George Packer. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.
According to George Packer, America unwinds “every generation or two.” The idealism of the Revolutionary generation unwound into the fractious two-party system. The North and South unwound into civil war. The Gilded Age unwound into the Great Depression. Out of each of these unwindings came “renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion” (3). America is in the midst of another unwinding, one that began in the 1970s and has accelerated in recent decades. During this latest unwinding, the nation of FDR and the New Deal “had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap” (105). While frustratingly vague about the causes of the unwinding, Packer tells its story with remarkable empathy and command of language and character.
Packer frames The Unwinding around the stories of three Americans: Jeff Connaughton, Tammy Thomas, and Dean Price. Connaughton attached himself to Senator Joe Biden in the 1980s and despite continual disappointment and his own best efforts, could never escape the Delaware senator’s orbit. In his years as a senate aide and lobbyist, Connaughton witnessed the unwinding from inside Washington as the government aided and abetted the men who caused the Great Recession. Thomas, a factory worker from Youngstown, Ohio, witnessed American deindustrialization firsthand. The first member of her family to graduate from high school, Thomas got a job working for Packard Electric and raised three children. After Packard closed its American plants, Thomas transformed herself into a community organizer in decaying Youngstown. Price, descended from North Carolina Piedmont tobacco farmers, developed an eclectic life philosophy based on the works of self-help author Napoleon Hill. Always seeking a way to revitalize his beloved birthplace, Price became obsessed with peak oil and ways of converting canola oil into biodiesel fuel. While his life crumbled around him, Price remained devoted to biodiesel as the salvation for the rural south.
Packer intersperses these three stories with brief biographies of leading public figures. His portrayals of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, and Newt Gingrich are particularly damning. In Walton, he finds the man who made American cheap. Shaped by the Great Depression, Walton himself never gave to charity, never left a tip, and never hesitated to crush his workers’ rights at every turn. Americans across the nation became dependent on Wal-Mart’s cheap goods and low prices. Poverty and Wal-Mart became synonymous. The workers were poor. The communities were poor. And by Walton’s death, “America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in” (105).
Oprah Winfrey, meanwhile, built a multi-media empire by inviting her viewers to become some best version of themselves. She sold them her own brand of late 20th century self-help through consumerism. And as her viewers drained their credit cards and overleveraged themselves, Oprah showered them with cars, cash, and the belief in more. She offered up her own secular prosperity gospel to masses who could never afford it.
As Oprah dominated the airwaves, Newt Gingrich unleashed his assault on enemies of American exceptionalism. Engaging in total war against his political enemies, Gingrich brought the nation to the brink in his budget standoffs with Bill Clinton. Outmaneuvered by Clinton and undone by his own supporters (as well as his own hypocritical behavior), Gingrich fell quickly from political grace, but not from influence. He found acceptance in a professional political class willing to hawk his political crusades for personal enrichment and drag American political discourse into the gutter.
Packer also examines the unraveling through Silicon Valley and Tampa, Florida. He details the life of Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor. With his fortune made, Thiel has devoted himself to ideological disruption. Thiel proselytizes his own intellectual wares to other disenchanted wealthy libertarians. Humankind lacks the great innovations of the past because people don’t work hard enough. The educational system is morally bankrupt. The Constitution hinders individual freedom and should be scrapped. Raging against a world that won’t conform to his desires and armed with a child’s fear of death, Thiel has invested millions into the desperate quest for immortality.
Packer describes in heartbreaking detail the history of Tampa during Great Recession. Floridians of all stripes attempting to make fortunes on flipping real estate. All convinced that the money train would keep on rolling. Until it all came crashing down. A newspaper reporter trying to uncover the story behind blocks of empty real estate. A single lawyer fighting against a court system condemning Floridians to ceaseless debt. Poor families struggling on the margins. Populist anger against the politicians who allowed it to happen. All of it undermining the efforts of Tampa to become America’s next great metropolis.
For all of its narrative brilliance, The Unwinding offers little insight into the causes of the unwinding. He provides a sense of what Americans hope the future will look like: thriving small businesses, decline of corporate wealth and power, politicians who owe their allegiance to voters and not the almighty dollar. In his short biographies, Packers condemns institutional figures like Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Colin Powell for promoting deregulation and peddling war. But Packer does little to connect any of these stories to a broader thesis. Ultimately, The Unwinding is grand in its storytelling, but lacking an analytical punch.