Tracking the breakdown of American social institutions in ‘The Unwinding’

December 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Have the institutional fabrics that used to ensure average citizens a secure place in American society come unraveled in the last few decades? Jeffrey Brown talks to George Packer about his award-winning book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," and the growing social stratification in the U.S.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Even as the U.S. economy continued its recovery, 2013 was yet another year that raised sobering questions about inequality and the nation’s ability to tackle some of its biggest problems.

Some of those issues, and an unusual perspective on four decades of history, are at the center of one of the year’s most notable books.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: A North Carolina entrepreneur, a Rust-Belt-factory-worked-turned-community-organizer, a disenchanted Washington lobbyist, just some of the Americans profiled, along with well-known figures like Oprah, Colin Powell, and Sam Walton from this year’s National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, “The Unwinding,” a story of American institutions and people coming undone amid large-scale economic and social changes.

Author George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, joins us now.

And welcome and congratulations.

GEORGE PACKER, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America”: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Unwinding,” in broad terms, it’s a breakdown of institutions, right, things that used to work, but no longer do?

GEORGE PACKER: And a social contract that sort of underwrote all of them, a contract that said if you work hard, if you essentially are a good citizen, there will be a place for you, not only an economic place, you will have a secure life, your kids will have a chance to have a better life, but you will sort of be recognized as part of the national fabric.

And over the generation of my adult life, going back to the late 70s, that fabric has come unraveled, and the contract has essentially been torn up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how? What happened?

GEORGE PACKER: It’s complicated.

Some of it was these giant blind forces like technological change and globalization. Some of it was decisions made in centers of power like Washington and Wall Street, where the idea that you couldn’t afford to have an underpaid work force or a work force that felt imperiled because you needed to have them at the table with you, that began to disappear.

And, instead, workers became disposable. Their wages flattened out. And the benefits of our free enterprise system went more and more to the top. And so we have more of a society of winners and losers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, large-scale changes, but you, being a reporter, your way is through individuals.

GEORGE PACKER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you profiled many average Americans, I guess we would call them, little-known people. You mentioned factory workers. For example, Tammy Thomas, is one of them, right?

GEORGE PACKER: Yes. She’s a black woman in Youngstown, Ohio, who — all the characters in the book are of essentially the same generation.

They are in midlife. They have lived through these changes over the last generation. She was born in the mid-60s. Her mother was a heroin addict. She was raised by her great-grandmother, who instilled a sense of responsibility and a work ethic in her.

And she somehow, in spite of the problems of being a teenage mother and of Youngstown disintegrating around her with the collapse of the steel industry in the late ’70s, she nonetheless, by getting one of the last good blue-collar jobs in an auto parts factory, she raised three kids by herself and shielded them from the winds that were just buffeting the Rust Belt.

And as she — as she said to me over and over, she did what she was supposed to do, which means she was able to provide a decent life for her children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until she couldn’t.

GEORGE PACKER: And then the auto parts manufacturer did what so many manufacturers have done, and began outsourcing the jobs to Mexico, declared a kind of strategic bankruptcy in order to get out of its labor contracts.

And then she found herself in midlife without a job, without a direction. And she remade herself.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, in many ways, it’s a familiar story. It’s one we look at a lot on this program of what has happened to Rust Belt areas.

One of the things you’re doing, though, is, I guess making the connections of — well, you’re — you’re showing the disconnections. Right?

GEORGE PACKER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, one thing that interests me is, you say there is more freedom in a sense in America today, but that freedom is a negative. It’s disconnected.

 GEORGE PACKER: Yes, I mean, we have more freedom. We have more choices. We’re overwhelmed with choices. We have more inclusiveness. We are a more tolerant society. More Americans have the theoretical chance of being sort of admitted into the world of opportunity.

But we’re also more stratified, so social equality, growing economic inequality at the same time. And to understand it, I wanted to find stories from very different parts of the country, the Rust Belt from the rural South, from Washington and government, and from Silicon Valley, because it really is a kind of division into those who are making it very well and those who, in spite of working hard and in spite of their own inventiveness, find themselves really struggling.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of those — one of the things that connects all of those places and the institutions is a — well, it is a breakdown of institutions, but it’s also money that connects a lot of them, but money without the kind of, what, social contract or ethic that you are saying once was there.

GEORGE PACKER: Yes.

I mean, the gains, the potential gains are so huge. We no longer blink at the notion of a brand-new startup being sold to a company for a billion dollars, without any profits, with hardly even revenues. And on the other end, there is a family in Tampa that I wrote about, the Hartsells, where the entire mainstay of that family is a part-time job stocking produce at Wal-Mart for $8.25 or $8.50 an hour, which — for 25 hours a week. You cannot live on that.

So we — and there’s a sense in which the Hartsell family is totally alone. The institutions that might have once taken care of them or help them, public schools, civic associations and neighborhood organizations, local government, a corporation that might have provided a secure job, those are all gone. And they’re on their own.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know your work from “The New Yorker,” and you have written other nonfiction works. I didn’t know you had written fiction, plays.

This book is kind ever a mosaic of styles in some sense, right, the profiles of people, some famous people. You include headlines, song lyrics to sort of characterize or portray a moment. What — how do you think about approaching this as a writer?

GEORGE PACKER: That’s — that was the hardest thing, because a lot of good books have been written about the fraying of the social contract, about inequality in the middle class.

I didn’t want to add to that. I really didn’t have anything to add to it. I don’t have a new theory. I don’t have a lot of new data. What I thought I could do is get the reader into the nervous system of Americans over the last generation. And to do that, it meant not just finding these ordinary people in forgotten places, but also conveying what it’s like to be a celebrity, what it’s like to be at the top of our society.

So Oprah is a character in my book. Newt Gingrich is a character in my book. And to write about them, I didn’t go and try to interview them, because there’s just too many layers of P.R. between me and them. And I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it.

Instead, I used their words, their writings, their interviews, and wrote in sort of a style that you might call free and direct discourse, which is a technical term for it, which kind of mimics their way of talking about themselves. It uses their language, their rhythms in order to show what they’re doing to the language and how, for example, Newt Gingrich invented a vocabulary of political polarization in order to help candidates get elected.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: It tells us something about this moment.

GEORGE PACKER: It becomes a cultural indicator.

And I have these mash-ups of headlines and songs, as you said, to get at what was the collective mind-set like at a particular moment? And I owe something to the novels of John Dos Passos for these ideas, because I had all this material and all these different American stories. And to figure out a structure was the hardest part of all.

And I finally decided, why not something really kind of innovative, something that doesn’t — you don’t find in traditional nonfiction writing? And I turned to a fictional source for inspiration.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We will continue this conversation online.

For now, the new book is “The Unwinding.” George Packer is the winner of the National Book Award.

Congratulations. Thanks for talking to us.

GEORGE PACKER: Thank you.