The Four Americas
Competing visions of the country’s purpose and meaning are tearing it apart, George Packer wrote in the July/August issue. Is reconciliation possible?
George Packer’s article had me nodding and shaking my head in alternation, and in the end caused me heartache that only a beer and a ball game could alleviate.
I doubt America was ever as unified before World War II as Packer suggests, but I agree we have become more fragmented in the postwar years. A contributing factor to which he doesn’t give enough attention is the decay of America’s once-great public-education system. During the Cold War years, the U.S. invested heavily in building a world-class system of K–12 schools and public colleges and universities, and this led to a flourishing of science, technology, the arts, and the humanities. Americans’ standard of living, health, and upward mobility increased during this period, at least for white citizens. Starting with Ronald Reagan, however, Republicans realized that educated voters presented a threat to their program of using cultural division to distract people from the upward movement of wealth and opportunity. The election of Donald Trump, the spread of QAnon, and the politicization of wearing masks are all signs of the success of the Republican war on public education.
Like Packer, I’m not ready to give up on America’s future. I see reinvigorating our schools as a feasible and necessary step toward reuniting the four parts of our country.
In his insightful commentary on our nation’s separation into four distinct cultural “tribes,” George Packer poses this question: Is reconciliation possible?
Not mentioned in his article is the possible source of our divide, our two-party system, which has resulted in today’s intransigent zero-sum politics. Perhaps the path to reconciliation is through the division of the Republican and Democratic Parties into four components, which might approximately reflect Packer’s four Americas. The Republicans might split into nativist and traditionalist elements. For their part, Democrats could divide along a line between greater or less “wokeness” akin to the author’s Smart America and Just America.
Of course, absent some dramatic and highly unlikely reduction in the influence of money in American politics, a political system with four (or more) parties is a mere pipe dream.
Lake Mary, Fla.
Packer misses an important factor in his assessment of why Just America has taken the form it has. I am a Millennial, born at the leading edge of my generation. In 1983, when the oldest Baby Boomers were the age that I am now, 28 senators were age 60 or older. Today, 70 senators are. People under 40 are availing themselves of culture in order to enact change because culture is the only part of our society that’s not caught in the stranglehold of an out-of-touch gerontocracy. The battle over “wokeness” is fundamentally a generational conflict.
I find Packer’s biggest omission to be his lack of attention to climate change as a radicalizing force among young people. Climate anxiety is the framework in which my generation must evaluate ideas, and it gives extra weight to all our other demands.
Generally, I wish Packer viewed with more optimism what I see as one of the positives of my generation, which is that few young Americans today believe they can exempt themselves from political life.
George Packer’s otherwise excellent dissection of current American politics is marred only by his misunderstanding, and therefore mischaracterization, of the group he calls Just America. As a fellow white, male Baby Boomer and card-carrying member of liberal Smart America, I recognize the symptoms of his denial. It is hard for us to see, let alone fully comprehend, how much of what we take for granted as true and natural is simply a product of our dominant and privileged position in society, and of the ideas that justify it.
While I share some of his criticisms of Just America’s excesses and agree that some of the self-proclaimed “woke” are privileged Americans engaging in performative solidarity, I know from personal experience that it can be easy to look past the legitimate and stinging criticisms of liberal elites and policies and instead focus on the Jacobins calling for the heads of all who misspeak. Many of the truly just Americans I meet are fighting for a better America, are ferociously inclusive, and insist that the agency of the less privileged be acknowledged and respected. They’re simply asking well-meaning white liberals to be quiet and listen for once.
Like most elites, George Packer is vested in eliding any genuine leftism among wageworkers. In Packer’s telling, Real Americans are brutes, but they’re allowed to come by their views honestly through life experience at the hands of baleful external forces. Just Americans, by contrast, are a college-trained cadre; their outrage over conditions comes from elaborate theory. Smart America can criticize itself as part of a “hereditary class structure,” but Just America calling it a “caste system” is a Marxian delusion.
Why bother contorting your worldview like this? To the smart elites, Real Americans are the noble savages. They are abominable and admirable and will inevitably pass from the land. They can’t hurt you in Boston or Bethesda or Santa Barbara, not really. What’s disconcerting is the thought that your barista and your Uber Eats driver might be conspiring to raise the price of your lattes by 50 cents so they can make rent. Better to characterize the insurgent left as Twitter check marks with a dogmatic and entirely theoretical view of the world than to address our material concerns.
George Packer replies:
The more that Just America focuses on material concerns, the more it will accomplish for social justice. The final chapters of Last Best Hope, the book from which the article was drawn, describe how this could happen: through repairing the safety net, empowering workers, breaking up monopolies, and making educational opportunity more equal. But when Just America embraces a rigid metaphysics of group identity—very much a generational tendency—it loses touch with the experiences and aspirations of most Americans, leading to illiberal ideas and political defeats. It’s because I want the Uber Eats driver to be paid more that I criticize the failings of Just America along with those of the other three groups.
What we learned fact-checking this issue
This month, Ross Andersen writes about the growing number of archaeologists who believe that the first Americans may have arrived on the continent by watercraft (“America’s Atlantis”). This theory bucks the long-held belief that the Americas’ first inhabitants walked over a land bridge into Alaska and later continued south into the interior. A key piece of evidence for that theory was the archaeologist Edgar B. Howard’s 1930s discovery of ancient spear tips used for hunting mammoths near Clovis, New Mexico. A lesser-known figure behind Howard’s find was Ridgely Whiteman, who, in 1929, as a 19-year-old amateur archaeologist, wrote to the Smithsonian about “extinct elephant bones’’ he’d seen in the area. According to the 1999 book Clovis Revisited, the Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Gilmore visited the site, but deemed it unworthy of excavation. Whiteman and Gilmore drove home in awkward silence. Three years later, Howard heard about Whiteman’s discovery and decided to explore further, hiring the young archaeologist to join his team.
Will Gordon, Associate Editor
Behind the Cover
In her cover story (“The Unwritten Rules of Black TV”), Hannah Giorgis describes how Black television writers and producers have long been constrained by white executives’ notions of “authenticity.” While progress has been made, Black writers still have limited creative freedoms relative to their white peers. Our cover image, rendered by Danielle Del Plato, uses retro television sets, their screens filled with noteworthy characters and scenes, to chart a history of Black TV from the 1960s to the present. The cropped images prompt a closer look at these cultural touchstones and the Hollywood that shaped them.
Paul Spella, Senior Art Director
This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”