George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is a story about change and language: the disappearance of the jobs, social structures, and securities that sustained older generations, and the way we talk about that loss. The book follows three central characters—Dean Price, a struggling energy entrepreneur in North Carolina; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker turned activist in Youngstown, Ohio, and Jeff Connaughton, a D.C. lawyer and lobbyist. Interlaced with their evolving stories are biographies of places—Tampa, Silicon Valley, Wall Street—and of celebrities, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z. All are connected by the notion of the “unwinding,” a term used in finance, but understood more broadly by Packer as the loss of community and identity: “You picture something coiled up as a tight spring, and then the spring coming loose and losing its shape and its energy.”
His book does not prescribe a cure—instead, he says, “What I wanted was to tell the story, in the most sweeping and intimate terms.” That story, of what has changed in America since the late 1970s, is rooted in economics, but affects far more than our bottom line. The previous generation might not have been wealthy, but they were at least secure: “They had a place,” Packer says. “They had a community that recognized them, a church or a business or civic groups. More than just economic upheaval, there’s a sense among a lot of characters in the book that life has eroded, and there’s nowhere to stand.”
Some people, of course, have profited handsomely from the unwinding. “The word that keeps coming up in every walk of life today is entrepreneur,” Packer says. “For some people this is an exciting and fulfilling time, because they have the tools, and for many people it’s a terrifying time—so it divides us into winners and losers in a far more dramatic way than at any time since maybe the 1920s, since The Great Gatsby.” To illustrate success in the new America, Packer profiles self-made empire builders from the worlds of politics, finance and pop culture.
“They’re really not that different from the characters in the book who remain obscure,” he points out. “Sam Walton and Dean Price come from relatively similar backgrounds, Tammy Thomas and Oprah Winfrey—but they create something that the public wants.” In these stories, Packer draws on the celebrities’ own words, from interviews and autobiographies, and by “inhabiting the diction,” as he puts it, of figures like Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and Alice Waters, reveals how they see and justify their success, and how they influence the rest of us.
Jay-Z, for instance, who hustled his way out of a Brooklyn housing project, and whose heroes are “titans and mafia kingpins,” represents “the inevitable outcome when the normal channels to improvement have been cut off,” Packer says. “People see him and say, he cut to the front, he pushed people out of the way—why should I put on a McDonald’s uniform and make nine dollars an hour?”
A symptom of the unwinding, then, is the erosion of the middle-class values Tammy Thomas learned from her great-grandmother, which taught young people that “by working hard and taking advantage of opportunities you do better than your parents were able to do,” as Packer says. Bluntly put, “that American story no longer exists.” The rap mogul’s winner-take-all mentality is reflected in Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who offers handsome scholarships to young people willing to drop out of college: “He’s doing for startups and tech entrepreneurs what Jay-Z is doing for rappers and entertainers,” Packer explains. “Saying don’t wait, don’t pay your dues, just allow me to show you how to break the rules and win.”
Politics, too, has become dominated by victory at all costs, and Packer has no doubt who is responsible: “Newt Gingrich had to be in there, because I think more than anyone he created the modern polarized electronic political culture of America. He saw what Pericles saw, which is that rhetoric is essential to ruling.” As Packer explains in the book, Gingrich gave Republican candidates “vocabulary lessons,” teaching them to describe their opponents with words like “cheat corrupt crisis cynicism decay” and their own positions with “change children choice common sense courage.” Campaigns turned into games of ideological mad libs, abandoning fact for emotion, and shaking out money and votes.
If there is hope in these stories, it lies in the resilience of the ordinary characters Packer writes about with empathy, patience, and respect—in what he calls “the ability of people to survive in the middle of strong winds blowing.” Yet he cautions that this inspiring resilience “doesn’t add up to a vision of the future.” Life has become harder and lonelier for these people—as he realized at the end of writing the book, all of his central characters are single. “I just wish that all the pressure were not on them, that it wasn’t just a story of the lonely individual, because those stories are never as happy as we’d like them to be,” he says. “Gatsby ends up face down in a swimming pool with a bullet in him—people forget that.”Joanna Scutts is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places.