“(Nobody) was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again.”
So you might have noticed that we are only two days out from Midterm Elections. I must admit that I have listened to all my political news podcasts diligently and am considering staying up the night for the election results. This is, by all accounts, a historical election that will set the path for the next two years.
If you want to learn more about it, please check out FiveThirtyEight, or NPR. I am not here for political punditery. I am here to discuss books – and this week, I have a great one for you if you are asking yourself how the US ended up like this.
The Unwinding was originally published in 2013, but it didn’t really gain any interest until after the last presidential election. I’d put this book into the same group as Hillbilly Elegy, provisionally named ‘books people like to namedrop in political conversations’.
But, unlike Hillbilly Elegy, this book doesn’t just give us one point of view. Instead, it gives us a myriad of snapshots into how the American society changed in the last five decades or so.
The way Packer tells the story is quite ingenious – he refuses to see it from either a macro or a micro perspective. Instead, he talks and presents about thirty different lives. They include Jay-Z and Joe Biden and workers from the dying Rustbelt.
All of these stories are presented next to each other, without any commentary. It is up to the reader to connect the dots. And as you read it, the picture becomes clear.
It is said that the US is suffering from stagnant wages and crippling student debt and horrible income inequality. All of this is true. But what Packer uncovers – or rather, the way he presents these life stories and the way they come together – is that all of the above are symptoms, not the cause.
The true cause, the fact that is at the heart of each and every problem the US has right now, is the complete disintegration of society. There is nothing that binds Americans together, nothing that keeps this from falling apart.
One story that stuck with me especially is from a former worker in a car parts company in the Rust Belt. She talks about how she used to have a good income, but all it took was one small incident for it all to go south. In her case, the factory was bought by a bigger company, who promptly shut it down.
All around, similar fates were waiting for the other factories, so that, after an astonishingly short time (I think she says this all happened within five years), the city went from bustling to bust.
And that’s just the beginning. Because there were no unions, no social safety net, even no family to catch her, she – and probably a lot of others – just fell through the cracks.
It was an astonishing read. Sure, things aren’t perfect here on the other side of the pond, but, I kept thinking, at least there’s a bottom we could hit. In the US, you just keep falling.
It’s not a pretty thought. But it is a great book.
As I mentioned before, this book was published during the Obama heydays. Because we seem to have a questionable relationship with time right now, I had to look up what 2013 was like.
It was the year we listened to Get Lucky and Wrecking Ball. Beyonce sang at the Super Bowl Half Time Show, Argo won Best Picture at the Oscars, and Jennifer Lawrence fell up the stairs.
What I’m trying to say is – this book predates all the ‘How on earth did we end up here?’ panic we seem to be engulfed by now.
In other words, we could have known, had we wanted to.
Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but I guess my point is this – Trump isn’t the cause. He’s the result.
And if America wants to change its course, a midterm election isn’t enough. But it’s a damn good place to start.
See you next week.