LAST BEST HOPE: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer
THE CONSTITUTION OF KNOWLEDGE: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
Packer’s slim book, “Last Best Hope,” begins with patriotic despair. “The world’s pity has taken the place of admiration, hostility, awe, envy, fear, affection and repulsion,” he writes of the perception of the United States abroad. This might have rung true in the throes of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which may also be when it was written, but it now sounds overwrought. So does Packer’s claim that “a lot of Americans have explored their options for expatriation.” (The number of expatriates is rising but small, and the cause of the uptick is likely a change in tax law, according to The Wall Street Journal.)
Once Packer gets going, however, he is forceful. His deep fear is that Americans have lost the “art” of self-government. He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, “not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.” Self-government depends on trust, “which we’ve lost.”
Packer is at his best when he ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist. “If I had to put it in a single sentence,” he writes, “I would say: Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” He recognizes that “racism is in our marrow, and enough Americans either celebrate or tolerate this evil that it came within a whisker of gaining a lasting hold on power.” (He’s talking about Trump, though he would recognize that racism has in fact gained such a hold in other ways and times.) But Packer’s lens of analysis is economic. He thinks America has fractured principally along lines of social class and material hardship, which increasingly persist across generations. He blames “the new aristocracy” and “invisible monopolies,” but also the divide between “two classes, rising professionals and sinking workers.” A few generations ago, they “were close in incomes and not so far apart in mores.” But now they “no longer believe they belong to the same country.”
In the book’s sharpest chapter, Packer describes “Four Americas.” The first, “Free America,” is irresponsibly libertarian. Hostility to government, popularized by Ronald Reagan, became an excuse for breaking unions, starving social programs and changing antitrust policy to concentrate financial power. Free America’s cousin, “Real America,” is personified by Sarah Palin. It’s evangelical and isolationist, and it “renders the Black working class invisible.” Real America is also in “precipitous decline” because of the loss of jobs in rural areas throughout the country. For this, Packer faults the false promises of the Clinton era — global trade and education did not raise all ships — as well as cultural alienation. “If the Democratic Party wasn’t on their side — if government failed to improve their lives — why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?” he asks.
Packer is biting in depicting the left. He divides it into “Smart America” and “Just America.” Neither is a compliment. Smart Americans are the rising professional class, for whom unions hardly exist and college admissions are “the most important event in the life cycle of a family.” Packer allows that striving is human, but skewers Smart Americans for being “meritocrats by birth” yet going “to a lot of trouble not to know it.” He has receipts: “After seven decades of meritocracy, it’s as unlikely for a lower-class child to be admitted to a top Ivy League university as it was in 1954.” In Smart America’s families, passing achievement from one generation to the next is an obsession, and democracy is an afterthought.
If you feel implicated in Smart America, dear reader, that’s probably because you’re meant to be. Or perhaps you will see yourself, or resist doing so, in Packer’s Just America. Politically speaking, this part of the book is a high-wire act. Packer is not a reactionary. He credits Just America for doing “the hard essential thing” of forcing us “to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today.” But then he attacks it for upending “the universal values of the Enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality and freedom of the individual.”
Packer spells out the problems he sees with abandoning the Enlightenment framework. Fixating on language alienates sympathetic outsiders. It’s hard to build a coalition while constantly correcting how people talk. Symbolic fights distract elites while doing nothing to address economic hardship. Just America may also find itself out of touch with people it claims to represent. The activist push to defund the police in many cities, for example, “was stopped by local Black citizens, who wanted better, not less, policing.”
Packer is especially concerned about the academy and the media. Just America’s reigning focus on subjectivity and oppression of “the self and its pain — psychological trauma, harm from speech and texts,” he writes, has become “nearly ubiquitous in humanities and social science departments.” And some journalists are enforcing intellectual piety and purism, using “the power to shame, intimidate and ostracize, even turning it on their colleagues.”
As a journalist and a part-time lecturer at a university, I would have shrugged off these claims a few years ago. I still think a minority of academics and journalists are driving the shift Packer is talking about. But they have real influence. Which brings me to Jonathan Rauch.
Rauch’s subject, in The Constitution of Knowledge, is the building of human understanding. He takes us on a historical tour of how a range of thinkers (Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, Hume, Popper) sought truth, came to embrace uncertainty, learned to test hypotheses and created scientific communities. He is astute about the institutional support and gatekeeping that sustains “the reality-based community of science and journalism.” Social media platforms are bad at this because their profits are built on stoking users’ existing rage and spreading lies faster than truth. This is not a new critique, but it’s nice to see Rauch weave it into his larger project.
Online, Rauch argues (citing the political scientist David C. Barker), a “marketplace of realities” threatens to supplant a marketplace of ideas. He describes the danger the right poses, by trolling and spreading disinformation rather than seeking truth and checking facts.
But like Packer, Rauch reserves his most energetic criticism for the excesses of the left.
He blames it for cancel culture, defined as firing or ostracizing people for stray comments or social-media posts (some awful, some awkward, some expressing mainstream-until-yesterday views). He writes at helpful length about the difference between criticizing and canceling. “Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”
Most students and professors and staff members don’t want research to be curtailed or debate to be chilled, according to polls. Rauch tells a few good stories about how individual students have risen up and reinvigorated debate on their campuses. He also invokes his own participation, as a gay person, in the fight for equal marriage rights. “Refuting bad ideas can be invigorating, empowering and deeply rewarding,” he writes. “Every time I hear a minority-rights advocate say that she should not have to debate haters who question her very right to exist, I say: On the contrary, that is exactly who you need to debate.” Win the argument. Criticize instead of canceling.
There’s a limit to Rauch’s position, which he implicitly recognizes when he notes that “marginalizing bad ideas and foolish talk is the reality-based community’s secret weapon.” I wish he’d grappled more with the tensions between sidelining the haters and taking them on.
I also wanted both Rauch and Packer to consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone. They are sensitive to the concerns of people who have lacked power in American society, but they don’t engage with the full scope of their critiques and frustrations. These books are a launching pad for debate, not the last word.