The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Summary: Sometime in the late 1970s, the foundations of the American Century began to unravel. In this trenchant account, New Yorker writer Packer charts the erosion of the social compact that kept the country stable and middle class. Readers experience three decades of change via the personal histories.

Discussion questions:

1) Packer interweaves intimate stories of everyday Americans with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.

Is this blending, particularly of common American stories with those of the famous, an effective literary or educational device? Do the complex narratives weave together well?

2) American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. The theme is that dramatic economic and social shifts, within the span of a generation, have created a county of losers and winners. Income inequality has increased significantly during the same time span and the political system seems on the verge of a breakdown.

Does the book do a good job of exploring the reasons for this shift or is it more focused on addressing the impact of the shifts on the populace? Is the book’s political viewpoint overbearing?

3) Packer’s is a big book, using close portraiture to make huge conclusions about whom we’ve become and what we’ve lost. Packer’s dark rendering of the state of the nation feels pained but true.

Is the book’s message one of hopelessness and inevitable decline?

4) Commentary suggests the book’s underlying question is: What common bond do those who are ostensibly held together by an idea of American democracy share?

Does the book answer this question?

5) Another theme of the book is that over the past thirty years, American democratic values have been undermined by the powerful lure of unregulated capitalism.

Is this the underlying cause of the sense of malaise that some belief pervades America? Is the fear that this may well be the last generation who creates a better world for their children well founded?

6) One of the book’s characters, Matt Weidner, a real estate lawyer fighting foreclosures in Tampa after the property crash of 2007, opines that the economy is stuck in neutral because “our parents were fat and lazy. . .our grand parents would have never mortgaged everything and lived off the credit.”

Were older generations really more frugal and responsible with their money? As in the case of the “Greatest Generation,” were those values of hard work and thrift forged in the fires of adversity?

7) The book contrasts degrading poverty with tales of immense wealth. Mike Ross, the yacht repairman turned house flipper who eventually attempts suicide, finds that a lack of employment opportunities “just ripped me apart, it took away my will to live.” (p.204.) Then there is the friend of lobbyist Connaughton who arrogantly declares “This would sound strange to 99 percent of Americans, but $400,000 a year doesn’t go as far as it used to.” (p.167.)

Can a country survive when there are such stark contrasts between those facing degrading poverty and those enjoying colossal wealth?

8) Is gangster rap really eroding America’s principles or is the author succumbing to his own internal elitism?

9) Final thoughts? Is this a book you enjoyed reading? Was it insightful?

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