The Unwinding: an inner history of the new America by George Packer, review

George Packer, author of "The Unwinding"--a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

George Packer, author of “The Unwinding”–a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

The Unwinding by George Packer is a work of narrative journalism that is a lament that America resembles a “decadent kleptocracy” rather than a land of opportunity, its institutions and moral order in rapid decline. But it is also a call to action, though the call is embedded in the stories of its three main characters, each of whose world crumbles, and each of whom suffers loss and disillusionment, and each of whom finds a new place to stand, living out a stubborn refusal to be written off.

The stories of three ordinary Americans caught up in convulsive change are carefully reported. We get to know the hopes and dreams and failures of an Ohio factory worker, a political operative in the national arena and a Bible belt tobacco farmer. Their stories are interwoven with narrative portraits of larger players, such as Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Walmart founder Sam Walton, PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, and Colin Powell. The result is a complex and nuanced tapestry showing us a nation in decline–but one that has faced similar trouble in the past and found a new way forward.

From the Prologue:

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line o! history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around I960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. 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 half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

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