George Packer’s catastrophism is bankrupt
A Jeremiad is a sermon that confronts listeners with their communal sin and calls them to repentance and reform. The Puritans mastered this art in the 1600s. Today, we have George Packer. The Puritans were better.
George Packer’s essay “The Four Americas,” which you can find here, stands in for a lot of recent political writing that explains how the culture wars have doomed the U.S. For Packer, America isn’t just red and blue states; it’s four different groups that can’t get along.
America didn’t used to be this way, we learn, because we used to have national unity. How does Packer know? Because back then “Americans were more uniform than we are in what they ate (tuna noodle casserole) and what they watched (Bullitt).”
Like I said, Puritans made better jeremiads.
I don’t know how food and movies prove unity. But it’s worth noting that Bullitt came out in 1968, a year best known for assassinations, the Vietnam War, and race riots. It was followed by 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to industrial pollution.
Perhaps the tuna was to blame for that.
Good jeremiads can save the country. They remind us what to do. Bad jeremiads are aimless ramblings about how America has lost its way. When bad jeremiads also use bad history, misinformation breeds apathy, and sin is compounded.
George Packer has written a bad jeremiad. You should know why so that you recognize this kind of claptrap when you see it.
Packer imagines four strands of American ideologies, the Four Americas, each of which is a “narrative” that drives American life:
- “Free America”: Think the libertarian, anti-communist ideologues of Ronald Reagan .These guys promised to build self-reliance but secretly they were jerks, so Free America rioted on January 6 because “Irresponsibility was coded into its mindset.”
- “Smart America”: College-educated meritocrats who send their kids to good schools and voted for the Clintons. Smart America is barely American at all: “Their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions.” People in Smart America have “lost the capacity and the need for a national identity.” They care about their fancy kitchen gadgets, not their fellow citizens. (Note: in the print version of the article, Packer’s essay is followed by a full-page ad for LifeStraw water filtration. Hmm.)
- “Real America”: The white working-class folk who loved Donald Trump. Real America is represented in Packer’s article by people at a Sarah Palin rally who are “missing teeth from using crystal meth.”
- “Just America”: The anti-racist movement. These folks are disproportionately well-off millennials who suffer from the “urge to level withering fire on minor faults.” Packer doesn’t give Just America a politician. But they do get university-level “humanities and social sciences departments,” which I guess are just as powerful as President Clinton and Trump?
Packer doesn’t provide data to justify this scheme. We virtually never hear from someone in one of these “Four Americas.” A retiree in Florida and a steelworker in Ohio get four and nine words respectively. Packer wants us to believe he’s offering us “narratives,” but narratives are what people tell each other. Packer doesn’t bother getting the words of the people he is chronicling. He is telling us a story of his creation—not from other Americans.
In fact, Packer isn’t talking about people; he’s dealing in stereotypes. Smart America has “withdrawn from national life” and is instead “making sushi or playing the mandolin.” Just America magically appears in 2014 when American promises soured for “the kids” who “didn’t buy it”—no citation or proof, but we all know kids, right? Religion only appears in—you guessed it!—Real America. I suppose because evangelicals backed Trump in huge numbers no one else has a religion. Black Protestants, mainline Methodists, Jews, Muslims, and devout Catholics like Joe Biden—none of these folks have religion.
You know these are stereotypes because you won’t see yourself in these Four Americas—since everyone Packer describes is a schmuck. You’re supposed to see everyone else in the Four Americas and realize how crappy everything is. Especially when compared to the twentieth century, when Republicans and Democrats, he says, fought over common ideological ground.
Packer’s history, however, is also full of errors.
His political history is a fever dream: “Through much of the twentieth century . . . Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake.” Not really: The Democrats before 1932 were the party of white supremacy. Democrats wanted a fair shake for white folks, but that went hand-in-hand with disenfranchising minorities. Segregationists stayed in the Democratic party even when FDR made common cause with northern Black communities, which is why Alabama elected no Republican senators between 1900 and 1980. So no, I wouldn’t say the American political system before 1968 was founded on a shared national sense of purpose.
It gets worse: In his takedown of “Smart America,” Packer notes the limits of meritocracy. His proof: Education hasn’t opened itself up for poorer Americans because “a lower-class child is nearly as unlikely to be admitted to one of the top three Ivy League universities as they would have been in 1954.”
Unless that kid was female, in which case she had a ZERO percent chance of getting into a top Ivy in 1954. Princeton and Yale didn’t admit women until 1969. Harvard waited until 1971. So for some people, odds of getting into an Ivy are way better now.
Also: Does Packer think that someone needs to go to one of the top three Ivies to be successful? Is this the standard? Does he know there are other colleges out there? And that we have a vibrant community college system? We have problems in higher ed, but the snootiness of Yale is not one of them.
There are sins of omission, too: 9/11 gets one sentence. Social media, sexuality and gender, Russian misinformation—none of these play a role in shaping the last thirty years. Everything that plagues us comes from within our culture.
You can see the conclusion a mile off: “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them.”
The feeling might be mutual.
Packer provides a formulaic “well-I-guess-we-have-to-try” paragraph about how maybe the Four Americas could get along, but it’s wasted space: Packer can’t give us any advice on adapting because his account hardwires the problems into us. If our problems come from our cultural self-understanding—our “narratives,” as he says—and if we need national unity to solve problems, then we can’t solve anything until we change our culture. Packer’s jeremiad fails because it never truly grapples with the sin or the failure. It takes stereotypes and easy history and combines them into a well-heeled version of “Things weren’t this-and-that in my day!”
And that’s not an actionable complaint.
Jeremiads fail when they are not truly about anything—when they do not get at the nature of the problem but fall back on easy answers shaped not by what we know or can prove but on what we can feel. Restoring our republic requires more than paeans to tuna and Bullitt. Tell us what we did wrong and how to make it right. Or hold your tongue—at least in a national publication.
Adam Jortner is the Goodwin-Philpott Professor of Religion in the History Department at Auburn University. He is the author of the Audible series Faith of the Founding Fathers and was part of the creative team behind Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?