The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Jun 17, 2013

Since the late 1970s, says George Packer, we've been living in a new era. The structures that supported ordinary Americans' ambitions, from government to business to schools, have stopped working on their behalf. Instead, people felt they were on their own. Some have thrived greatly and others have been left behind, with a rising sense of panic.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us.

George Packer is our speaker. It is a pleasure to welcome him back to the Carnegie Council.

If you've read any of George's earlier books or his essays in The New Yorker, you won't need me to tell you what a wonderful writer and storyteller he is. George captures your attention, holds your interest, and leaves you wanting to read more. His recent publication, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, is just one more example in a growing list of outstanding and memorable books that George has penned.

As we go about our daily life, we may not always be aware that changes are taking place, carrying us in new directions towards another time, a new situation. Even so, there are Americans today who feel that life has changed for them and they are leaving what once was the American dream. They will tell you that there is no one to help them. Strong institutions that once supported aspirations of the middle classes, especially since the 1930s, are no longer.

Disparity of wealth has led to widening inequality, material success, and moral decline. Elites seem to be doing better and better, but average citizens are falling behind. While some are on the winning side of this divide, others are adrift.

Storytelling is often thought of as entertainment, a diversion that can take you somewhere you have not been before. But stories or narratives can also be used to convey a particular moment in time. With national debates swirling around unemployment, foreclosures, debt, religion, government, and private enterprise, pundits are reporting that our nation is in crisis. George Packer agrees.

In The Unwinding, George shares with us a string of personal and penetrating narratives about the experiences of ordinary Americans. Their stories alternate with thumbnail sketches of celebrity Americans, such as Newt Gingrich and Oprah, to capture a new America which reveals that something seems not quite right in this land of opportunity, in this land of the American dream. If you're wondering if things can really be all that bad, all you have to do is listen to their stories.

But, first, to do so you have to join me in welcoming our guest, George Packer. Welcome to the Carnegie Council.


GEORGE PACKER: Thank you, Joanne. You pretty much gave my talk, and you did it beautifully. If there were to be like the 500-word op-ed version of my book, Joanne just gave it. It's terrific.

I was here four years ago, I think, Joanne reminded me, and it's wonderful to be back at the Council.

My last major book—let's say big book—was The Assassins' Gate, about the Iraq War, and it was in Iraq that I began to think about this book.

As I went back over and over and saw the U.S. effort to rebuild that country implode, with disastrous consequences, I went from thinking of it as a failure of individual leaders—and we know their names, and some of them are still on the best-seller list—to something broader, something more like an institutional failure. If you looked across American institutions that were involved in Iraq—from the military, to intelligence, to the White House, the media, the for-profit world, the nonprofit world—no matter how much effort and talent and money and energy was thrown at that huge task, it just didn't seem to work. And I began to ask myself, why is that?

One day I was in the Green Zone with my friend, Dexter Filkins, then of The New York Times, now I'm glad to say of The New Yorker. He suddenly said to me, "You know, we're just not that good anymore." It rang true in a terribly disturbing way.

At least we weren't that good anymore in Iraq. It turned out that—it was like a stress test—the body politic put itself through something maybe harder than anything we had tried since Vietnam, or even the rebuilding of postwar Europe, and we were not in nearly as good shape as we thought under that kind of stress.

Then I came back home, just in time for the election of 2008 and the financial crisis of that year. Suddenly, it seemed, not just abroad but at home, one major American institution after another was not just eroding but collapsing in a heap—investment banks, commercial banks, auto manufacturers—one after another. It seemed like we were in some kind of a historic catastrophe.

Even though four years later, five years later, things seem to have sort of calmed down and stabilized, I think it's worth not losing sight of just how tumultuous those years were and just what they began to reveal, at least to me, about the state of American institutions. This was a big, big subject, a huge subject—maybe too big—but I wanted to try to write about it, and I had to figure out how.

There have been lots of books—I'm sure you've read a lot of them—about the financial crisis itself, about the rising inequality that Joanne talked about, the decline of the middle class with the outsourcing of manufacturing, the effects of globalization on the economy and on Americans' lives, etc., etc. I really didn't think I had a whole lot to add to the policy debate. And even if I did, the thought of jumping into that debate, to be honest, kind of bored me, because something goes dead in me when I begin to read too much abstraction about questions like these. My job at The New Yorker, and my passion in life, is to talk to people and to find out what makes them tick and to try to tell their stories in the most vivid and intimate way that I can.

I thought, what about a book that told this story of America starting to kind of fray at the seams, something about the undoing of that deal that used to hold us together? If the book has a central theme, this is it: that in the past generation, that social contract that I was born into and that everyone in this room has some memory of, and that I think of as the Roosevelt republic, the America that lasted from the 1930s until sometime in the 1970s, that that America had begun to disappear; and that, since the late 1970s, we've been living in a new era in which those structures that supported ordinary Americans' ambitions, from government and business to schools and media, stopped working on behalf of many, many of our countrymen and, instead, it became more and more a case of people feeling they were on their own. Some people thrived greatly on their own and other people felt left behind with a rising sense of panic.

So how to tell that story in a way that would not just be the private tales of individuals, that would be a bigger picture, a sort of panoramic picture of the country, but at the same time would be intimate and would be human, to privilege the human voice in the book.

It took a long time to figure out how to do it. This was the hardest book I've ever had to write. Maybe the most fun, in a way, to report, because I got to spend all this time traveling around the country and talking to Americans I never would have met otherwise. I'll introduce you to some of the characters in the book in a minute.

The hard part was to figure out how to put it all together, because a collection of stories is not a book. It's something else. I have a high standard for what a book is or should be, and I wanted something that felt like a big novel, felt like something you might have read from the age of Dreiser or the age of Dos Passos. Dos Passos became a kind of guiding light for me in figuring out how to put this together.

I knew that what I needed were not just people you've never heard of, but also people we know well, because to understand the relation between institutions and individuals and between elites and ordinary people, you need all of it.

So I did research on Newt Gingrich as, I think, a crucial figure in the creation of the political world that we now live in today—maybe more important than Reagan or Clinton in that sense.

I researched Jay-Z as an incredible rags-to-riches story of the entertainment world, which seemed to cast some light on the world of business and on our culture in the way that he had an ethos of "win at all costs."

I looked into Robert Rubin as a sort of shining example of the meritocracy both on Wall Street and in Washington, who nonetheless became part of an institution whose interests diverged so drastically from the national interests that by 2008 they were directly opposed to each other.

I looked into Alice Waters, the restaurant owner and food crusader, who changed the way we eat, changed the way we think about food, turned us all into food obsessives. Her life story is connected to the stories of some of the characters in the book in very unexpected ways, because it turns out that food is now a big deal in some of the poorest parts of America.

So I had to tell the stories both high and low, famous and obscure; centers of power like Wall Street and Washington and Silicon Valley, because you have to look at where decisions are made and how they're made and where the future is being hatched and where the success stories are, especially Silicon Valley.

And also some forgotten places, like Youngstown, Ohio, which was a big steel city until the steel mills left in the late 1970s, and Youngstown has been in a death spiral ever since; and the Carolina Piedmont, rural North Carolina, where textiles and tobacco were king, and then they went away in the 1990s and early 2000s and left behind a countryside that began to take on some of the ills of the inner city; and then Tampa, which to me is the Sun Belt growth machine par excellence, which seemed to be on a relentless expansion trajectory until the housing bust came in the mid-2000s, and then it was as if the ground just dropped out from under people's feet and all these subdivisions spreading across the wetlands emptied out and became little ghost towns, and some of them were half-finished when people began to leave because of foreclosures.

So all of that was this big reporting project. I went to all those places and talked to a lot of people. But I wanted to focus on just a handful of Americans, in fact really just three, four, five people, in addition to the ten portraits of the famous Americans that I mentioned earlier.

One of them is a woman named Tammy Thomas, whom I met in Youngstown, Ohio. She grew up just in time for deindustrialization. So the world she was born into was a somewhat settled world. She had a very hard childhood. Her mother was a heroin addict. She took care of her mother, rather than vice versa. She told me a story of how when she was a very young girl her mother would smoke in bed, and Tammy would try to keep herself awake until her mother would fall asleep so she could then take the cigarette out of her hands and put it out so that she didn't set the house on fire.

Tammy then had three kids of her own, too young and without a father around to support them. She seemed headed to be one more sad statistic in a very familiar story of what happened to the cities when industries left. But she had this inner resolve not to become that. She got one of the last good factory jobs left in Youngstown, working in a GM auto parts plant, and she was on the assembly line for 20 years and raised her three kids and sent them all to college. This is in many ways a story of heroism.

But whenever I asked her, "How did you do it? How did you keep going to the line every day and put the same damn wiring harness together every day? How did you get your kids to get through high school and not join a gang or get pregnant?"

She said, "I just did what I was supposed to do." That was her simple refrain. And it said so much about her and also about how many of us don't do what we're supposed to do, in a sense.

And then, her job was also sent overseas, just like the steel mills, sent to Mexico. And suddenly, in middle age, she had no job. She remade herself into a community organizer and found that she had a voice and a passion for training other people in Youngstown to try to improve things in a place that was really falling apart.

So Tammy is one of the main characters in the book.

A second character is Jeff Connaughton, who is much more on the upper end of the scale. He met Joe Biden when he was in college at the University of Alabama and was dazzled by Biden and swore to himself that he would, as he put it to me, "ride that horse to the White House." Biden was going to be his way both to realize his ambitions for public service and also realize his career ambitions, to be at the top of American life in the White House. So he joined the ill-fated 1988 Biden campaign. You may remember what happened to that. It didn't end well.

He stuck on with Biden for several years, increasingly disillusioned, not just with Biden, who turned out not to be such a wonderful boss to Jeff Connaughton, but also with government.

He did the flip that so many people in Washington do and joined a lobbying firm, just in time for the incredible boom in lobbying money around the millennium, a firm called Quinn Gillespie, which had a unique philosophy, which is: We're not with the Democrats or the Republicans; we're with both of them. They called themselves the "green party," meaning no matter who's in the White House, we're going to make money, and that became the philosophy of that firm. Jeff made a lot of money and did very well. Then he lost a lot of money in the financial crisis.

The financial crisis is a kind of reckoning for all the characters in the book. The book's trajectory takes you from the late 1970s, when all of these characters become adults, and moves back and forth between their stories. You follow them as they move through their lives and their careers and as you meet the celebrities along the way, until we get to 2008, when everything seems to have reached a head.

Jeff Connaughton, having lost a lot of the money he made in the crash, went back into government with Ted Kaufman, who took Biden's seat in the Senate for two years after Biden became vice president. Together, Kaufman and Connaughton, who had no reelection to worry about, and Connaughton no longer needed to make himself viable for the private sector—he'd already been there, he had made his money, and then lost some of it—their goal was to institute really rigorous financial reform legislation. They wanted to break up the big banks. They wanted to reinstate Glass-Steagall. All the things that we kind of heard about as ideas that were in the air, they really tried to push it through on Capitol Hill.

It didn't work, and Connaughton retired to private life with the singular ambition to blow himself up, to burn every last bridge he had in Washington, to do it so there would be no temptation to go back into that world. He wrote his memoirs and told me his story, and he will never have lunch in Washington again. [Laughter] It's a story that is remarkable in its candor and that you rarely hear from insiders, because no one wants to be kicked out forever.

The third major character is a guy named Dean Price, who is truly sui generis [unique, in a class by himself ] and yet completely American. I just don't think you could meet a guy like this in any other country.

He is from the Carolina Piedmont. He grew up in a very conservative Bible-Belt family. His father was a failed fire-and-brimstone preacher. His father, all his life, was haunted by failure and poverty and ended up committing suicide. Dean grew up in the shadow of his father's failure, and really his whole life's mission was not to become his father, to be a success, and a success in big American terms, which to him meant become an entrepreneur.

While tobacco and textiles were failing and the Piedmont was falling on hard times, Dean opened up a chain of truck stops along U.S. 220 between Greensboro, North Carolina, and Martinsville, Virginia, and found that, between Wal-Mart, Sheetz Oil, the multinational oil companies, and the depression of that region, he just couldn't make it. In 2008, every one of his businesses toppled like a chain of dominoes.

But he had already begun to think of a new way both to make his own fortune, and also in a much more visionary way, because he really had this sort of spiritual—I would say a Christian—idea of the need to reform life in his area and to bring back what had been lost. He fastened his sights on alternative energy, on biodiesel, which could be found all around this fallow farmland that had once been tobacco fields. He imagined acres and acres of canola growing, and canola seeds can be crushed and the oil used for biofuels. He saw in all the fast-food joints, barbeque restaurants, greasy spoons, all around that region waste oil that was being thrown out and that could be collected and turned into biodiesel. So he had this vision that "we could be the Silicon Valley of alternative energy." He's a real dreamer.

I'm just going to read a very short passage from the middle of the book that catches Dean just at this cusp, when he is watching both his region and his own business fail. He's going bankrupt. He's really falling on hard times. But he also has this dream. Whether or not it's practical, he has this dream.

"The landscape Dean planned to live out his life in was very old and also new, as particular as anything in America, and also as generic, as beautiful, and as ugly. In his imagination, it had become a nightmare, so profoundly wrong that he called it sinful, and he hated the sin more than any casual visitor or distant critic possibly could. Yet, he also saw here a dream of redemption so unlikely and glorious that it could only fill the mind's eye of a visionary native son.

"Once, driving through Cleveland County, Dean happened to pass the hard-shell Baptist church that his father had once tried to get but failed, the failure that had broken his father's will. Dean had gone down with him to Cleveland County and heard the sermon that his father had given for his audition back around 1975, so that decades later he recognized the church.

"He also noticed that there was now a f----ing Bojangles right next door. For Dean, Bojangles had come to represent everything that was wrong with the way Americans lived: how they raised their food and transported it across the country, how they grew the crops to feed the animals they ate, the way they employed the people who worked in the restaurants, the way the money left the community—everything about it was wrong. Dean's own business, gas and fast food, had become hateful to him, and he saw the error of his ways as his father never had, and the conjunction of his father's legacy and his own struck him with bitter irony as he drove past.

"He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses, always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking, chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk.

"And he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to his floodlit Bojangles up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public. And later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a super-center, just like hormone-fed chickens."

That gives you a taste of the prose and the book. So Dean is one of the central stories, and there are others, and my task as a writer was to shape them all into a narrative that had the coherence and the cohesion of a novel and that gave you a picture of the America we live in that seemed convincing to you. I hope I have achieved that and I hope you'll give the book a read.

I'm now here to answer whatever questions you have.


QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

George, full disclosure: both my parents are from and are now buried in Greensboro, North Carolina.

GEORGE PACKER: Did you grow up there?

QUESTIONER: I did not. I was born in New York. But they were Carolinians.

I want to ask you a question about whether any of these people you describe in the book found resonance in the kinds of messages they were getting from political voices. By that I mean people in the media, talk radio—all of it.

I have in mind something that you wrote three or four years ago. It may very well be in this book, but it was in The New Yorker at that time. You went to a middle-American city and you went to a mall and you were talking with people there. You were alarmed that what they were saying back to you was the exact language that a Glenn Beck or a Sean Hannity or, on the other side, whoever it was—

GEORGE PACKER: Keith Olbermann.

QUESTIONER: Right. It is that recollection that asked me whether you found that happened in reporting this book.

GEORGE PACKER: That's a great question. It was in southeastern Ohio, in the Appalachian part, and you've absolutely remembered it perfectly. I just was struck that my conversations around this diner on a kind of dismal little Main Street in a forgotten coal town sounded exactly like last night's talking points on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.

It occurred to me something in the nationalization of media and in the polarization of media had made local conversations less interesting. It's as if their own problems and the solutions to them, which inevitably become practical when they are local, were getting lost in this noise that comes from Washington and from the big media. That seemed like a real loss.

You see that everywhere. You see it in the comments appended to news stories on websites. For example, there's one character in the book, Mike Van Sickler, who is sort of an old-fashioned investigative reporter at what used to be called The St. Petersburg Times. He is traveling around Tampa Bay trying to get at the heart of how this housing bust happened. He discovers it's because all these properties, or half of them, were investment properties, and people who really couldn't afford them were flipping them as fast as they could. So once values started to plummet, there was no one to live in the house. He also looked at fraud at the level of banks and mortgage companies.

Van Sickler would write these stories up, and they'd be on the front page, and then all these comments would come in, as we all know from reading the newspaper on the web. They were irrelevant to the story. They were vitriolic in extreme, hidden behind, of course, the anonymity of the web.

He said to me, "I wonder what I'm doing this for. It just doesn't seem to be changing anything, or even reaching anyone. It's just drowned out by this language of media that is now common currency."

I would say, though, that people like Dean and Tammy, whom I spent a lot of time with, weeks and months of time, really were quite capable of thinking for themselves and had their own voice, which is what drew me to them. They knew how to talk about their lives and their communities in a way that was so much theirs and so passionate that you just wanted to be around them, you wanted to hear it.

So for every Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow parody that I heard in Rockingham County, North Carolina, I also heard Dean Price talking about Napoleon Hill, who was this early 20th-century positive-thinking guy who wrote a book called Think and Grow Rich, which was one of the first how-to-succeed-in-business books. That book is Dean's Bible, his second Bible. Although I'm not much of a believer in the power of positive thinking, I was fascinated and attracted to Dean Price's faith in it. That faith didn't come from cable news; it came from something older, something very American, I think.

So we haven't been completely homogenized by the web and cable, but we're moving in that direction.

QUESTION: Gil Rishchynski, Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.

As someone who is not from here but has lived here a long time, one of the things that fascinates myself, and probably a lot of foreigners, about this country is the capacity for reinvention. You talked about the breakdown of the social contract and what people took to be sort of their inherent value structures, and from the 1970s we have seen a withering of that.

In your judgment, and on the basis of the stories that you have been able to collect from people, has that capacity for reinvention that is really at the core of the American spirit and is held in high esteem around the world, has that been affected in a way now where the possibility of reinvention has been compromised? Or, in your judgment, if people can reinvent themselves personally, is there still hope inevitably that the nation can reinvent itself as well?

GEORGE PACKER: That's a wonderful question, and maybe a question that wouldn't occur to one of us. So thank you for asking it.

Certainly, if you hang out with Dean, Tammy, Jeff, Peter Thiel, who is my Silicon Valley character, you have a sense that there is an inexhaustible supply of, not just resilience, but resourcefulness, and that in a given life, even a completely obscure life, there is a number of points where the person comes up against the abyss and has to remake themselves. That happened to Tammy, it happened to Dean, it happened to Jeff Connaughton. That's very hopeful.

It's also exciting. I think some of what keeps you reading this book, if you do keep reading it, is wondering what's going to happen next, because they all go through these dramatic crises and then transformations. And they do it themselves. That's the key thing. No one is telling them what to do or how to do it, and there are no structures around them. Dean Price doesn't have a newspaper that's cheering him on or a business association or a civic group or a union. He's just on his own. That is sort of both an American romantic vision and also a reality.

My concern is that a whole lot of personal stories like this do not add up to the kind of structural reform that I think is needed. At the centers of power, especially Washington, the tools for that just seem to be broken. The president reaches for a lever that used to work and he pulls it and nothing on the other end responds. That is a bigger problem than the problems of a couple of people in this crazy world.

I don't have an answer for it. One reason I wanted to write a narrative instead of a policy book is because I don't have the 10 things that will fix America. I don't offer those at the end of the book. It probably would have ruined the book if I had.

At the other end, there are characters in the book who are so poor and who used to have blue-collar jobs that allowed them to support their families. One family in Tampa, in particular, the Hartzells, two kids, the family has held together through all kinds of troubles. But the father keeps losing his job, first at a manufacturing plant, then as a welder, and then at Wal-Mart, which is all that's left. They cannot reinvent themselves. They just don't have the resources, whether inner or social.

I think there's a lot of Americans in that situation. We hear about all the opportunities that are coming with the information age. They're not coming to the Hartzells and to a lot of other people. That, too, is a structural problem. It has to do with schools, it has to do with the dysfunction of our government, it has to do with the fact that corporations feel no loyalty to their employees. I don't have the answer for that, other than that we should be better. But we're not.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. The book sounds fascinating. Some of the undertone of what you are talking about and driving at strikes me as a recipe for demagoguery, that in other societies where this kind of systematic, across-the-board collapse of institutions has occurred—think Argentina, think Germany—there has arisen a demagogue who has been able to use that national media to create a power structure and impose reform.


QUESTIONER: Did you get any echoes of a kind of receptivity to some demagogue who is obviously not yet identifiable?

GEORGE PACKER: Wonderful question.

I think, as in the title of a new book by Jonathan Alter, the center still holds in this country, to the extent that we are not headed for Argentina. There is still enough opportunity that isn't shared nearly as widely as it used to be but is still there. And there is still enough structural integrity that people haven't lost complete faith in the institutions in a way that would make them receptive to a Father Coughlin or an Eva Peron.

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are demagogues, and they built quite a following, and Sarah Palin catapulted herself to the top of her party for a little while. So that to me was a sign of something quite rotten at the top, and the receptivity suggested something rotten at the bottom.

I remember sitting around a breakfast table in Columbus, Ohio, during the same trip that you mentioned, and some women I was interviewing were saying—this was in 2008—"We love Sarah Palin. She would fit in right at this table. She's just like us." And I asked them: "Why do you want someone just like you to be the vice president?"

That suggested a complete loss of faith in elites, that "they can't do it any better than we can, so we might as well put one of ours there." They were acknowledging she's not really any better educated, any better informed; that makes her the best possible vice president.

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were sort of opposing, but I'd say they came out of the same fount of total disenchantment with elites—with maybe different elites. But I often thought that the two of them should get together because they sounded a lot alike in some ways.

In Tampa, there's a character named Karen Jaroch, who's a housewife until 2008, and then Sarah Palin lights a fire for her and she becomes a leader of the Tea Party in Tampa and actually wins a big political battle by defeating an initiative for commuter rail, which many people in Tampa saw as kind of the answer to the sprawl that led to the housing collapse. Well, the Tea Party made sure that that never happened.

There's also a long chapter in the book about Occupy Wall Street—I spent a lot of time down in Zuccotti Park—and how the hopefulness of some of their rhetoric, but also the total lack of any structure—again, it kind of reflected the problem I'm talking about. There was no belief in a hierarchy or in even a coherent set of goals. Once the police raided the park, it was over, that was the end of Occupy Wall Street. It was a meme, not a movement.

So I guess that's a long answer to say I don't think it is going to reach that level. But I can't tell you how many of the people in this book at one time or another said, "If such-and-such doesn't happen, there's going to be chaos in the streets."

Dean Price has this vision of U.S. 220 shutting down because we can't get the oil in any longer, which happened during Katrina, and that was a real turning point for him. "If the food can't get here, if the trucks can't run on the highways because of an oil shortage or because of a power blackout or a terror attack, there's going to be civil unrest, and maybe even violence." So that's in the imaginations of many, many characters in the book. It hasn't happened. I don't think it's going to happen. But the fact that people anticipate it is worrying.

QUESTION: Arlette Laurent.

Which branch of the government would you say might be able to best redress what seems to be the dysfunctional system as we see it today?

GEORGE PACKER: We're used to looking to government for that answer. I can tell you that none of the characters in my book look to government—which is to say Washington—for answers any longer. They all did at one time or another, and they gradually began to realize it will have to happen right here where I'm standing.

I have maybe a little more faith in local movements pressuring local governments and state governments than I do something coming from the center in Washington.

Look at the Senate. The Senate, which was created for statesmanship and to cool the passions of the other house, is (a) a hotbed of the worst vitriol and division in our system and (b) absolutely unable to work. That's because the old precedents and rules that used to make it, with some unfortunate periods of exception, a place where the best politicians came and had a national idea, a national interest, those rules and precedents don't work if there's no self-restraint. They depend on the behavior of the members.

It's a self-governing body. They are very proud of their own rules, and those rules are a disaster, especially Rule XXII, which created the filibuster. The filibuster now is used routinely—four, five, six times for every bill that comes up. It used to only be used when Southern senators wanted to block civil rights legislation.

The Senate had a chance to reform the filibuster, which would be like the smallest reform you can imagine, and that was in January when the new Congress convened. They didn't do it, because I think older Democrats did not want to create the trouble that would have come with that kind of harsh push. I know a lot of newer senators who were very disappointed that that didn't happen.

Now we are back to where we've been for the past few years, a Senate that doesn't work. I don't see how the Senate is going to change itself. So I don't look to Washington so much anymore.

I thought 2008 was a turning point. I thought it was one of those watershed years, like 1980 or 1932. It turned out that not a whole lot changed, and that's because of the institutions. An individual can't do it without some sort of institutional health returning.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

Two aspects of American life that are widely considered to be greatly important to a majority of Americans are religion, especially evangelical, and Second Amendment rights. In both of those cases I have long felt that their importance has been exaggerated in the public imagination and in media. I'm just wondering, in your travels and interviews did you encounter that? Would you comment on this?

GEORGE PACKER: I think you're right about the Second Amendment. I mean it's a tool for demagogues. It's a very handy one. Because there are a lot of people whose guns matter to them, who use their guns routinely in hunting and train their children to use them and for whom it's a sort of symbol of independence. It's a symbol. Symbols are easily manipulated. But the polls show that huge majorities of Americans are open to the kinds of moderate reforms that were in the recent bill that didn't make it out of the Senate.

Religion is everywhere. Tammy Thomas, when her factory job disappeared, turned to a charismatic church in Akron, and for a couple of years that was her life.

Dean Price, characteristic of him, joined this tiny little Primitive Baptist church in a building that had been around since about 1820, on a little hill next to a cemetery, outside Madison, North Carolina. His religion is maybe what increasing numbers of Americans are. It's not really institutional. He doesn't have a preacher whom he listens to for life advice. He doesn't go to church events. It's more inner. For him it's a kind of reaffirmation of hope, which is so badly needed in some parts of the country.

So religion, I think, is more important than ever. As a political force, I think it is diminishing. I think it had an incredible run from the late 1970s to maybe the middle of the last decade. I think the Republican Party's connection to the Christian right is now to the Republican Party what the Democratic Party's connection to some of their interest groups did in the 1970s and 1980s. It's making it a minority party, because younger Americans are just moving on. They don't see the political world in those terms. But religion is—I saw it everywhere I went.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

As I've been listening to your wisdom about the unwinding, I've been trying to find a reason for rewinding. So let's take as an example women. You mentioned Sarah Palin, whom some of us would never vote for. But there are excellent women who are extremely intelligent—Hillary Clinton or Senator Gillibrand, who's younger. There are excellent women.

What about African Americans? We have the first African American president. What about Hispanics? What about Asians? There are so many pools of intelligent people growing up in the system, through education, through intermingling and discussions and so forth, that have potential to bring a lot to this country and to the world.

GEORGE PACKER: Absolutely right. I'd add Tammy Thomas to that list.

You know, there's a weird paradox in the period covered by the unwinding. Two things are happening at once. On the one hand, greater and greater inclusiveness, so that the Senate is now 25 percent women, something like that. We have a black president, which I never imagined in my lifetime. And we are, I hope, on the verge of immigration reform. And just in people's manners and morals, there's just more tolerance and more of an acceptance that America is a polyglot, multiracial, multi-identity country, and there's more room.

We have gay Boy Scouts as of a couple of weeks ago. We also have lousy public schools for those gay Boy Scouts.

The other thing happening is stratification, growing inequality, no matter what happens. The financial crisis did not reduce it; it exacerbated it. And less and less true equal opportunity. So more and more Americans have the possibility of joining society in a really productive way, and I'd say fewer Americans have the actual fact of it.

So those two things have to kind of be looked at together. To me they are unrelated. I don't see why we can't have gay Boy Scouts and good public schools, in other words.

Whether or not women and minorities and immigrants and others are going to have answers to the questions raised in this book, I don't know. Barack Obama's skin color did not give him the answers, because we're all living in the same society and all depend on the same institutions.

For some people—I thought we were going to go in this direction—the answer is the Internet, especially when you go to Silicon Valley. Any social problem, any dysfunctioning government, there's an app. [Laughter] There is an engineering solution to that bug.

The more time I spent in Silicon Valley—I wrote about this in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, and also in my book—the less faith I had that the engineers have the answers for us and that Wikipedia and Kickstarter are models for social organization. I think it actually sends us more in the direction that the libertarians want than the communitarians like me.

So I hope you're right about the new faces that you see in Washington and in corporate America and in other leadership positions. But we're all Americans and we are all subject to the same moment that we're in now. It may be bigger than that.

QUESTION: William Verdone.

A few random thoughts. The people with whom you had discussion, what were their impressions about health care—or the lack of—immigration, education? For example, there's a tremendous amount of people in the Midwest who still are debating Darwin and evolution, and therefore science is not really the way it should be taught. What are their impressions about these kinds of things?

GEORGE PACKER: I'll give you one example. Dean Price—I keep coming back to him because we spent so much time together—is a firm believer in peak oil, which many scientists also believe in, which is the idea that there is a point after which oil reserves diminish, and that America reached that point around 1970, and all the oil shocks and the rising energy prices since then are a result of that. Fracking was for Dean an unwelcome new current, because Dean's whole vision of alternative energy depends on running out of oil and high fossil fuel costs. So it wasn't good news for him. So he believes in peak oil, which some people think is crackpot.

He does not believe in man-made climate change, or if he does, he's not sure. And he certainly doesn't talk about it when he's traveling around rural North Carolina trying to convince local county commissioners and school board members to let him put biodiesel in their school buses, which is the project that he is now working on, because it will get him kicked out of the room.

In fact, I remember sitting with him in the office of the country commissioner in Surrey County, North Carolina, and he was talking. He had his jar of canola oil and his jar of biodiesel and he was giving his pitch, which I've seen him give 1,000 times, and it's kind of exciting every time he does because he's a great salesman.

She suddenly said, "Mr. Price, let me stop you there. You've just used a couple of words that I want to caution you about because they won't get you very far here in Surrey County. One of them was 'green' and the other was 'sustainable.'" She was basically saying the Tea Party controls the county commission. She, as a moderate Republican, was the furthest left member. That kind of talk suggests that socialism is being imposed on Surrey County.

She said, "Talk about savings, talk about conserving, but don't talk about sustainability."

He said, "Thank you, Ma'am. I'll make sure not to next time."

So what you're getting at is true. Unfortunately, it is reinforced at the top. There has always been a great deal of ignorance in this country. We know that. It hasn't always been affirmed, and even planted, by our leaders. That is part of the decay that I am talking about in the book.

Certainly, the individuals whom you've never heard of are responsible for many of their own mistakes and problems, and they all screw up big time. But I place more responsibility where there is more privilege and opportunity and less reason for not knowing things like this, and that is at the top of different institutions.

JOANNE MYERS: I wonder if you could, just for a moment, tell us how you chose these characters—and they are characters.

GEORGE PACKER: They are characters. It's horrible to talk about people as characters, but they have become characters in my head—at least they did until Dean and Tammy both came and stayed at my house a couple of weeks ago, which absolutely freaked me out and then was kind of a wonderful thing. It was like they stepped out of my head into life.

Dean I met by accident. I was working on another New Yorker piece about a guy named Tom Perriello down in southern Virginia, who had a brief career in Congress. His office was helping Dean's biodiesel project. Thirty seconds on the phone with Dean and I knew I wanted to go down and meet him.

My wife encouraged me to keep going down because I was looking for a way to tell this story and I hadn't settled on the idea of just following a handful of characters. I didn't know how to do it.

Dean was the first character to become a character for me and to give me the idea that the best way to tell a generation-long historical story would be on a small scale. Don't try to take it all on. Do it through these streams and move back and forth, and their lives will touch on the big things happening.

But I don't need to devote a chapter to the Clinton impeachment. We know what happened. Instead, Jeff Connaughton's story sort of skirts along the Clinton impeachment. So you see the big events happening in your peripheral vision while you're following these stories.

Tammy Thomas I pursued more by design, because I wanted to have a woman in the book. Among the other female characters, I wanted one of the three leading characters to be a woman, a black woman all the better. But I wanted her to be in the Rust Belt, because deindustrialization, which is a very old story but it's one of the four or five biggest stories of this generation—it's huge, especially when you leave the coasts and go into the heartland. You see it everywhere.

Several people told me about Tammy in Youngstown as a community organizer. I went out to meet her. Again, there's two things that have to happen before it works. One, she knows how to talk about herself and is willing to talk about herself, because everyone's life may be interesting, but not everyone can make their life interesting to someone else. She could.

She drove me around East Youngstown, where she grew up, the east side, and just told me, "That used to be a school, that used to be a church"—these were all vacant lots—and what happened to these places, how did this happen. She was so articulate and passionate about her own life story.

But the other thing that has to happen is they have to be willing to let me tag along, not just for a few hours, but repeatedly over days and weeks. Dean Price, I stayed at his house half-a-dozen times. It's a really intimate and vexing relationship. And it's impertinent.

I mean I'm asking them questions—like I spent one afternoon with Tammy talking about a Ponzi scheme that she fell for with her buyout money after her job was offshored. She lost almost all that she had gotten to a con-man cousin. She was so ashamed of herself that she really didn't want to talk about it. But she began to, and then I kept asking more questions. Finally, she said, "George, you ask too many personal questions." I had this moment of "Oh god, this is it. She's going to send me home." Fortunately, we got past it.

So it takes a lot for them to let me do it. There's just not all that many people who will. It takes a special person to be able to make their story translatable into prose.

So that's a couple of cases of how I found them.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for taking us into the heartland. Thank you so much.

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