One of The New York Times's 100 notable books of 2021
"[George Packer's] account of America’s decline into destructive tribalism is always illuminating and often dazzling." —William Galston, The Washington Post
Acclaimed National Book Award-winning author George Packer diagnoses America’s descent into a failed state, and envisions a path toward overcoming our injustices, paralyses, and divides
In the year 2020, Americans suffered one rude blow after another to their health, livelihoods, and collective self-esteem. A ruthless pandemic, an inept and malign government response, polarizing protests, and an election marred by conspiracy theories left many citizens in despair about their country and its democratic experiment. With pitiless precision, the year exposed the nation’s underlying conditions—discredited elites, weakened institutions, blatant inequalities—and how difficult they are to remedy.
In Last Best Hope, George Packer traces the shocks back to their sources. He explores the four narratives that now dominate American life: Free America, which imagines a nation of separate individuals and serves the interests of corporations and the wealthy; Smart America, the world view of Silicon Valley and the professional elite; Real America, the white Christian nationalism of the heartland; and Just America, which sees citizens as members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression.
In lively and biting prose, Packer shows that none of these narratives can sustain a democracy. To point a more hopeful way forward, he looks for a common American identity and finds it in the passion for equality—the “hidden code”—that Americans of diverse persuasions have held for centuries. Today, we are challenged again to fight for equality and renew what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the art” of self-government. In its strong voice and trenchant analysis, Last Best Hope is an essential contribution to the literature of national renewal.
Warring tribes are tearing the country apart, according to this conflicted meditation on America's discontents. National Book Award winner Packer (The Unwinding) parses the uproar of 2020 in terms of four competing "narratives" of America: the "Free America" of the Republican elite, composed of antigovernment conservatives; the "Smart America" of the liberal, globalist professionals, academics, and journalists who make up the Democratic establishment; the "Real America" of Trump's base of xenophobic white populists; and the "Just America" of "social justice warriors" who see white supremacism everywhere. All these visions, Packer argues, skirt the central problem of economic inequality, and he sketches a vague program of progressive economic and welfare policies, plus mandatory national service, as a means of defusing sociocultural antagonisms. Packer presents sharp, insightful critiques of all sides—for many white, well-educated progressives, he writes, "confessing racial privilege is a way to hang on to class privilege"—but occasionally slips into melodrama: a neighbor's Trump campaign sign reminds him of "an evil shape in a far more serious red and black." Worse, his economic determinism rarely addresses the substance of divisive issues such as immigration, transgender rights, and policing. This eloquent yet unfocused take on American politics further muddies the waters.
A brilliant analysis of the America that was, is and can be. Packer mixes hope and despair, reminding us that together we stand, while divided we fall. Read it for your own good.
A beacon of hope
Begins with a sharp dissection of the current state of the United States, framed by historical parallels, and ends with a prescription for the path forward.