A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generationAmerican democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet’s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer’s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.
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George Packer's The Unwinding covers the last 35 years of life in America, much like John Dos Passos covered the 1930's un the USA trilogy. He starts his major chronological sections with headlines & quotes from a specific year and then follows up with profiles of people, both famous and ordinary to trace what has happened to the country and its institutions from approximately the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970's to the re-election of Barack Obama. And it is not a pretty picture.The story that emerges is one of an America that has been very kind to those who have a great education, and for one reason or another have found themselves in the lucrative sectors of finance, political lobbying or digital entrepreneurship. It hasn't, however, been so kind to blue-collar factory workers who only possess a high school education (or less). What those people have seen is the exodus of their once high-paying union jobs overseas, replaced by low-wage, no benefit service sector jobs that keep them on the edge of insolvency.Packer illustrates this problem by following throughout the book four main characters who each represent one of these sectors. There is Dean Price from a poor family of tobacco farmers in North Carolina who tries several different entrepreneurial ventures only to have them go bust because he does not have the resources to grow his businesses where they can become reliably profitable. Tammy Thomas is a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who battles poverty , but despite of having little education and living in a city that is literally crumbling around her, manages to to endure a grueling factory job, raise three children as a single mother and still maintain some optimism about life. Peter Thiel is a brilliant Stanford educated businessman with an Ayn Randian political philosophy who makes it big as a venture capitalist and despite some big reversals in the 2008 financial crisis still manages to stay comfortably in the 1%. And finally, there is Jeff Connughton who is drawn to politics when he meets Joe Biden in college and then finds himself making a career in government and lobbying.Interspersed throughout this narrative are profiles of business, political and cultural figures: Newt GIngrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, and others - none of whom are shown to be worthy of the success they have achieved in life (He is especially scathing with Gingrich, Winfrey and Biden).There are no solutions given in this book for the current state of things except, perhaps in the introduction when Packer says that each decline in America has brought forth a renewal. However, the picture that he paints is so bleak - of Americans all basically on their own without the support they once had from unions, government or community organizations, that it's really hard to read this book & be optimistic about the future.more
Through the last few decades, American institutions have fallen apart; jobs that were once secure have disappeared, and social ties have fragmented. Packer picks several people to follow through those decades, from Newt Gingrich to a community activist in Ohio, and tracks their fortunes. Packer doesn’t argue explicitly; he just juxtaposes significant events in America generally and in his subjects’ personal lives to make the case that in the new America, everyone is on their own (except for one person, a woman facing bankruptcy, who he explicitly labels as not like his other subjects, because as a first-generation immigrant she has a family that pitches in to help her out), and that this is not a good thing. It’s a disturbing read even with the moments of hope, which mainly come from the activist.more