This Is How a Nation Unwinds

America used to be community-minded. Is it too late to rekindle those values?

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Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan

The book jacket of The Unwinding by George Packer.

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When Packer and I discussed his book over lunch, he told me that he had no snazzy solutions, just the "obvious" ones: real financial reform, better schools, more infrastructure spending (to provide muscle-labor jobs), a robust national-service plan that would try to re-create a sense of community among our disparate parts. (It would be morally bracing to see the children of Jay Z and Issa spend a year living in barracks, doing disaster relief together.) We have to tilt the balance of rights and responsibilities back toward the responsibility side of the spectrum. The past 40 years have been a time of vaulting libertarianism; we need a communitarian corrective. Which seems quite impossible at this moment.

There are those, like the German historian Oswald Spengler, who believe that civilizations decay and die, that democracy ultimately lapses into plutocracy. They certainly seem to have momentum on their side these days. But, hey, this is America--and as a counterargument, let me present Dean Price, one of the four main characters Packer follows. A son of the North Carolina Piedmont, Price is your classic small-business man, striver, dreamer. He goes through marriages, churches, businesses in a way that a non-American could hardly imagine. He is knocked down, gets up, starts experimenting with biofuels, wins a federal grant, gets knocked down again. At book's end, Price is trying to repurpose frying oil as a fuel for school buses. He might even succeed this time. We have been a nation of Dean Prices--and Henry Fords and Wright brothers. Our best hope is that, beneath the dissolution, we still are.

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