Hard Times, the Sequel

George Packer on the disappearance of the American Dream.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer’s absorbing account of the 35-year shakedown of the U.S. economy by “organized money,” follows the life stories of three everymen struggling against mounting odds to make ends meet, economically and existentially. The Unwinding’s narrative begins in 1978—soon after 5,000 steelworkers lost their jobs to the abrupt closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube—and demonstrates that in the subsequent collapse of the “Roosevelt Republic,” the money elites may have killed off the American democratic experiment for good.

“He was angry on behalf of the American people,” Packer says of Jeff Connaughton, one of his three lead characters, “not the poor, to be honest, who were always with us, but the people in the middle who had …worked hard and played by the rules and saw half their 401(k)s disappear in their late fifties just when they thought they’d saved for retirement and now were fucked.” Connaughton’s story frames the larger narrative of institutional disintegration and comes closest, one suspects, to reflecting Packer’s own moderate political bent. After a modest but solidly middle-class upbringing in Alabama, Jeff majored in business at the state U and, as a sophomore, was inspired to enter a life of public service by a characteristically charming, outsider-y debate performance by 36-year-old Senator Joe Biden in 1979. From that point on, he was determined to follow Biden all the way to the White House, which young Jeff regarded “the summit of American life.”

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