The Collapse of American Identity

Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker:

In his new book, “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal,” George Packer writes that the United States is in a state of disrepair, brought about primarily by the fact that “inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” The book opens with an essay on the state of the U.S. during the pandemic, and then offers sketches of four different visions of the country: Free America, of Reaganism; Smart America, of Silicon Valley and other professional élites; Real America, of Trumpist reaction; and Just America, of a new generation of leftists. “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” Packer writes. He proposes a different vision, which he thinks offers brighter possibilities, centered around the concept of equality and non-demagogic appeals to patriotism.

I recently spoke by phone with Packer, who is a staff writer at The Atlantic and was previously a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is also the author of the books “The Assassins’ Gate” and “The Unwinding.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Barack Obama failed to change the direction of the country, whether a more progressive form of patriotism is possible, and whether the cultural controversies roiling American institutions are an inevitable result of inequality.

Why did you decide to structure this book around four Americas?

We’ve all lived with the red-blue division for about twenty years. And it’s true. We are divided that way. Every passing year makes that clearer. But I felt that in the last few years, politically and culturally, things have happened that showed that there are divisions within, as well as between, those two big blocks of Americans. The basic division that I began to see begins with libertarianism, which I call Free America, which is Reagan’s America. And this is really the story of my adult life, from the late nineteen-seventies onward. It’s been the most dominant narrative in our society. And it says, “We’re all individuals.” We all have a chance to make it. The best way to make it is to get government out of the way and to cut taxes and deregulate and set us free in order to use our industry and talent to make something new. And that was a really potent story that Reagan told, and that the Republican Party lived by for decades, and to some extent still does.

More here.