George Packer’s Liberal Faith

Stuck in the Middle

George Packer’s liberal faith.


George Packer is one of the most successful long-form journalists of his generation. For more than two decades, he has been among this country’s leading liberal commentators. Offering a political and often personal chronicle of the vicissitudes of American liberalism over the past century, he has sought at once to reclaim and repurpose a political tradition he knows is in crisis.

With each book, the task has gotten harder for him. In an early treatise, Blood of Liberals (2001), Packer reckoned with a New Deal and Great Society liberalism that had been assailed from the right and abandoned by the Democratic Party. Taking an inventory of this liberalism’s decline through the life of his maternal grandfather and namesake, Alabama Congressman George Huddleston, an agrarian populist who opposed the New Deal during the 1930s, he then followed the life of his father, Herbert, a law professor and academic administrator at Stanford who committed suicide after suffering a stroke at the height of the New Left campus protests in the late 1960s. Joining the ranks of liberals pressing for the revival of a hawkish foreign policy in the early 2000s, Packer supported the post-9/11 wars, only to see them lead to an era of futile and seemingly endless military conflict overseas. Writing dispatches for The New Yorker tracking the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, he published Assassins’ Gate in 2005, recording his disillusionment with the Iraq War, which he believed had squandered an otherwise noble purpose. Soon Packer’s liberalism was in for another challenge: the Great Recession of 2008. His next book, The Unwinding (2013), confronted the collapse of middle-class prosperity at home and the role that Democrats, as well as Republicans, had played in its demise.

Across a formidable body of work, Packer has maintained his belief in a liberalism capable of perfecting itself and in the United States’ exceptional role as the agent of this perfection. “The real question,” he wrote in The Fight Is for Democracy, a collection of essays by writers stressing the importance of liberalism and human rights in the Global War on Terror, “is not whether America is an empire, but what to do with the power we have.” The surest guide to action is not to reject liberalism, he argued, but to embrace the most “vibrant, hardheaded” version of it—the kind of assured liberalism that characterized those midcentury elites who had fought and won the Cold War. Despite the abominations of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the declining life chances of Americans of modest means, and a war in Afghanistan that (until recently) dragged on to no apparent purpose, Packer held firm to this vision of an aggressive liberalism capable of transforming the United States and the world together.

Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope, returns to this theme of liberalism in crisis and in need of renewal. Joining those who have worried that liberalism finally reached a breaking point in the time of Trump, he still insists that his strain of liberal internationalism abroad and liberal pragmatism at home is the only thing standing in the way of the excesses of an authoritarian right and an unhinged, utopian left. While this is not a new subject for Packer, the tone and tenor of his latest book is decidedly insular. At times he does not seem wholly convinced by his own increasingly abstract pronouncements. Never fully answering the question of how we arrived at our current predicament, Packer does not explain how a revitalized liberalism can get us out of it. The search for causes and policy remedies remains secondary to the reassertion of ideological precepts: above all else, that liberalism and America in general remain our era’s last best hope.

To his credit, Packer identifies a core problem: Inequality in the United States, he argues, has crossed a threshold that fatally compromises the public trust and comity needed to inspire and achieve effective and robust government. But how to solve the problems of inequality and the country’s crisis of confidence and cohesion is another matter. For the readers of Packer’s new book, it is never entirely clear what needs to change—we mainly need to remember and reaffirm the idea that defines us: that we are a people uniquely created neither by blood nor rank but by common agreement. Against the weight of Big Tech monopolies, market-friendly regulation, gerrymandered politics, voter suppression, precarious labor, declining life expectancy, hoarded wealth, destructive climate change, and public health emergencies, Packer floats platitudes about democracy and self-government, evading substantive questions about the kind of transformation our politics and institutions need.

Beginning with a pseudo-ethnographic reflection on trying (and ultimately failing) to relate to his Trump-supporting neighbors in rural farm country (where his family took refuge during the pandemic), Packer goes in search of a usable past that might stitch the country back together. It is a strange journey, one in which our hero provides a few flourishes of insight but ends up in a well-worn groove. Rather than revitalizing his flagging faith, Packer gives his readers more reasons to look beyond his strain of “hardheaded” liberalism for the answers to today’s ills.

Last Best Hope takes its title from Abraham Lincoln’s paean to America’s exceptional role in world history: to achieve a more perfect and democratic republic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt amplified the idea during the Great Depression and World War II, arguing that both at home and abroad, the United States would help save an economy and a world system in tatters. By the early Cold War, this elite commitment to the notion of America’s exceptional character and exemplary role in world affairs had hardened into orthodoxy. Challenged by struggles for decolonization abroad and civil rights at home, these liberal elite champions frequently resorted to both covertly and overtly reactionary defenses of a highly unequal status quo.

According to Packer, the exceptional role that the United States and elite liberals had to play in world history faltered only in the 1960s and ’70s, as the country began to splinter into a set of competing Americas. These different Americas now conform to partisan lines, but they are best understood not in the clichéd hues of red and blue but in terms of the widening inequality of the past half-century and the divisions it created among what Packer terms the “four Americas”: “Free America,” “Real America,” “Smart America,” and “Just America,” The first two align mainly with the Republican Party and the last two with the Democrats, but each represents a different challenge to the liberal consensus that defined the political landscape during the Cold War and, in Packer’s view, created a society with “more economic equality, more shared prosperity, and more political cooperation” than we have today.

Packer recognizes that inequality is a material condition produced by political and economic forces, actors, and policies. But the notion of a “common faith” grounded in storytelling, underwriting collective agreements that allow us to work toward shared goals, is what interests him most. This begs an important question, however: Was the common faith that supposedly existed before today’s rampant inequality, cultural division, and partisan animus undermined by inequality, or did it depend on certain kinds of inequality and intolerance as its precondition? The fact that the midcentury liberal world that serves as Packer’s baseline became mired in a long, unjust war in Vietnam; was riven by racial despotism and the protests against it; had been shaped by restrictive immigration quotas and repressive ideas about women’s roles and normative families; and remained intolerant of non-normative sexualities—all of this is barely mentioned, because Packer does not wish to confront a basic challenge to his entire historical account: What if the conflicts of our time have deeper roots? What if America was already many countries, not one? What if there never was a truly common faith?

Avoiding these larger questions that hover in the background, Packer marches us through his potted history of the Four Americas. Starting in the 1970s and ’80s, he argues, as the previous liberal consensus broke down, a Free America arose that elevated the prerogatives of capital accumulation, the privatization of public goods, and the reallocation of labor’s share of the profits to private businesses. Reaganism, or market conservatism, was Free America’s gospel, though Packer makes too little of how the Reagan administration married a vision of lower taxes and fiscal discipline against welfare spending with a punitive moralism, a sharp law-and-order politics, and a penchant for proxy wars. But either way, Free America arose out of the embers of the liberalism that had dominated the early Cold War era and began a transformation of US political culture.

By the late 1980s, and reaching its apex with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and ‘96, Free America helped give birth to Smart America. Accepting Free America’s broad economic policy parameters, including free trade, financial deregulation, and shrinking government transfer payments to the poor, Smart America was led by a new generation of technocrats and progressives; it did not eschew Free America’s emphasis on individual responsibility and pared-down public initiatives, but it did seek to temper the cuts to social spending and the welfare state with moderately higher taxes and multicultural tolerance for those who played by the rules.

By the 1990s, it was clear that the succession of Free America and Smart America—the milieu in which Packer came of age as a journalist—had engendered a qualitatively new governing compact, one that spoke of meritocracy and equality of opportunity yet failed to “enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years,” resulting in “rising inequality and declining social mobility.” With large swaths of the country saddled with debt, a crumbling infrastructure, failing public institutions, and low-wage jobs, Republican Free America and Democratic Smart America gave birth to two angrier, less reasoning offspring, each with a growing influence inside the two parties. On the right, we saw the rise of Real America, appealing to white denizens of the abandoned hinterlands and deindustrialized heartland, who believed that the elites of Smart America had left them behind. On the left, a Just America arose with a large, diverse, downwardly mobile cohort of college-educated millennials who felt no less betrayed by a broken meritocracy.

Packer’s Four Americas comprise a basic two-by-two square representing the elite and the base of the two major parties at odds with one another. These Four Americas, Packer argues, place us at a double impasse: Both parties are tilting in multiple directions at once and without any dominant faction in charge.

Having provided this schematic rendering of our political stalemate, Packer turns to a more distant history for possible ways out. He offers sketches of Horace Greeley, Frances Perkins, and Bayard Rustin: a journalist, a government official, and an activist, each an intellectual leader in a successful liberal reform movement. Greeley, who was involved with the antislavery movement in the run-up to the Civil War, allows Packer to tell the story of the refounding of the United States with the abolition of slavery. Perkins, who served as FDR’s labor secretary, helps him consider the progressive transformations of the state as it became more oriented toward the needs and aspirations of the wage-earning majority, culminating in the New Deal. Rustin, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, allows Packer to revisit the way the civil rights movement seeded a broadly inclusive vision of racial and economic democracy.

Underlying each of these movements, Packer argues, is the struggle for equal citizenship, which he defines as the art of self-government through democratic consent. This ideal is the core of the American exceptionalist promise, and it remains, he writes, the “road that connects our past and future.” Searching our history for progress and inspiration, rather than for evidence of crimes and idols to destroy, is refreshing these days, but in the wrong hands the pursuit falls flat. Not too long ago, Barack Obama framed his election to the presidency in terms of “hope and change” and as the culmination of “our better history,” one bending inexorably toward greater economic equality and less racial injustice. It proved to be another dream deferred.

Contributing to the staleness of his approach to the past, Packer understates the ways in which these moments of significant reform were sparked by societal rupture, radical politics, and collective action. Slavery’s abolition was not the result of Greeley’s agitation, but rather a civil war, including the mass desertion of slaves from plantations and their enlistment in the Union cause; the New Deal was spawned by the near-collapse of capitalism, the rise of industrial unionism, and the twin specters of fascism and world revolution; the civil rights movement sought to overthrow patterns of anti-Black domination forged over a century. Packer likewise fails to explore the dialectics of reform and reaction: For every reform won, a counter-struggle to make citizenship a non-universal privilege arose—and many of these reactionary movements also won lasting victories. The defeat of Reconstruction by white supremacy after the Civil War; the segregation and anticommunist hysteria that followed World War II; and the truncated civil rights era, which saw a war on crime substituted for a war on poverty by the end of the 1960s, traduce the notion that liberal progress best represents the arc of history.

If Packer can be Whiggish about the past, he has a rather too jaundiced view of our present predicaments. According to him, we have entered a cul-de-sac defined by the sudden eruption of conflict between Real and Just America, or what he sees as the extremities of white nationalism and “wokeness”—each in its own way illiberal, chauvinistic, and intolerant. But insofar as his historical narrative ignores the longstanding, consciously reactionary, and structurally racist dimensions of our political life, which have proved difficult to overcome and which liberal reformers have failed to vanquish, Packer finds himself with a set of political arguments that do not clearly answer the questions being posed in the current moment. Ignoring the radicalism of many of his liberal reformers and especially the reform movements they championed, he remains ill-attuned to the fact that social change grows less from the noble work of broad-minded individuals and ideas than from messy protest and forms of collective struggle that have often been deemed immoderate and even incendiary in their own time.

Packer tries to anticipate his left-wing and right-wing critics by offering just enough solicitude toward both Real and Just America. Those in Real America who are now animated by white status anxiety define for him the demotic core of the country’s founding egalitarian ethic (“a country of white people…with belief in themselves as the bedrock of self-government”). The multiracial activists of Just America, in turn, are advancing a righteous cause in the face of the most consistent exception to the American “code of equality”: Black exclusion. Both nonetheless represent for Packer an unreasonable and unreasoning development—and also a sudden one. Despite his interest in historical antecedents, he opines that the “American character changed” in 2014, when the sharpening conflict between Real and Just America shattered the “optimistic story of incremental progress and expanding opportunity in a multiracial society.”Packer does not fail to acknowledge that the Free America of market fundamentalism arose by making common cause with racial segregationists, that “racism informed [this] political movement from its beginnings.” Yet he immediately seems to forget this point, and he also elides how Smart America played its own role in undermining incremental progress and expanded opportunity in a multiracial America. The fact that the Clinton-led Democratic Party ended “welfare as we know it” and built the world’s largest carceral state and deportation regime during these years goes unmentioned—even though these policies abandoned the predominantly urban, Black and brown working-class in the process and are a core reason why something like Just America has come into being.

Packer also downplays the racism transacted between Free and Real America. Distancing himself from the idea that the deep-seated racial animosity found in Real America might have been a source of Trump’s appeal, Packer instead focuses on the anger caused by a justified sense of lost sovereignty. “Real America,” he writes, believes it has “no way to participate in self-government.” This lost sense of control, Packer argues, has less to do with the political manipulation of white status anxiety than with a series of economic dislocations. Here he does recognize the role that Smart America played: It lost the affections of heartland producers, Packer notes, by helping initiate a new phase of globalization that left American workers behind. He quotes the economist Larry Summers describing his tenure as Clinton’s treasury secretary: “I don’t think I ever went to Akron, or Flint, or Toledo, or Youngstown.” For Packer, you can date Trump’s election to this moment. That one imagines Steve Bannon nodding in agreement illustrates a problem with this line of thinking: focusing on lost sovereignty while avoiding the role that race and ethnic scapegoating have played in defining, if not constituting, the sense of loss. Whether it is Black criminal predators, “illegal aliens,” Muslim terrorists, or selling our industrial birthright to build the Chinese middle class, the arc of Real America’s America-first politics has consistently fused racial animus with economic concerns.

Packer likely knows this. It is hard to deny that the purported threat to the status, and even the existence, of America’s white majority has now entered into the rhetorical and strategic calculations of both political parties, but especially those of modern conservatism and the GOP. But in order for Packer’s rescue mission to succeed, he has to obscure or deemphasize liberalism’s discomfiting historical role in supporting the racial order and the way that major reversals of its political fortunes have resulted, in part, from successful appeals to racism and nativism by Republican operatives like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and Stephen Miller. Though Packer knows that we need to assemble a convincing narrative about how to advance both racial equality and economic redistribution, he not only can’t provide one but also can’t really explain why we have so much trouble doing so in a way that wins the favor of a durable political majority. In the end, he capitulates to the bromides of the latest culture war from the right: The Democratic Party’s historical commitment to redistributive class politics, he argues, was lost somewhere between “the New Deal and critical theory” (at least he doesn’t say “critical race theory”).

Packer’s commitment to a narrative of symmetrical polarization, particularly his defensiveness about the Democratic Party’s betrayal of the white working class, yields political misjudgments. Joe Biden won 47 percent of voters without a college degree, which is hardly a convincing portrait of a party simply in the thrall of elitist meritocrats, knowledge economy professionals, and woke millennials. Packer’s argument that Democrats lost the white heartland also concedes too much to the idea that insufficiently normative or patriotic messaging is the problem, rather than the counter-majoritarian and anti-democratic structure of our forms of political representation, as well as an era of elite policy-making that prioritized war overseas and mass incarceration at home and a commercial media that thrives on the culture wars and moral panics that Packer himself indulges.

How Packer handles the George Floyd rebellion is instructive in this regard. Despite being the largest and most significant protest movement in decades, it induces in Packer what he describes as nausea—indeed, it represents for him the antithesis of hope. It is “utopian and nihilistic,” he writes, a strange combination given that the first descriptor seems to undercut the second. If one of Trump’s failures, for Packer, was politicizing the pandemic, the failure of left progressives—which occupies much more of his attention—was turning a social movement “on behalf of an oppressed lower class” into “an affair of, by, and for professionals,” one that sought “a revolution in consciousness” and “diversity in elite organization” and made “grand systemic analysis” the occasion for “small symbolic politics” and a “withering fire on minor faults.”

What is odd about this argument is that Packer never inquires into the characteristics of the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the protests across scores of US cities and towns (and even overseas); nor does he consider the array of movements and organizations under the banner of Black Lives Matter that have developed over the past decade or more. Instead, he describes the protests as “howls in an institutional void,” while remaining incurious about their substantive institutional agendas, from ballot initiatives to end felon disenfranchisement to electing progressive prosecutors, ending cash bail and punitive fines and fees, and holding police publicly accountable for the use of violent force. One would think a book interested in the art of self-government and inclusive citizenship would take a mass effort to reform (or even abolish) a prison-industrial complex that currently has one in 40 American adults under criminal state supervision, that disenfranchises millions with felony convictions and practices inhumane confinement, torture, and abuse, more seriously. Instead, we get what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “car-window sociology.”

In fairness to Packer, one of the hardest arguments to get right these days is the relationship between professional-class liberalism and anti-racist reform. There are good grounds on which to criticize the elite skew of professional-class anti-racism and the nonprofit education and corporate management complex, which often ventriloquizes the struggles of the poor facing prison, poverty, and premature death in narrow arenas of elite jockeying for promotions, prizes, and clicks. But Packer’s brand of centrist contrarianism, with its empty solace of an industrial-era class politics, is no better, and it works against his larger purpose by ignoring how, in an age when millions of people are precariously employed, non-unionized, undocumented, or denied work due to felony convictions, racial and class divisions cannot be readily disentangled.

If Real America is made up of downwardly mobile middle-class white Americans who imagine themselves to be in revolt against an administrative state in alliance with “woke capital,” Just America represents a working- and middle-class multiracial revolt against a carceral and neoliberal state that has redistributed wealth upward and instituted mass precarity over the past four decades. It should not be so difficult to determine which “narrative” is more faithful to the history that has shaped our current impasse, or to the democratic aspirations to move beyond it.

An argument that has been popular with centrist liberals, and one that has also been welcomed by conservatives since the end of the civil rights era, is that “limousine liberals” and Black militants destroyed the possibility of a struggle for common dreams at the end of the 1960s, thus awakening a right-wing backlash. In this view, left progressives are paradoxically ineffective Democrats and at the same time useful idiots of a right-wing ascendancy. Channeling Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center,” Packer writes that today’s “wokes” remind him of nothing so much as 1930s communists, a collection of activists that “lashes together the oppression of all groups in an encompassing hell of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia, plutocracy, environmental destruction, and drones.” (If they have done so—good job!) To bend the analogy in the other direction, Packer reminds this reader of the archetypal Cold War liberal, someone who believed that he might harness the right in a governing coalition because while the anticommunist witch hunter Joseph McCarthy was bad, at least he hated the right people.

Packer is correct that recent elections have not delivered “the promised realignment” of durable democratic majorities. But his own search for narrative solutions to structural deficits does not go much beyond the discourse either. He ends Last Best Hope with a (mostly) worthy laundry list of egalitarian policy recommendations: repairing the social safety net, supporting organized labor, equalizing public school funding via state and federal taxes, breaking the monopoly power of megacorporations, reviving a democratic press, and passing a new democracy law (including a bizarre recommendation to fine people who don’t vote). But he thinks of these items less in terms of our concrete political situation—the play of existing policy proposals, the effective balance of forces, or the ongoing struggles required to achieve those goals—than in relation to what he sees as the broader challenge to create an “activism of cohesion…that brings Americans together across tribal lines.” Packer is aware of how commercial tech platforms and media monopolies have steadily deformed our information ecology, but lacking a compelling structural analysis, he falls back on scolding the media for becoming too “woke.” Ironically, for a believer in democratic politics and self-government, and someone troubled by the culture wars that he sees all around him, Packer tends to view our ailment as a cultural “inflammation of politics,” not one constituted by material conditions and social forces. A believer in institutional reform, he is nonetheless angry when movements actually seek difficult institutional changes (such as to prisons and policing).

Packer finally never confronts the limits of his vaunted midcentury liberalism. Its “vital center” not only helped create middle-class prosperity; it also elevated anti-communism into a program of endless war, turned a blind eye to the consolidation of the American economy and finance into a set of big banks and corporations, and channeled racial reform into narrow legal remedies. That some Americans had more faith, more cooperation, and more equality was undone not by the recklessness of the 1960s and post-’60s New Lefts but by the excesses of imperial overreach, the economic impact of rising global competition, and the turn to austerity in public policy. A similar observation might be made about the post-‘92 liberal internationalist project abroad and the neoliberal reform project at home, both supported by Packer’s generation of pundits. Insofar as Real America and Just America have validity as descriptions of actual political factions, they are the outcome of these failed projects, which brought about civic decay and economic decline at home.

Packer’s tendency to separate out the failures of these foreign and domestic policies is certainly not his alone. In the United States, liberals and conservatives alike have lurched for several decades from overseas interventions to declarations of a moral equivalent of war on some domestic evil, passing the baton back and forth, promising an end to political drift and dysfunction with every clarion call. In doing so, they have wasted not only valuable resources but also precious time, while making sure to ride every wave to avoid the debasement of their own intellectual and political authority.

Packer’s effort to renew the liberal faith by divvying up the past into a set of progressive parables is sadly endearing. His failure to consider how the same liberal faith he sought to renew decades ago has contributed much to the dismal political and economic situation we confront today feels like malpractice. But this, too, is suggestive of Packer’s plight: Instead of realistically assessing the challenges of the current moment, he aims to restore something more ineffable than what we have lost. The melancholy emissary of a fading cause, he can only look backward instead of facing a profoundly daunting future, including what is already proving to be the next restructuring of capitalist civilization and the place of the United States within it. His weary tone belies a certain irony: that his brand of aggressive liberalism still has some juice. Before the massive new federal spending proposals and the withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted howls of protest from inflation and foreign policy hawks, the moderate reformism and bland patriotic assurance that best represent Packer’s own politics seemed to have found a successful champion in Joe Biden. Our last best hope is that Joe Biden’s diminishing agenda might still succeed while continuing to disappoint them.

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