Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
I immediately said yes when I was asked to review George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, a self-described political pamphlet in a long-form essay, not unlike Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and other such books, written in a period of change, about that very change. Written for the moment, the authors’ hopes are that they will lead us out of our urgent predicament and tell us something we can use in the future.
I remembered that Packer had been a signee of the famous or some would say infamous “Harper’s Magazine Letter,” in which established writers and artists wrote A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, decrying the fact that in our fight “for greater equality and inclusion across our society,” we seem to be going a step too far in the process and have “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity,” or as another signee described it, “the unforgiving nature of our current moment.” The complaints and objections to the letter and its signers were that they were the elite who had made it in the big time and to complain about the tactics of those who were banging on the doors of the gatekeepers, simply fed and shored up the racism, sexism, and gender institutional bias, keeping them out.
In interviews about his current book, Packer’s stated goal is to somehow find a way we as Americans can talk with each other again. A modest goal, but in this current post-Trump era, a seemingly insurmountable task. Before cracking the spine of the book, I wanted to know more about Packer and why, as I’d heard rumblings, he had taken both the right and left to task. I turned to his earlier memoir, The Blood of the Liberals, a history of political liberalism, told through his own family’s personal, psychological, ethnic, religious, class, and intellectual life.
What I found was a person whose background was in many ways uncannily similar to my own, though almost a generation apart. He was half Jewish and half Christian, a “mutt”, as my mother would say when I asked her what I was. On his mother’s side, Alabama Christian, Southern Populist liberal, with a grandfather who as a legislator was brave in his liberalism, but who would swing more conservative as time went on when confronted with racial issues, and segregationist pressures during the Civil Rights era. On his paternal side, a Jewish immigrant background, his father rose from working class to middle class through intellectual and meritorious achievements. Both our fathers were associated with Stanford and both had run into trouble with the increasingly conservative culture of that institution of “higher learning,” as they attempted to rise in America through its proffered merit and prestige.
I had found an author, who seemed to straddle and be deeply informed by the various strands of completing entities in our country.
In a way, like Obama, and others of us of mixed marriages and heritages, in a politically committed family, Packer’s view of political America, was influenced and informed by the need, or the gift of knowing two sides to the nth degree of the complicated and often competing nature of our democracy’s equation and wanting to find some sort of synthesis and détente. Thus, we have his attempt to bring Americans together, even excavating in the process what we hold in common that makes us American.
In Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer brilliantly sets out to address what James Baldwin described as our tangled American problem: “In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.”
Packer divides us into four Americas as he proceeds to unravel the conundrum. As I read, I thought, why do I have to endure revisiting this troubling time we’d just been through. But soon I saw the method to his proposition. He needed to begin at the confusing, maddening moment when the government, as headed by Trump and his associates, utterly failed to protect Americans, or as Packer writes, “There was no national plan for dealing with the greatest threat of our lives.” It was not a time when we were encouraged to come together to fight the invisible enemy, but rather we were manipulated, by a leader who loved to pit people one against another, which culminated in a “strange defeat,” or as some have said, a Cold Civil War.
Packer’s breaks his thesis down to Four Americas:
FREE AMERICA is Reagan’s America of low taxes, limited government, and low regulation.
SMART AMERICA is open to some of the terms of Free America: to free trade, immigration, globalization, the value of education, belief in meritocracy, and in a dominant educated class of people.
REAL AMERICA is a form of rebellion in that it is anti-elite, in particular anti-costal-elites, as in Sarah Palin’s positioning of supporting the “real people,” encompassing manual workers, farmers, miners, etc. In Trump’s version, it is a Populist vision encompassing ethnonationalism, and pushing for the tax bill for the rich. In earlier forms it was George Wallace’s white supremacy as well as the countervailing progressive populist position of William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896.
JUST AMERICA is another rebellion in that it takes stands against the meritocracy of Smart America, seeing it as a failed promise, describing America as ultimately a caste system, with the underpinning of structural racism, which keeps underserved citizens of color and ethnicity out of the meritocracy running.
Packer doesn’t want to live in any of these narratives, especially in their purest forms, because each in its own way abuses democracy in that it divides us into seemingly irreconcilable tribes, with increasingly rigid, uncompromising stands. In his analysis, our common ground as a people and a nation has disappeared. This brings us back to why he, a man schooled in Liberalism from an early age, who remains a progressive, signed onto the Harper Magazine letter, casting blame on those of Just America who have gone too far in their censoring of voices in art, literature, and journalism.
He posits that we have to find a common ground if we’re to survive, starting with who we are as Americans, what differentiates us from other nation states. It’s rather touching how he tries to bring to light what our national characteristics are. He looks to Tocqueville’s description of our passion for equality, which Parker thinks we’ve failed at, but that at least we still have our passion, our openness, inclusiveness, our loud voices, and casualness with waiters, so different from Europeans or Latin Americans. Reading this feels like grasping at straws, but one wants to go along with him as he leads us to his proscriptive needs for creating a Fifth category, an EQUAL AMERICA, one where we work toward equality of opportunity, not just hard and fast equal results and as a people where we re-learn the arc of self-government.
This is where it gets a little wooly for the reader as one lives in the total mess and daily hardening divisions of our current political and moral life. His prescriptive ideas feel utopian in their progressive wish list of a national safety net, empowerment of workers, of using the government to fight against monopolies that take away ordinary citizens economic freedom, of not supporting public schools through a local tax-base where rich, primarily white neighborhoods, always get the better-funded schools. He calls for a civics education that teaches children how to think critically and supports national service for all (he’s a former Peace Corps Volunteer) because it’s an experience a young American will never have again. He even supports the goal of patriotism as a basic attachment to where you live, “the glue that holds us together,” as opposed to nationalism that leads to the sins of exceptionalism, hegemony, protectionism, and discrimination against the “other.”
In the end the most interesting aspect of his analysis of where we’ve gone wrong, and in this I mean to say where we, the promulgators of a JUST AMERICA, have gone wrong in our means to that end, is in the belief that with the net of meritocracy we will all rise to be equal; but as he posits, the reality is that we’ve created an overabundance of elites and, in the process, left behind too many people merely riding the purported wave of rising expectations with no real possibility of grabbing the brass ring. This leads us back to the metaphoric and real tensions evinced from the signing of the Harper Magazine letter, between those who’ve made it and those who can’t seem to get through the gates into a Just America whether it be as manual laborers, as miners and farmers, as intellectuals, as artists, as mothers and fathers, and as politicians.
George Parker really does want to find a way for Americans, for us, to talk without killing each other. It’s a noble wish, and he does go a long way with his stunning, synthesizing prose to parse a clarifying path through the complicated forest of where we’ve gone wrong. Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal is a sincere and worthy contribution to the canon of political pamphleteering and analysis. One does find some hope in his attempt to save America from itself. As such, I highly recommend the current book as well as his memoir The Blood of the Liberals, which informs his personal passion for putting America back together again.
Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65), is the daughter of political progressives who went to work in the FDR era Farm Security Camp for dislocated Dust Bowl farmers, featured at the end of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and who later worked in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security camp during WWII. Mueller is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review in 2020.