The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America - George Packer

If you're trying to figure out what happened to "Yes we can!" Barack Obama's winning motto in the 2008 presidential campaign, you might want to take a peek at George Packer's 2013 National Book Award winner, The Great Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. It is a sobering look at the American experience for the last four decades. He focuses on the lives of average men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by the economic, social and political forces that have swept across the US since the turbulence of the 1960's. He argues persuasively that our representative democracy has been usurped by a Washington-Wall Street oligarchy and traces the origins of the Great Recession to political decisions made solely to benefit the super rich: not the 1 Percenters but the 0.01 Percenters, whose share of the national wealth has exploded.


He weaves his narration around the lives of average folks, with some celebrity profiles of leaders from the worlds of politics, finance, the media, the military and Silicon Valley thrown in. The successes of Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton and Robert Rubin stand in sharp contrast to the plight of factory workers from Youngstown, Ohio and tobacco farmers in North Carolina. Packer has a progressive point-of-view and he isn't the first person to connect the dots between populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum - just imagine the power of an Occupy Wall Street Tea Party coalition - but he does a terrific job of explaining complicated economic, political, and social realities and pinpointing their historical antecedents.


I came away with the depressing conclusion that it was inevitable that Mr. Obama's hope and change rhetoric from 2008 would ring so hollow in 2013. While the status quo largely only benefits a small minority, they can afford to buy off anybody who might challenge their grasp on real power. Collectively they have convinced themselves that they represent the true American experience and their refrain has become, "Don't blame us!" It's sad that Mr. Obama has joined that chorus and deeply disturbing that Mrs. Clinton is warming up in the wings for her solo.