RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
American institutions, from government to Wall Street to small-town Rotary clubs, have broken down. That's what journalist George Packer says in a new book. It's called "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker where he often covers the political scene. His book "The Assassin's Gate" took him to the streets of Baghdad in the middle of the Iraq War.
But Packer's new book looks at the last few turbulent decades of life here in America, and profiles some of the most famous and successful Americans, as well as people you've probably never heard of: a community organizer, a local entrepreneur, a disenchanted Washington lobbyist. Packer weaves these profiles together to tell a larger story about this moment in America; a moment he says in which the country has lost something vital.
GEORGE PACKER: I think of it as a deal that used to exist among Americans, a deal that may be lasted half a century - from the '30s to the late '70s - in which everyone had a place. People are more constrained than they are today. They had less freedom but they had more security. And there was a sense in which each generation felt that the next generation would be able to improve itself to do better, and that there were channels of opportunity - education, jobs - that would allow people's children to rise.
And I think over the last generation that deal has come undone. And instead, many Americans feel that they're all alone, that no one is going to help them, and that, in a way, there's a kind of unfairness at play in our society where elites seem to do better and better and ordinary people, who might have once even thought of themselves as middle-class, struggle more and more. That's what's unwound in my adult lifetime.
MARTIN: You just outlined a pretty dire situation. Did you start to hone in on this theme, this idea of an unwinding, purely from the financial institution meltdown of 2008, or was there something else that you were seeing that led you to this place?
PACKER: You know, I think it began with the Iraq War. I covered Iraq for The New Yorker. I wrote a book about it and I'd begun by saying that war as a failure of individual leaders. But over time, I saw that whole institutions were failing. The military at the beginning of the war failed, intelligence, the media failed. And that then financial crisis made it seem as if there was something epochal going on. And that's when I began to think how would I write about a country that is watching its core institutions collapse?
I wanted to do it as a narrative. I wanted to pull together stories of Americans whose lives have kind of moved to the pulse of this recent history. And so I went with about the country trying to find people whose stories fit in with that larger narrative.
MARTIN: What you do, you include in a wide variety of vignettes and profiles of Americans. Some of them are famous: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey. But you also write about people who are just Americans. One character in particular, a woman named Tammy Thomas. Tell us a little bit about her.
PACKER: Yeah, Tammy was born, raised and still lives in Youngstown, Ohio. She's African-American. She grew up during a time when Youngstown was a steel town and it was a union town, but around the time she was a teenager, the steel mills just collapsed one after another in rapid succession. And Youngstown collapsed with them so quickly that it became a kind of icon of de-industrialization.
And I spent a lot of time with Tammy driving around the city, looking at the landmarks of her life and hearing her story, which was an incredible story of a woman who - her mother was a heroin addict, she was not close to her father, she had three children without their fathers really being in their lives.
But she got a job in an auto parts factory and that allowed her to raise the kids and to hold herself and them together amid an absolutely disastrous situation in Youngstown.
And then, around the time of the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, having lost her job because the auto parts factory went bankrupt, she remade herself as a community organization, and that's what she's doing now.
She has not given up on Youngstown, and I think even though these institutions are collapsing, and people do feel they're on their own, the individuals in the book, people like Tammy and Dean Price who maybe we can talk about from North Carolina, there's a resilience and even an optimism that's kind of remarkable given what's going on around them.
MARTIN: You mentioned Dean Price. He's from North Carolina, tobacco country. How does his story fit into the larger narrative that you're telling?
PACKER: Well, I've never been anywhere that felt so old and so traditionally American as the Carolina Piedmont, which is the region that Dean comes from. It's tobacco country. There used to be textiles and furniture making, and then tobacco, as we know, fell with the '90s and the investigations and the tobacco buyout, and it kind of laid waste to what had been a very intact middle-class and working-class part of the country.
Dean Price is a son of that region. His father was a Bible Belt preacher. His whole family had been tobacco farmers since the 18th century. They all lived within about 10 miles of each other in Rockingham County, North Carolina. And again, around the time of the financial crisis, Dean, who had this truck stop business, watched his business fail, so he turned to biofuels.
And he has this whole vision which I think is a very American vision of resurgence, a kind of renaissance of the countryside through alternative energy, but he's doing it on his own. Nobody's telling him to, there's no organization he's part of, there's no union or business trade association or newspaper that's he connected. He's a loner out there. He's a Johnny Appleseed spreading biodiesel across the countryside.
MARTIN: But I could imagine some people would say there's nothing wrong with that. That's what America's about. You articulate a dream, a goal, and you go do it, and sometimes you have to do it alone.
PACKER: That's true. It's a very deep American dream. It's not the only American dream. There's also a dream of being part of a community, and it's the dissolution of these communities that's so painful to see because as Dean said to me while we were walking around Madison, North Carolina, the town he grew up in, the shoe store was closed down, the pharmacy was shuttered, the restaurants were closed. There were just a couple people on the sidewalk.
You see this in little towns all across the Heartland. He said the guys who used to own those stores were the pillars of this community. They coached the Little League teams, they were on the town council. They're gone, and communities can't suffer that way without great consequences.
MARTIN: Is this just another part of a cycle, or is this unwinding, as you see it, different?
PACKER: In some ways, it is cyclical. I think we've been through it many times before, so I don't want to say this is it, you know. We'll never come back from this. We've come back before. We often come back stronger. What I see happening is not just cyclical, though. It feels like a real cultural shift where the value of the community, of what makes this a coherent society has really been submerged.
And it's not all dark. We've been talking as if it's a completely dismal picture, but what isn't dark is the energy and the vitality and the humor and the dreams, as well as the screw-ups and the setbacks of the characters in the book, and when I stop thinking about the big picture and institutions and leaders, and I think about these people who I got to know so well, they still give me hope.
MARTIN: The book is called "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." George Packer joined us in our studios in Washington. Thank you so much, George.
PACKER: Thank you.
MARTIN: If you'd like to read an excerpt from "The Unwinding," go to npr.org.
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