In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer weaves together in-depth profiles of six Americans to create a tapestry that tells a story of American decline. Beginning in the late 1970s and following the characters into 2012, The Unwinding takes readers on a tour of the United States in the era of neoliberalism: From the disappearing industrial jobs in Youngstown, Ohio, to the isolated ex-urban homesteads of Tampa, Florida, to a corrupt and self-interested political culture in Washington D.C., to the idealistic encampment in Zuccotti Park. Packer describes this era as an “unwinding.” “When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost have a century came undone.”
The narrative of failing and failed institutions, inequality, corruption, myopia, and human resilience seems to have struck a chord. The Unwinding reached the New York Times’ Best Seller list and received the 2013 National Book Award. I am sure this is in large part due to its masterful narrative skill and in-depth reporting. The book is an ambitious look at an extended period of time, told through deeply personal stories of characters who are more than just stand-ins for racial and class types.
But I suspect there is another reason The Unwinding has been so well received. Packer has held a mirror up to Great Recession America at a time when society is in need of self-reflection. In the year-plus since The Unwinding was published economic inequality has become a theme in political debates from the White House to New York’s City Hall and beyond. Even conservatives have taken note that something is wrong.
Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he covers politics, policy, and economics, and has recently turned his eye to Silicon Valley. He is also the author of two other books of non-fiction, two novels, and a play. I sat down with George Packer in a Brooklyn coffee shop shortly after he returned from more stops on his long book tour. The Unwinding was released in paperback by FSG last month.
Max Strasser: Since The Unwinding came out economic inequality has become a huge theme in American political discourse. Do you think you just struck at the right time?
George Packer: Yes, but I didn’t discover it. It’s been written about for years. I think I found a form to talk about it that made people want to read about it, made it perhaps more vivid and put human faces and voices to it. And it’s always hard to say why a subject that’s been with us, building for decades, becomes topic A. You could point to Occupy Wall Street as a precipitating factor in at least putting the 1% and the 99% in the public lexicon. Obama then seized on it and has been talking about it on and off for the last couple of years. And meanwhile inequality just continues to get worse. Far from beginning to close the gap, the financial crisis and the recession have opened it even wider. It’s like nothing stops it. Every week there’s a story that is essentially that story. Recently there was a story about the CEO of Time Warner Cable who got the job in January, spent ten weeks on the job, sold the company to Comcast, and left with an $80 million dollar package, which is mind-boggling. Ten weeks of work! Stories like that make it very hard for even the right wing to ignore it, to not talk about it.
Even Republicans are talking about inequality all of a sudden!
They are. I think the savvier ones are really entering the policy debate. Others are just trying to inoculate themselves against the charge that they’re owned by the Koch brothers. But also, I was at a Senate hearing on equality a few weeks ago (I wrote about this for The New Yorker website) and the Republican line essentially was that people don’t want to work anymore.
In the introduction of the book you write unwindings and rewindings in American history, periods when the institutions that bring Americans together fall apart and then new ones are built. Do you think now that these issues are being discussed so widely that we’re poised for a rewinding?
I think millions of people simultaneously becoming aware of a wrong state of affairs, a bad social arrangement, does not immediately translate into tools to remedy it. First of all, we don’t have the structures that traditionally have repaired or averted threats to our democracy — which is what I think this is. We don’t have a functioning Congress. We don’t have a public school system that gives citizens what they need to be active citizens. We don’t have a court system that understands that equality remains an elusive goal. We don’t have a media that knows how to focus on something like this in a way that actually informs people, gives them the information they need.
And then we don’t have a mass movement like the ones that have arisen periodically like the Progressive movement, the Civil Rights movement, or the Labor Movement. It’s not impossible. They always catch people by surprise. They always happen as a spark gets lit and it catches the imagination and moves people. But, you know, there are a lot of dissuasive forces. I’d say the Internet is one of them.
By the way it creates the illusion of connecting people. I think it’s atomizing. I think it creates the illusion of a level playing field in which everyone is empowered. And in fact it actually is more stratified and concentrates power in fewer hands than the pre-Internet economy did.
But do you think it also gives voice to people who didn’t have one before?
It does, of course. Everyone has a Twitter account. It’s nice to be able to sound off. But it doesn’t seem to put power behind the voice. Not yet. Maybe it will. We will be surprised. I have no doubt. The Tea Party was a big surprise. Occupy was a big surprise. I can tell you from my travels and talks over the last year that you don’t have to persuade people that something is wrong. That should be fertile ground for some new social movement. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Occupy plays an interesting role in The Unwinding because it’s actually the only place where all of the threads come together. Was that intentional?
As the author of The Unwinding I had an acute problem, which was that I was following the life stories of half a dozen people and places. It’s not fiction, so I can’t force connections that don’t exist. Occupy was the one moment, when I was reporting, that caught all of their attention and pushed everyone that I was writing about to a new place or a new position. Other things had happened that did something similar. The financial crisis was really the watershed for most of the people in the book, but I wasn’t working on the book at that moment so I wasn’t there to see it happening. I caught that retrospectively. With Occupy, I was there both at Zuccotti Park and traveling to Tampa and to North Carolina, talking to the people I was writing about. They all had something to say about it because Occupy — and this was its great virtue — caught a very widespread feeling and articulated it in an unusually pointed and contagious way.
But it had no staying power. Because, as I said earlier, you need structure, and Occupy was against structures. It was anti-structure. It was a meme. A very powerful meme.
You talk a lot about structures and institutions, their necessities and their failures. Those are big themes in The Unwinding and you continue to write about them in The New Yorker. But in the book there’s also a lot of individual human resilience.
I was and continue to be really inspired by the people I wrote about. They didn’t quit against really steep odds. I mean Tammy Thomas loses her job. There’s no jobs in Youngstown to replace it. She needs work. She’s been working on an assembly line for 20 years and she figures out a way to reinvent herself. She becomes a community organizer. She reinvents herself in a truly dramatic and productive way. Dean Price goes bankrupt. His business goes under, and he keeps holding onto this wild vision of remaking the rural area he lives in with biodiesel. And he is still at that. He hasn’t given up. And they’re doing it without help. They’re doing it without normal, traditional institutions like a union or trade association or political party or even a movement. They’re doing it alone.
Does that give you hope? Do you think social movements could be built out of that kind of resilience?
Not necessarily. I don’t think that the one translates into the other. It’s good to know that Americans, many of them, still have their guts and still have their dreams, very battered as they are. But a social movement doesn’t happen by adding water to inspiration. It’s much harder work. It’s like building a skyscraper. It takes years and it takes collective effort and people doing different jobs.
Why did you choose this format to discuss these issues? You’re also a very good polemicist. You write essays and editorials. Why did you feel that this kind of narrative was the best way to explore these issues?
It’s a good question. First of all, I felt I had nothing to add to the polemic. It’s clear what has happened. We live in an elementally unfair society. How many times can you say it before people stop listening? It happens really fast. There’s a lot of folks out there that are very good writers and their arguments about this mostly get ignored. Sometimes they get read, but they get forgotten. And I didn’t want to add my little bit to that. I’m not a social policy expert, by any means. I used to be a novelist. I have also written a play. And even my nonfiction books always take a narrative form. So I was looking for a narrative.
And I wanted to be really ambitious. I had a lot of ground to cover: Washington and Wall Street. The Rustbelt and the Sunbelt. The countryside. The cities. It was preposterously ambitious. You can’t do that by grabbing ahold of American history with both arms and trying to wrap your arms all the way around it. I had to do it by finding a narrow way into such a big subject.
It took a while to figure out that the way to do it was to write about a handful of people. But to follow their lives over this period — because it’s a long arc from the previous era to this era — it takes a while for these things to happen. There’s a lot of steps along the way: There’s the closing of the steel mills in Youngstown. There’s the rise of MBA culture in business. There’s the craziness of Wall Street in the ’80s. There’s the arrival of the Internet and what it does to media. There’s a lot of steps to pass through.
Once I settled on that form, there was no reason for there to be a first person. It would only get in the way. It would only be the guy watching a movie with you and talking about it at the same time, which is to say the least, annoying.
You’re on the record as a big admirer of Orwell. He writes like that.
His nonfiction is in the first person. Homage to Catalonia. The Road to Wigan Pier. Down and Out in Paris and London is a memoir. My nonfiction has always been in the first person, partly under his powerful influence, partly because I always thought my writing is at its strongest when I have a point of view that I’m pursuing. I’m not trying to disappear, but I’m also finding it out in the world, not just talking straight from my own perspective.
In this case I was orchestrating all these stories, all these characters, and this is far more novelistic than anything I’ve attempted in nonfiction. More experimental. And just harder to do. And with all of that, where would there be a first person? Should I say, “While we were sitting on Dean Price’s front porch, he began to tell me about his father.”? A New Yorker piece would be a better form for it.
And it was actually liberating not to have to analyze everything, not to have to explain everything, to let the reader enter the stories and make connections and come to what I thought were not all that hard to make conclusions on his or her own.
What were you reading while you working on The Unwinding?
The most obvious and only model is Dos Passos’s U.S.A., which is fiction but follows a similar form of following obscure characters. In his case, fictional characters whose lives keep getting pushed into the biggest currents of the day. It’s hugely ambitious. It’s a trilogy. It’s 30 years of America. In his case, because it’s a novel, his characters actually do meet each other. They have affairs. They run into each other in the battlefields of France. So it’s a different, or somewhat different possibility with U.S.A. That was the obvious model. I can’t think of another. There’s no other book. Certainly no nonfiction book that I can think of that does this on this scale. Thirty years, the whole country.
I was also reading some literature from the Depression. I wrote an essay about this for the New Yorker. Edmund’s Wilson’s The American Jitters. I reread Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, just to look at approaches to sociological reporting. How do you describe economic hardship without turning into a newspaper columnist or an economics writer?
Or an anthropologist! I think when a lot of writers write about poor and working class people it often becomes this sort of, “Look how different they are! Look at their life and how hard it is!” You let people tell their own stories more.
The great mistake is to just take people as a type and do a little bit of pro forma characterizing. But then immediately, you know, you’re impatient with them. Because what are they? They’re just dull, boring, ordinary people. What’s the point of sticking with their story? Let’s now start generalizing. That’s what David Brooks would do if he had written The Unwinding.
I stayed with them. I let their voices drive the narrative. In fact, I went through the transcripts of our interviews, which run into the hundreds of pages and found the recurring turns-of-phrase and sentence rhythms and tried to convey those in my own prose. It’s what literary critics call free indirect discourse, where it’s not in the first person but it’s an attempt to bring the voice of the character into third person narrative. So Dean Price, I noticed, kept saying hogtied. Like “the corporations have me hogtied.” I think I used it a few too many times and my wife said, you’ve got it, you don’t need it here.
It makes for very empathetic writing. Even compared to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, right? You’re inside people’s heads more than he is.
With Agee, you’re always inside his head and inside his prose. His prose is so dominating in that book that it’s like an Elizabethan sentence structure. I think he has tremendous empathy. I loved that book at 20. It changed my world. I carried it off to Africa with me when I joined the Peace Corps. It was one of the core books. When I re-read it at 50, I got impatient with it. And that may be a bad sign about me, and being 50. When you’re 20 you might be more open to the expressiveness and the almost, to change epochs, Baroque quality of the sentences. I’m more about straightforwardness and simplicity in the prose.
Speaking of you going off to Africa, you were a foreign correspondent. You’ve done a lot of foreign reporting and fairly recently returned to writing about the United States. How did writing about Iraq affect your writing about the United States?
I think intellectually and emotionally, it just made me much more skeptical of all our claims and of our status as a great democracy. I learned a lot as a reporter from covering Iraq, and I think those skills are useful anywhere in the world, including in Rockingham County, North Carolina. But mainly I came back thinking, “We suck. We’re not that good.” It’s something Dexter Filkins once said to me when we were in Baghdad together, “We’re just not that good anymore.” It has stayed with me and it was something I was thinking too.
Before that, were you thinking about how “we’re not that good anymore” back home, our domestic institutions?
There’s a lot of that in some of my writing from the ‘80s and ‘90s, mostly in Dissent. And Blood of the Liberals, which was a family memoir that came out in 2000. It has those ideas in it. But I still thought we just needed to look in the mirror and get our act together. At certain points along the way, for example, 9/11, I thought well, this is going to do it. If this doesn’t wake us up nothing will. I strongly believe that for us to accomplish our goals globally after 9/11, we had to reform ourselves at home. We had to be a better democratic society. That did not happen.
There’s a lack of solidarity in the United States. 9/11 was an opportunity to create some social solidarity in America and it was very briefly created. Then it basically got squandered with the Iraq War.
I think even before that, although the Iraq War sealed the deal. But the wrong guy was President. And Bush had no interest in solidarity in the way that you’re talking about it. He wasn’t interested in solidarity in the sense of truly deliberative, collaborative solidarity. Just look at what happened at Ground Zero. It was immediately sealed off, turned over to the experts. All the volunteers who came to help were sent home. And there was no use made of them. I actually think Obama made the same mistake.
The financial crisis was the other big event of the last decade. They were our Pearl Harbor and our stock market crash of 1929 in reverse order. Neither of those had the effect that they had in the ’30s and ’40s of rallying the country and of creating new laws and new policies and new entities that could meet the demands, the challenges of the time. Obama, with the financial crisis and his election two months later, didn’t have as much latitude as Roosevelt because the Republican Party is a nihilistic force today and it wasn’t back then. But he had a lot of leeway and he didn’t really use it. He did not use the movement that got him elected. Organizing for Obama or whatever it was called just essentially was told, thank you, we’ll take it from here. Obama sort of withdrew into the White House, surrounded by probably the wrong advisors and allowed Wall Street to essentially get off the hook when he could have hit them much harder. And he passed some good laws, like healthcare and Dodd-Frank. But he stopped being a politician. There’s something about the Campaign Obama that did not translate into the President Obama.
In The New Yorker and in The Unwinding you write about Washington and politics from outside of Washington. That’s pretty rare these days.
This is the story of our political journalism. It’s like Hollywood journalism now. A lot can be traced back to when the press decided that its job was to find out who these people are as characters. And essentially that means catching them in lapses, contradictions, ignoring what fills the Theodore White presidential campaign books, which is issues and places. It didn’t seem like a genius idea to write about rural Virginia in doing a piece for The New Yorker on Obama’s first year. It seemed like, of course that’s what we’ll do. We’ll go to southern Virginia and see how it’s playing out in terms of works projects and people’s attitudes. But hardly anyone else did that. It shows that our political journalism has become kind of a hot house world. It’s a very powerful world. TV magnifies it in a big way, distorts it. But I think most political journalists have forgotten what politics is.
Is that another one of the American institutions that’s failing citizens?
Yes. And the Internet has been like a little speed given to political journalists. You know, like they were already moving too fast and now they’re on crystal meth all the time. It’s fun. I’m not on Twitter but I read Twitter. I read some of the digital sites and every now and then there’s something really good. But it’s few and far between. And I’ll make more enemies on the web for saying this because we’re supposed to bow down before the great god Internet. But, yeah, it doesn’t do what the public needs.
Max Strasser is a staff writer at Newsweek and a sporadic contributor to Full Stop. His writing has also appeared in a variety of other magazines and websites. He is on Twitter.