In this book, written during the Pandemic and after Biden took office as president, George Packer provides a lucid account of the USA’s psychological state. It is informed by previous traumatic or near death experiences in America’s history, particularly the civil war, the Gilded Age in the 1890’s, the Great Depression with the New Deal and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. America’s current paralysis and division is explained with the description of four Americas: Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America.
Free America has a long tradition and several origins: traditionalists embrace traditional christian values and mourn the feudal structures of the pre-civil war south. Anti-communists were inspired by the cold war and the extreme antidote of the Soviet empire. Libertarians are rooted in the stories of the lone pioneer and the entrepreneur who struggle solely trusting their own insight and succeeding against all odds. These, and other strands, conspired to form today’s Free America that is hostile to government, and against all idealistic ideas of a society and common goods. In the seventies Free America started to dominate the Republican Party and since the eighties the whole country resulting in tearing down anti-trust regulations and many constraints for banks and big business. It is Free America that has fostered new liberal economic policy the world over.
Smart America is formed by the educated professionals that are privileged enough to have a positive view of life and mode of thinking. They believe in good education and hard work, but also in the responsibility of the individual for steering her own fate.
They believe in credentials and expertise - not just as tool for success, but as qualifications for class entry. Their watchwords are “idea”, “innovation”, and “smart.” They’re not nationalistic - the very opposite - but they have a national narrative.
Smart America has a cosmopolitan world view and has driven globalization, believing that that’s the inevitable course of history. Although meritocratic, Smart America considers some intervention necessary to rectify the long history of racial injustice and economic unfairness.
The poor need a social safety net and a living wage; poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care. Workers dislocated by trade agreements, automation, and other blows of the global economy should be retrained for new kinds of jobs.
But redistribution and the role of the government should be limited, since Smart America believes more in social liberalism and private initiatives. Today the Democratic Party is mostly associated with Smart America since it has decided not to speak out for the working class and protect it against factory closures and the tear-down of the unions.
Though certainly very different, the overlap with Free America is significant which became clear as the Democrats bailed out the banks and big business after the financial crises without much in return.
While both Free and Smart America has been on the winning side in the last fifty years, Real and Just America has confronted the downsides. Real America is a more recent phenomenon of the last twenty years and it consists of a diverse set of people who feel alienated by the elite, big government and big business. They have lost their good jobs of the past and fallen down the ladder of prosperity and class. They resonated with the anti-elite rhetoric of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump because they feel desperate and fear loosing their country and their destiny. Since Real America feels betrayed by government, they are suspicious of everything that is held up by Smart America, like science, education or meritocratic achievements.
An even more recent phenomenon is Just America. While Real America turns mostly against government, the educated elite and Smart America, Just America foremost fights big business, the racism of Free America and every injustice against women and minorities. Occupy Wallstreet and the protests around Black Live Matters has sprung out from Just America. The difference to Smart America is that Just America is uncompromising, occupying the moral high ground, and is informed by the misery that injustice has brought to so many people throughout America’s history.
As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assaults the complacent meritocrasy of Samrt America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout our history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life that so many Black Americans live today - the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the dark heart of its social problems.
I like Packer’s elaboration of these four narratives, because, even though they are certainly simplifications and abstractions, it helps to make sens of what is happening in the US and it offers an explanation why the country is so divided today.
Packer is deeply unhappy about the state of affairs, fears for the worst if this division is not overcome, and draws parallels to the 1860s before the civil war.
Each of the two countries that the election in 2020 exposed is split by two narratives - Smart and Just on one side, Free and Real on the other. The tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on. But the election, forcing a binary choice, consolidated the narratives on either side of the divide.
Packer goes on to discuss the alternatives: secession, conquest, civil war. At this point we can feel the desperation of the author as he thinks these are real possibilities lying ahead. Then he continues pointing out that America also has a great tradition to overcome division and avoiding the worst. He relays the stories of Horace Greeley (1811 - 1872), Frances Perkins (1880 - 1965) and Bayard Rustin (1912 - 1987) who devoted their lives to fighting for equality and justice, each in their own times and their personal ways. Packer is quick to point out that they, together with many other fellow fighters for equality, have had a huge impact and changed the country for the better, attenuating division and improving the lives for many.
So it seems that Packer is still half-optimist hoping that the four Americas will start talking to each other again, taking each other serious and building America again to “make it possible to live together as equal Americans” (page 216).
(AJ October 2021)