The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America
by George Packer.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $27.

Liberal journalist George Packer has written a conservative book. At least, I found it to be conservative, at its core. In this “inner history of the new America,” ordinary people search for order, permanence, and meaning in an unsettling and shifty landscape. The things Americans used to depend on—the engine of the economy, the fairness of government, the sanctity of the home—are either gone or badly shaken. Packer’s book illuminates the real human dimension behind our recent economic upheavals, especially the collapse of 2008, but the real message is more fundamental. Can we regain the community and sense of purpose we have lost?

For Packer, the answer appears to be yes. He believes we have encountered several “unwinding” in our history, but, encouragingly, they are always followed by a period of regrouping and reuniting. “Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.” For the “formerly middle class,” as one of his interviewees puts it—the postwar prosperity era is finished. But he deals mainly with economic, not social disintegration. Many of his characters suffer through social disorder, but he doesn’t pinpoint that as a cause. Perhaps that’s why Packer remains a liberal. If he were a conservative, he’d see this social unwinding as more of an unraveling. At least that’s how I see it, having read the book in the Summer of Trayvon.

But as for this unwinding—when did it begin? We cannot pinpoint it as much as sense it. Packer’s narratives begin in the early 1980s, during the rise of the free trade era, but he identifies the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999—the handiwork of Democrats and Republicans—as a key milestone. It allowed banks to speculate freely with people’s deposits. Some argue the wall between investment and commercial banking had already broken down and it wouldn’t have mattered. But to Packer, a key piece of legislation that had prevented a collapse for decades was undone. Packer distributes the blame for this legislative debacle widely.

Packer’s style and format imitates that of his hero John Dos Passos, the chronicler of the post–World War I “unwinding.” (Dos Passos became a conservative later in life. Quo vadis, George?) He tells how several Americans sought to reestablish stability while the world they used to know disappeared around them. One is a woman factory worker from Youngstown. Another is a white entrepreneur from Rockingham County, North Carolina. A third, a disillusioned Washington lobbyist from Alabama. And the fourth, the genius technology promoter Peter Thiel. They represent four Americas: the vanishing industrial small city, the declining country, the cynical capital, and the still-prospering Silicon Valley.

These main portraits are compelling and, taken together, create a coherent picture. Tammy, the industrial worker from Youngstown, presents an image of courage and persistence, dealing with each disappointment and betrayal without losing hope. Child of a junkie and a teen mother, she has each factory job pulled out from under her as companies are bought out, restructured, or go broke. Somehow, she manages to keep her children in school and away from the mistakes she made. She finds some degree of community and stability by local activism.

Dean, the rural entrepreneur, represents something of an American archetype: the huckster visionary influenced by Napoleon Hill aphorisms. Dean makes a fortune and loses it starting truck stops and fast food restaurants until he has a vision to solve the problem of peak oil and revive rural Virginia and North Carolina. He envisions a new fuel industry based on canola oil for diesel trucks. Although Dean might seem like a typical striver, his chief goal is not wealth, but to “be independent, to be left alone.”

Jeff, the lobbyist, comes to Washington hoping to reach the pinnacle of power on Senator Joe Biden’s coattails. Hard to believe anyone could be so inspired by Biden, but here it is. Jeff’s disillusionment didn’t take long. Along the way, he describes how New York and Washington are ruled by “the Blob,” his term for our “meritocratic” ruling elite that glides between government, business, and lobbying. As Jeff puts it, “Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy.” Little wonder how this insulated class contributes to the deeper problems.

Thiel, a brooding libertarian, plays the role of sage commentator in the book. This genius tech investor—the founder of Paypal, among other things—comes to realize the new technology innovations like Facebook are really, in the end, just about self-absorbed entertainment. These tech applications are pale substitutes for the industrial advances of the last century that gave better lives to millions.

Placed around these individual narratives, Packer interlaces portraits of famous Americans who capture the spirit of the age. Sam Walton, the king of retail who combined down-to-earth manners with a take-no-prisoners business ethos. Robert Rubin, the wizard of Wall Street and key “Blob” figure who somehow didn’t see it all coming. Jay-Z, the drug dealer become music impresario, for whom “selfishness was the response to the reality he faced.” And Oprah, the failed newsreader who becomes the emotive queen of all media. Updating Dos Passos’s “newsreels,” Packer divides his sections with Drudge Report-like headlines and quotes that highlight the era’s “instant-celebrity” distractions from what is truly happening. Packer’s format and easy writing style keeps this long book quick-paced.

The 2008 real estate bubble, this body blow to the American psyche, eventually takes center stage in the narrative. Some of Packer’s minor characters had tried to flip houses, and lost everything. They were not rich to begin with but only trying to make a better life for themselves. It is hard not to feel sorry for these people. But in the end, they were speculating over their heads. No one forced them to flip houses. Still, one of the more rewarding episodes in the book follows a lawyer who represented people evicted by the banks. He attended the “rocket dockets” in the Florida courts, dealing with thousands of foreclosures a day. In Tampa, the center of the fallout, he won every case against the banks because mortgages had changed hands so many times the courts couldn’t ascertain who held the real note. Property ownership, that “last metaphysical right,” has ceased to have real meaning.

Loss of community, especially among longtime Americans, runs through the book. What do rootless Americans have to fall back on now? In contrast, one of the few immigrant stories, of an Indian woman who fought to keep her struggling Hampton Inn, describes how help from her extended family enabled her to keep fighting in the courts. “Not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.”

The government bailed out parts of Wall Street, let other parts fail, took over American Insurance Group, and nationalized General Motors. We can argue how much government played a role in setting up the crisis, but in the end, capitalism itself had failed. At one point, Thiel warns candidate Mitt Romney that his message of unbridled business optimism might not resonate with a public faced with this reality. In the end, the candidate who promised a permanent safety net won.

Packer sympathizes with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, focusing on its complaints about how the public bears the fallout and how Wall Street gets the bailout. Packer doesn’t overlook this movement’s faults. In the Occupiers’ defense, though, they pointed out how unfair much of the system is, especially for those burdened with crippling debt for dubious education. The section on the Occupy movement is balanced with a fair treatment of the Tea Party. He sees, rightly I think, a convergence between these groups. To his credit, Packer writes at a higher altitude than partisan politics.

Will we be able to rewind? Stubborn issues, unaddressed and practically taboo, still loom. Inequality is growing in America. Illegitimate births are becoming the norm. Suicides are rising every year, pointing to a severe happiness deficit. Money no longer serves as a store of value. The Fed inflates the market by “quantitative easing,” the defining euphemism of our times. An ad for something called “reverse mortgages” is hosted by a former Republican candidate. Stand by for the next bubble.  

Michael J. Ard, a former government analyst and 1996 Richard M. Weaver fellow, works in the energy industry and writes from Katy, Texas.