The real story of the divisions of 2020 and whether we can ever be made whole again.
How do we see each other? Has the SARS-CoV-2 virus made us more fearful of our neighbors? Are we hopelessly and forever divided into our tribes? In their respective campaigns for reelection, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 each carried 49 states. Would that be possible for any candidate today? Why didn’t a worldwide pandemic — a literal threat to every human being — bring us together?
These are just a few of the questions answered by my guest, National Book Award-winning author and Atlantic staff writer George Packer, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. Packer defines and details the four basic groups we’ve divided ourselves into. He discusses the real difference between equity and equality, and why it’s so hard for us to look honestly at ourselves and our country.
Packer, the author most recently of Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, explains how the nation today is like a patient in the high-risk category — and how the SARS-CoV-2 virus could yet finish us off.
The virus found and exploited every fault line and every division in our body politic. It attached to our biases and our weak institutions, and went after every declining social indicator. With the mask as its avatar, it worsened racial inequality, regional differences, and educational and political divisions.
Packer wonders if we are on a downward spiral to a failed state, and asks if collective self-government is even still possible.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. History often tells us that in times of national crisis, we come together: the depression, the war effort, the post-Sputnik Cold War, the assassination of John Kennedy, and certainly 9/11, if only for a brief moment. That paradigm is not always true, the push for civil rights, the divisions of the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon gave us 1968. Today, modern technology, social media, and Donald Trump have given us our current fractured nation. The pandemic, which should have been the penultimate enemy, which should have united us in the world as never before, has had precisely the opposite effect.
The COVID two virus with the help of Donald Trump, frayed and stripped bare almost every aspect of our social and political insulation. The fear and confusion, both real and artificially induced, exposed all of our divisions have fault lines and amped up the anger. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess at this point, and most degree that the prognosis is not preordained. If understanding where we are and how we got here is helpful, then George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope is a noble beginning. George Packer is an award-winning author and staff writer at the Atlantic. Some of his previous books include The Unwinding, the winner of the national book award, and The Assassins’ Gate.
He is also the author of two novels and a play, and the editor of a two-volume edition of the essays of George Orwell. It is my pleasure to welcome George Packer to talk about his newest work, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. George, thanks so much for joining us.
George Packer: It’s always a pleasure to be with you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. One of the things that I was thinking a lot about with respect to so much that you’ve written about is that it’s in a way it should have gone the other way, that the pandemic and all that it brought on should have been some clarion call to unite us, and in fact, exactly the opposite happened.
George: That was my maybe naive hope at the very start. This is a threat that hits every human being, that is the unifying element of it. Everyone is vulnerable, across the country, across the globe, no one has immunity. That should have reminded us of our common humanity and brought us together as Americans because only a national government and a national community could begin to grapple with something on this scale.
Instead, it found every fault line, every division, every bias and weak institution, and declining social indicator, and exploited all of them ruthlessly.
Jeff: It was as if the virus was also a virus on the body politic in this country.
George: If you think of the things it exposed, that it worsened rather than improved, start with inequality. Racial inequality, it hit Black and Brown communities hardest. Economic inequality, it hit poor people of all races hardest. Inequality of regions. And finally political polarization: it became one more frontline of the eternal war between the red and the blue, and the great symbol of this new front was the mask. If you wore one if you were blue, you didn’t wear one if you were red. In what other country, did wearing a mask, become a badge of which political tribe you belong to?
That showed the utter folly of our leaders and the myopia of the public that was willing to follow along in a new political battle that meant their own harm and the harm of people around them. It showed how the underlying conditions of our democracy, whether it’s economic inequality, or political division, or governmental sclerosis so that our bureaucracies were unable to respond, including the CDC, all of those were revealed and made worse. I think another one that we didn’t really even know about was the difference between essential and non-essential workers.
It turns out they’re these people called essential workers. Who are they? They’re the people who have to go to work who work with their hands, who drive, who bag groceries, who process meat. Who are the non-essential workers? Me and my class, the professionals, the people who sit in front of a laptop, the bankers, the politicians. That division, too, was profound and disturbing because it felt like if this is a war, as Donald Trump said at one point, these certain Americans are being called to serve, and certain Americans are being exempted from service. That was a class divide that was shameful, and that I still feel it stinks.
Jeff: How much of it were obviously things that were there, fault lines that existed before the pandemic, and that one of the things that brought them out, and Donald Trump certainly continue to make this worse? One of the things that brought it out was fear, that the pandemic created a level of fear that just amped everything up including the worst that was going on.
George: That’s absolutely right. In a way, it was ahistorical to imagine anything else. This is what plagues do. They turn people against each other, they turn everyone into a potential enemy and threat. The person walking toward me on the sidewalk is no longer a fellow citizen or simply Joe Schmoe, it’s a possible threat. That fear was powerful and then was exploited by our political and media class, many members of it who benefited from dividing us, and from preying on the fear, and deepening the fear, so that by summertime, we were in a state of almost street war over things like quarantine and masks, and then finally the George Floyd protests.
It was a turbulent summer that was about many things, but in the end, I think it was really about the pandemic and the way it had finally brought out the — maybe the buried hostilities and fears that we’ve been living with for a long time.
Jeff: Also, arguably what it did is because it stripped away the patina of getting along and glossing over some of this, it really — this goes to the heart of what you read about in the Last Best Hope — it really clarified, not always in a positive way, but clarified what the divisions were more specifically, the four areas that you talk about in the book.
George: Yes. I think in the end, we have to face these things. I have an image of looking in the mirror throughout the year and seeing a face that I didn’t particularly like, but that I needed to see. Most of the time, we Americans are so busy, we’re so distracted by novelties, by the pursuit of happiness that we don’t take a hard look at ourselves. The pandemic forced many of us to stop doing what we were doing and to look at the country.
As disagreeable as the image was, it was necessary to see that those divisions are real and that they could kill us. That we’re in a high-risk category, we’re that patient who really can’t afford to get sick.
Jeff: Talk about those four definitions, those four narratives that define how we’re divided today.
George: During the pandemic, I decided to try to understand better how the divisions came. Red and blue are the familiar dividing lines, and they’re very real, and they get more real every year. Within that, I think we’re even more fractured than simply two Americas. Each of the Americas has its own fracture lines. I call them free America, smart American, real America, and just America.
To start with free America, it’s Reagan’s America. That is the America, Jeff, that really has dominated our politics in the last 40 years. Tax cuts, deregulation, get government out of the way, small government, turn business loose, and the more freedom, the better. Freedom meaning the freedom to do what you want with your money, and prosperity will be shared or will trickle down.
Needless to say, that promise has not been borne out. Instead, we have prosperity concentrated in the hands of certain people, certain classes, certain regions of the country with vast and growing inequality, and so free America has failed to create the shining city on the hill that Reagan promised us.
Smart America, I see as being the America of the educated professionals, the people who believe in meritocracy, who think if you go to the right school and work hard, and have the right brainpower, you will have a successful life, not because you’ve hoarded capital or resources, but because of your intelligence.
That’s become, or it became I’d say under Bill Clinton, the main narrative of the democratic party, became the party of the educated professional class. Where it failed was meritocracy over the last few decades has ceased to be a real meritocracy. It’s become an aristocracy where people are born into this class. Your parents ensured that you will have the advantages of schooling and of their connections, their work ethic, their ambitions, and if you play it right, you will stay in that class. It’s more of a privileged class that holds onto its privileges than a wide-open, equal opportunity class. It really has lost the appeal, the magnetism, that it had maybe a generation ago.
Real America is a rebellion and so is Just America against the failures of free and smart America. Real America is Sarah Palin’s America. She used that phrase in 2008. It’s the America of the white Christian Heartland and of Americans who feel that they are the backbone of the country and the others, whether they are the coastal elites or the non-whites, the immigrants are somehow interlopers, who are parasites on the hardworking real Americans. This is an old idea. It goes back really to Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century. Sarah Pailin gave it new life in 2008 in her own biography, and in a white identity politics, that’s been in play ever since. Donald Trump rode it to power. It is the most energized narrative of Republican voters, although perhaps not of Republican leaders who still, repeat the orthodoxies of Reagan.
Finally, Just America is also a generational rebellion of millennials and younger Americans against the failed promises of their parents, of the meritocrats. Its narrative says America is not an equal opportunity country. We’re not becoming a more perfect union. We’re trapped forever in a task system that places, certain groups above other groups, and injustice is built into the very founding of this country and is still with us today and progress is an illusion. In other words, we have two rather sunny and optimistic narratives that were more potent, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, and two that are darker and more pessimistic that I think have gained a lot of influence in the last few years.
Jeff: One of the other aspects of Just America, to stay on that a moment, is the kind of moral absolutism that we’re seeing from those people and we see it in cancel culture. We’re seeing it in so many ways today.
George: Yes, it’s an illiberal narrative. As Real America is an illiberal narrative. It doesn’t believe in, essentially, those liberal values that at least ideally were part of the founding of this country, whether it’s equality of individuals, reason, science, universal principles that we all should live by. Instead, it sees us as eternally members of identity groups who are in an eternal conflict, and all individual variety and the individual’s freedom to choose is in some ways an illusion because those groups are what define us.
I think it is powerful. It gives a sense of community and belonging to some young people who might’ve felt that the modern world, the world of social media, and of the knowledge economy offered them very little. I think it just doesn’t have that appeal that most Americans resonate to because most Americans still believe, I think, that their own efforts matter, and that their own choices matter. In a way identity gradually doesn’t disappear, but it becomes something more fluid than rigid groups. The data bear this out, we’re becoming a far more interracial, intermarried, mixed society in the last 20 years than we ever were before, just stunningly changed.
The facts of American society contradict the dogmas of Just America. I think it has a limited appeal for that reason and it’s why it keeps losing elections or keeps finding that, for example, working-class Black and Latino Americans do not share all the values of progressive Americans. In fact, some of them might even switch their vote to Trump last year. It has a very high idealistic notion of justice that is somehow disconnected from American realities in a way that I think is going to limit its political power.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the origins of this and how it got to be divided as it is, and in the ways that it is, that there’s a sense you talk about or hint at, that 9/11 was maybe the beginning of this slide, but it also feels like 2008, 2009, the financial crisis was also a major turning point, a major inflection point in this that gave rise to the tea party and gave rise to Occupy Wall Street. The sense of what came out of that period in 2008, 2009, seems to have a pretty direct line to these divisions that we’re talking about today.
George: Absolutely. This was really what I wrote about in The Unwinding. The financial crisis, the great recession, the two endless wars we were fighting, and the sense of a whole generation of having been handed the losing end of the stick, that the system was rigged, that insiders made out okay and ordinary people carried the full weight of both the wars and the recession. All of this was profoundly disillusioning and it gave a lot of Americans a sense that our democratic institutions were in some ways hollow, whether it’s our media, our police, our legislature, our courts, civic groups, even churches, unions, all of these institutions stopped giving a lot of Americans, a sense of meaning and belonging and the people were kind of left on their own. They found meaning online in new communities, on Facebook and Twitter, and on email threads. But those communities were, more and more divorced from concrete reality. Instead, they became victims of this or that piece of fake news. They stopped believing that there was no longer a Walter Cronkite. They didn’t believe Dan Rather. They found meaning on Fox News or MSNBC, to a lesser extent, or simply in the latest website atrocity that was sent around on an email chain. The ability to come together as citizens and agree on certain baseline facts and from those facts to begin the struggle towards solutions. That disintegrated along with the trust in our institutions, following the wars and the recession.
Jeff: If you look at these four groups and there was some way to translate some of these ideas that we’re talking about it into some Venn diagram, what are the points at which they all touched do you think?
George: For me, the common American denominator is, and always has been, what Alexis de Tocqueville called the passion for equality, which is the drive, that desire to be as good as everyone else, to have the same rights, the same opportunities, the same status in society. To be locked out of no worlds because of who you are, where you were born, what class you belong to.
Obviously, an ideal that we’ve never achieved and that we’ve betrayed in some pretty horrific ways, but as a passion, a driving force inside us, I think it’s still there. Whenever we move away from it, we get social conflict, which I think explains a good deal of the conflict we see today, going back really to the beginning of the post-industrial era when, the working class sank, the professional class rose and the gap widened every year.
If we can find policies that create conditions closer to equality, whether it’s economic or social or simply as citizens, so that everyone feels they have an equal place, that’s where all four of those touch and that’s my test for whether a policy is a good one. Does it make us as I call it, equal Americans, or does it further divide us by status by group, which intensifies the competition, the resentment, the hatred?
Jeff: One of the places that we seem to have gone awry though, is that we have mistaken this idea of equality today for an idea of equity and the two are not the same as you talk about.
George: Exactly. Equity is a relatively new term in our common political language. What does it mean? Well, in its essence it means fairness. I’m for fairness, and we should all be for fairness, but what it’s come to mean as it’s used today is equal outcomes across groups. In other words, measuring ethnic groups, racial groups, gender groups, outcomes have to be equal, or it’s inequitable. I think that is a dangerous concept because it means that we are going to pursue policies that force a kind of false equality, based on variations that may well have nothing to do with policy and with fairness. For example, if there’s unequal results in standardized tests across groups, we’re going to get rid of the standardized tests because they must be racist inherently.
To me, it’s not just a bad idea, it’s a ludicrous idea. It’s like saying, ‘Well, there’s poverty that’s disparate across racial groups, so we’re going to stop measuring poverty, and instead, we’re going to say that these groups are actually not unequal,’ which makes no sense either. I find equity potent because fairness is such an important value and simply telling everyone to start from the same starting line, in some ways, is a false version of equality because people are disadvantaged in all kinds of ways. But to enforce equal outcomes across groups is perverse and won’t lead to equality. It will lead to resentment, division, more division, and it won’t solve the problems it’s supposed to solve.
Jeff: The broader question, then becomes how we solve those problems because in the context, the broader context, of the rejection of enlightenment values and science and reason, authority, the institutions you talked about before, how do we get back to a starting point that even allows the rebuilding of some of this?
George: That’s a great question and a hard one. I would say, first of all, not by throwing them out, not by saying they no longer apply, or they never did apply because once you get rid of those enlightenment values — what I think of as liberal values — individual equality, and freedom, reason, objective truth, you go into some very strange places. Places where it’s more like a war on all against all. There has to be some underlying reality and values that, regardless of who you are, apply to you, as an individual. How to get back to them, I think is by making them work better, by bringing about equality, by giving people more freedom.
Freedom is a keyword in America, but I think it’s been distorted by Free America to mean don’t tread on me, freedom from all obstacles, freedom to do whatever I want, including not wear a mask, even if it’s going to get people sick. My idea of freedom is more, I think, more grown-up than that. Freedom is a positive thing. It’s the ability to work together as citizens of a free society to solve problems, it requires skills. This is what Tocqueville called the art of self-governance. That’s something we have also lost. We no longer know how to work together, talk to each other, listen to each other, compromise and work to solve problems.
We still do it at the local level, to some extent, but at the national level, it’s completely broken down. If we can find ways to make those liberal values meaningful and successful, people, I think, will stop looking for illiberal alternatives. That’s my hope anyway.
Jeff: In a way, it’s like a disease. There’s been so much decay and atrophy of the muscles of that democracy that in many ways that can’t be built up again, arguably.
George: You’re getting to Tocqueville’s idea, which is that self-government, free institutions is not a natural thing. We’re not born knowing how to do it. In fact, in the grand sweep of human history, it’s been a little more than the blink of an eye, have people tried to govern themselves, collectively, as free people. You have to learn it and relearn and we have forgotten it. We’ve stopped using the muscle. It has atrophied. Social media has played a huge part in that.
My profession, journalists, spend, God knows how much time online looking at each other, answering each other, dunking on each other, playing to our tribe against the other tribe, all for what? Are we actually going to leave behind to our society and our descendants as a better society by spending hours on Twitter? It just makes us worse. It makes us incapable of what journalists need to be able to do, which is to listen and even empathize with people you disagree with, which is something that reporters who are doing their job, know they have to do every day.
That’s like one place where my book pokes pretty hard at my own world, and says, ‘This is not the way self-government needs to work. This is moving away from it. It may seem like 1,000 flowers blooming. It’s actually more like a million flowers decaying.’ There are many other ways that we can try to get that muscle working again, that’s just one of them. Kill your Twitter account if you have one.
Jeff: The other, I guess maybe, finally, whether the solution to any of this is going to come from top-down leadership, somehow, even good leaders, or whether it has to come from the grassroots from us being, as you say, the last best hope.
George: That was my thought when I was writing The Unwinding. I was looking at individuals in some kind of forgotten communities who were doing things by their own likes that were rebuilding their communities. I still think you’re right. Our national politics is so unworkable today, even forming a commission to investigate an insurrection that happened, what only five months ago, is impossible for Washington to do. We look to local and state, not just government, but citizens and it may be that at that level, we’re a little more able to see each other as fellow Americans and as fellow human beings and solve problems but the biggest problems require not just the national government, but a sense of patriotism, a sense of attachment to one another as fellow citizens because to do the biggest things, whether it’s ending racism, or reversing global warming, or slowing down inequality, we have to have a national community doing it.
We can’t do it locally. We can’t do it with one political party or one tribe, and so I think an attachment to one another into the country, as Americans, is, you can’t will it. You either feel it or you don’t but to me without it, we’re not going to get there.
Jeff: George Packer, his book is Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. George, it’s always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.
George: I really enjoyed it. I was starting to get tired of talking about my book and you somehow gave me a jolt of energy. I really appreciate it.
Jeff: Ah, well, thank you.
George: Thank you so much, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.