How to Write a New Story for America

Insights from George Packer’s latest book, Last Best Hope

We all need stories to give our lives a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection to one another. It’s the shared stories that help organize big groups of people to do big things together, whether it’s a national history, religion, or some other narrative that shapes our identity.

It is often said these days that America is two countries, drifting apart. A quick glance at politics today and a look ahead at the 2022 midterm elections makes it seem so. President Joe Biden and most of the Democrats seem to be sidling up to offering a national story focused on America’s economic revival and a post-pandemic recovery linked to a steadier engagement in the world.  

Their fractious Republican opponents have a lot of issues to sort out, but its likely national narrative in the coming year will likely focus on some combination of immigration, crime, inflation, and cultural wars. Some of the smarter voices on the right paying attention to global affairs may see some emerging vulnerabilities in Biden’s nascent national security policy, but it remains to be seen in the real world what will happen geopolitically and whether those issues matter in a party still dominated by the gestures and instincts of former President Donald Trump.

A new book by George Packer digs deeper beneath this dichotomous surface and paints a picture of an even more fractured and troubled America than just two warring factions. “Last Best Hope” offers a diagnosis of what ails the nation. It also has a vague set of ideas about what might be done, and the prognosis isn’t very optimistic.  Nevertheless, the book should be read by anyone wrestling with the question of how to move America towards a healthier and more constructive politics. 

The Power of Narrative

Packer hones in on what he calls the “revolutionary power of narrative,” arguing that “nations require more than just facts – they need stories that convey a moral identity.”  The more inclusive the story is, the better it is for the nation, because it is better positioned to tackle challenges together.

“Without a shared reality, every data point, every body count just proves its opposite, like a knot getting tighter the harder you try to undo it.  Once politics becomes an identity clash or tribal war, a death spiral can set in that’s very hard to escape.” 

What America has seen over the past decade has been the destruction of a shared reality that has divided families, communities, and the nation in complicated ways that go way beyond the partisan divide.  The election of Donald Trump was a symptom of some deeper trends, some of which Packer identified in an earlier book, The Unwinding, written during the years of Barack Obama’s presidency and published in 2013.  

Packer stresses the symbiotic nature of America’s divisions, “Yes, I’m aware that we’ve become two countries – but each one continually makes the other.  A failure the size of Trump took the whole of America.” 

It’s a gloomy portrait, a bracing wakeup call for those who are looking to see America succeed and be the best country it can be.  For those living in other countries, it’s a worthwhile book in order to understand the roots of what’s happening in America.  Some other countries experiencing sharp internal divisions will see echoes of themselves in America’s recent story. 

With societal trust fraying, the nation has become “too incoherent to talk about its hardest problems in a way that begins to solve them,” Packer writes.  I’ve personally seen this dynamic take hold in other countries, and with some very deadly and devastating consequences that America for the most part has avoided in recent years.  He highlights the fragmentation and compares the current era to the 1850s, the decade before the Civil War:

“Americans can no longer think and act as fellow citizens.  We look for answers in private panaceas, fixed ideas, group identities, dreams of the future and past, saviors of different types – everywhere but in ourselves.  When none of these sets us free, we turn against one another.” 

America’s Four Tribal Narratives

Offering more texture than provided by the usual political analyses analyzing issues in a Democrats versus Republicans framework, Packer offers four separate and distinct stories about America’s moral identity.  Packer’s take has some similarities to the earlier work done, like the Hidden Tribes report. (The Atlantic magazine article based on the book captures the key points.)

1. Free America.  These are traditional conservatives and Republicans who argued for privatization, tax cuts, and the end of big government, as well as libertarians who oppose government regulation.

2. Smart America.  This group includes highly educated Democrats who benefited from globalization and technology and embraced meritocracy.

3. Real America.  This group consists of White Christian nationalists who supported Trump, and Packer traces its roots back to more than a decade ago.  Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in 2008, was “John the Baptist” for Trumpism.

4. Just America.  This newest group emerged within the Democratic Party around 2014, and it consists of activists on the left who use the language of identity politics. 

Like all paradigms, Packer’s categories suffer from oversimplifications, but it is important to consider the basic picture he presents and the diagnosis of the centrality of a lack of a shared sense of purpose and the absence of a functioning dialectic that offers space for competing views. 

Reviving Patriotism

As with his previous books on America and his account from Iraq, Packer doesn’t offer any clear solutions or pathways forward.  Towards the end of the book, he offers a list of some major reforms in education, media, labor rights, among other issues, but he doesn’t clearly answer the obvious question of how we achieve progress if things are so stuck and fragmented in the big picture in America.

Packer talks about the need to put our faith back in democracy and equality, themes the Liberal Patriot has underscored over the past few months. In discussing the early 20th Century progressive activist Frances Perkins, a woman who became a central figure serving with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in implementing the New Deal, Packer highlights her patriotism as a driving idea behind her mission, a “patriotism based upon the love of the men and women who were fellow citizens.” 

Packer also notes, “A century ago, to be woke was to be patriotic.” 

The theme of patriotism runs throughout key parts of the book, and Packer notes that:

“Patriotism can be turned to good or ill purposes, but in most people it never dies.  It’s a persistent attachment, like loyalty to your family, a source of meaning and togetherness, strongest when it’s hardly conscious… This feeling can’t be wished out of existence.  And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify – world citizenship is too abstract to be meaningful – patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big.  If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.” 

Smart America mostly abandoned patriotism years ago for an internationalism, and key parts of Just America are advocating for a re-write of the national narrative. Free America still talks about patriotism, but it seems overshadowed by the uglier and more exclusivist versions offered up by Real America.  As Packer notes, “abandoning patriotism to other narratives guarantees that the worst of them will claim it.” 

No Easy Path Forward

Most people won’t read this book, especially those who are deeply invested in one of the four tribal narratives that compete in America’s politics and media. The current structure of national discourse in America, including among institutions that seek to shape the debate, seems mostly aligned with one of the four camps described by Packer.

Transition moments like these present opportunities to bring different groupings of people together. A smart move would be to look for ways to listen to the constructive elements of the four competing tribal narratives in America and have them interact in functional and respectful ways. It’s not an easy path, but a good first step would be to create a new infrastructure equipped to lead a new, constructive battle of ideas inside of America.