerous. It’s a false picture of life, and as I wrote about Oprah it has this subtle demoralizing effect as her life just gets more fairylandish, while you don’t see your life change. She’s the proof: the better she does, the more it’s true. So we have to hope she continues to succeed spectacularly so that the rest of us can as well.
I graduated from high school in Silicon Valley in 1978, the year of Proposition 13—which is a marker for the beginning of the unwinding, when the people of California decided they’d rather have lower property taxes than good schools.
Guernica: The book reads as a product of your generation, being in the front seat for the crumbling of these structures and moving into the increasing insecurity and freedom of the present. Is this also a personal story for you?
George Packer: In a way. Although I’m doing OK. I can’t say America has failed me. My Yale degree, although in a subject that wasn’t going to get me a job, gave me a lot. So it’s not a story about my own fall from some hitherto charmed place. I made a very important choice not to use the first person, and that allowed the characters to take over. It meant that I was tied to their point of view as much as possible.
Silicon Valley has meaning to me; it’s where I grew up. Its transformation is a transformation of my childhood, my hometown. I graduated from high school there in 1978, the year of Proposition 13—which is a marker for the beginning of the unwinding, when the people of California decided they’d rather have lower property taxes than good schools, and thirty-five years later that’s what we got. But this book is about America, in an impersonal way. There are very few moments of generalization; it works by assembling particulars. I’ve stepped out of the way and presented an array of characters to tell the story.
What I saw out there was a Silicon Valley like Wall Street and Washington, where people go to cash out, divorced from their ostensible functions.
Guernica: What about the millennials, who haven’t been privy to the same experiences of social transformation and loss. Where will they come out? Can they benefit from this greater sense of freedom?
George Packer: It depends on where those millennials are sitting. If they’re sitting in a office south of Market in San Francisco, and I talked to a lot of people like that when I wrote about Silicon Valley for The New Yorker, it’s hard to see the downside of freedom, and of the wide open possibilities. To them Silicon Valley is an absolute meritocracy, the best idea wins, so if you have a good idea, then the sky is the limit. Of course there are all kinds of factors that compromise that—where you grew up, where you went to school, who are your friends, who helped you out when you were getting started and had no capital—it’s a nourishing myth, it makes a lot of things possible, but I think we’ve taken it to a limit.
Think about Cleveland. Those crimes that came to light recently, the serial murders and the kidnappings, just gave you the sense that giant chunks of a major American city had become lawless. No one was paying attention.
Will that cost people south of Market anything? Their eyes are on other countries. They don’t necessarily feel connected to Cleveland; they may feel more connected to China. But I think there is some law of physical life that will not allow the country to pull apart beyond a certain breaking point without having negative consequences for everybody. Even for people with enough money. I don’t quite know what it’s going to be to push people too far—whether it’s crime, or a totally broken political system.
What I saw out there was Silicon Valley was dangerously close to a decadent stage where we’re no longer solving important problems or discovering important things that will fundamentally change our lives for the better. It’s like Wall Street and Washington: people go to cash out, divorced from their ostensible functions. Wall Street was supposed to provide credit to the economy. Washington was supposed to provide sensible legislation and representation, and Silicon Valley is supposed to create engineering products that change lives, and I don’t see that happening in a very persuasive scale anymore. They’re all mimicking each other in their decadence.
So all of this sounds horribly twilight-of-the-gods and I have no thoughts on the future; I refuse prognostication. That’s where we’ve come to when I say we’ve maxed out the potential of freedom. When Martin Luther King used the word in the March on Washington, the climax was the stance on the absolute release of potential, liberation down to the bottom of our souls. But freedom as an app is not the same thing.