Tuesday, July 27, 2021
George Packer Tells of Four Americas as He Addresses America in Crisis
George Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has also written “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”
Monday, July 19, 2021


PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH/Sun Valley Writers Conference

Americans have learned just how perilously close this country’s democracy came to being shattered as revelations of Gen. Mark Miley’s fears of a coup came to a fore.

Author George Packer told those attending the Sun Valley Writers Conference Saturday that the country’s state of disrepair in which the nation’s democracy was saved by the skin of its teeth started not with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol but can be traced back to the late 1970s leading up to  Reagan’s America.

George Packer says civic education needs to return to classrooms to teach students how to bring evidence to an argument and how to listen. “The ability to listen is what journalists at their best do. It’s what citizens at their best do.”

Packer quoted Abraham Lincoln who warned in 1838 that America would never be destroyed from the outside by a Napoleon but, rather, suicide.

There have been times the nation has had near-death experiences—notably, during the Civil War, in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression and during the strife over the Vietnam War.

Now it’s contemplating suicide again, said Packer, who explores the subject in his new book “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.”

The pandemic exposed inequalities, including the gap between essential and non-essential workers. Architects and lawyers were rendered non-essential while the underpaid working class, such as the delivery people, risked their lives to keep society going during the pandemic.

It also created a division between experts who follow the science and the populace who followed their leader. Protests over racial justice and wildfires and flooding believed to be caused by global warming only exacerbated the problem.

“We have become the type of country we used to criticize because their leaders exploited fears, stoking polarization and violence,” he said. “The Washington Post reported that President Trump lied 30,000 times, and those lies became his most enduring legacy as Americans can’t agree about what’s up and down.”

This happened for two reasons, Packer said. First America, became a more diversity tolerant country striving to become a multi-everything country. Second, industrialization and globalization spurred the idea of winner and losers, stoking division and competition, even hatred.

Four narratives tell America’s story since the 1970s, Packer said.

  • Free America, which became entrenched in the 1980s during the Reagan years, offered the narrative that all Americans can rise to the top and make something of ourselves if we just hollow out the government--get government out of the way and cut taxes and deregulate.

But the promise never was realized. Malls were abandoned. Stores on Main Street closed. Some rose but many did not.

  • Smart America, which emerged in the 1990s during the Clinton years, was championed by educated professionals that preached If you work hard and get the right education, the information economy will welcome you. The Democrat party became the party of professionals after having been the party of the working class.

But the chances of a poor American kid getting into an Ivy League school today is the same as it was in 1954. The educated have become an aristocracy, in which families pass on membership to their children, Packer said.

  • Real America is embodied by Sarah Palin, who said during her 2008 campaign for Vice President that there are real Americans and fake Americans. It was a white Christian nationalism and a not-well-educated narrative that pointed out rural areas were worse off than they had been, said Packer.

    “She was Trump’s John the Baptist,” Packer said. “And Trump is a demagogue who feeds on the hatred of the elite.”

  • Just America hit the streets last summer with the George Floyd protests. This narrative is fueled by the Millennials –a discontented generation handed a difficult job market and a precarious future, thanks to global warming. It’s a rebellion against both Real America and Smart America.

It believes that America has a caste society that hasn’t changed much over 200 years, and the hierarchy has to be overthrown in order for justice to come.

“The rhetoric today is frightening with the use of polarizing language by political elites,” Packer said. “It seems like we’re about to all starting shooting.”

The first thing to do is look at countries that have disintegrated into fighting and war and acknowledge that it could happen here, said Packer.

Packer said a different vision—one that could save the union—is centered around the concept of equality and a non-demagogic patriotism.

No one thinks of us as exceptional anymore. If anything, countries pity us, he said, noting that even Taiwan and Russia offered to send humanitarian aid during the pandemic.

A national patriotic solidarity has to be tapped if the nation wants to slow climate change or stop racism. Having young people under 25 do a year of national service to serve the country, similar to the Conservation Civilian Corps, might bring together Americans from different backgrounds, creating face-to-face interactions that could help them rise above the different factions.

Equal America might be a narrative that connects our past to our future, Packer added. That’s not to say we can ever achieve absolute equality. But we have to create conditions of greater equality, by such things as restoring the safety net and making education more equitable.

“We’ve found all kinds of ways to be apart, such as in the cable shows we watch. We need to find ways to be together again.”

“Real America needs to stop rejecting others as un-American. Smart America needs to stop seeing itself as a privileged America. We will not solve global warming and other problems without a patriotism—and I mean love for country, not nationalism,” said Packer. “Democracy asks us to place more faith in ourselves and one another than we can bear.”


The Sun Valley Writers Conference is offering the public a chance to view several presentations on the Pavilion lawn screen today and Tuesday.Additionally, attendees can join the conference from around the world, with live streaming of all Pavilion talks online through the SVWC YouTube channel. Talk recordings will also be available to watch after the conference at https://svwc.com.


9:30 a.m. Lawrence Wright—“The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID,” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower”

3 p.m. Tayari Jones—“An American Marriage: A Story of Love and Injustice,” which takes a look at what happens when a social justice issues collides with the lives of a newlywed couple

4:30 p.m. Noah Feldman—“Lincoln and the Broken Constitution,” which shows how the Constitution went from a rough and ready deal to a sacred text

5:45 p.m. “Horizon: A Tribute to Barry Lopez,” an encore film presentation


9:30 a.m. David Wallace-Wells—“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” a book on climate change that has been called “this generation’s Silent Spring”

4 p.m. Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis—“The Next World War and America’s Geopolitical Future: Fact and Fiction,” from two former military officers who have together written “2034: A Novel of the Next World War”

5:30 p.m. John Lithgow—“Master Class,” a conversation between Lithgow and PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown about his career, which ranges from the goofy Dick Solomon in “3rd Rock From the Sun” to his portrayal of Winston Churchill in “The Crown.”



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