George Packer’s The Unwinding: thirty years of American decline is out in paperback so I’ve caught up with it at last on my travels this week. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, evoking that widespread sense – everywhere in fact, not just in the US – that the system has gone awry, things are misaligned, and no individual can do anything about it.
The book traces the 30 years through a braid of several individuals’ stories, recounting their ups and downs through the Clinton years, the Bush years and into the Obama years. Some of the characters are well-known – Newt Gingrich features, as does Peter Thiel. The main threads, though, are unknowns whose stories encapsulate important parts of the nation’s story during its ‘unwinding’ – the unwinding of “the coil that held America together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip.”
Although this is not a technocratic analysis, Packer has an ability to drop in sentences that crisply capture a sharp point. The views of a new (and I turned out, one term) Democratic congressman, Tom Perriello, are summed up thus: “the elites in America didn’t have answers for the problems of the working and middle class any more. Elites thought that everyone needed to become a computer programmer or a financial engineer, that there would be no jobs between eight dollars an hour and six figures. Perriello believed that the new ideas for making things in America again would come from unknown people in obscure places.”
One of his other characters, a longtime Democrat functionary who crosses over into lobbying, is enticed back to work for a senator during the Obama administration. Seeing Rubin, Summers, Geithner getting their posts, and all attempts to bring finance to heel failing, he reflects: “The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino, and once you were on the inside you had to do something dramatic to lose your standing, like write a scathing op-ed.” A short chapter about Bob Rubin in the book is absolutely devastating.
A lot of this, we know. But this book rekindles one’s outrage by attaching people and their emotions and stories to a clear X-ray vision of the underlying economic and social changes. I thought it was a terrific read. But also depressing. Can the Unwinding be unwound? Obviously not. In optimistic moods, I’m with congressman Perriello in holding out hope for the obscure people weaving a new social fabric. It’s just not always easy to stay optimistic.