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Jim Sleeper Headshot

The Rebirth of George Packer, The Unwinding of David Brooks

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Five years ago the journalist George Packer described "The Fall of Conservatism" in a New Yorker article that, I protested, gave us "only the voices of [conservatives] who make their livings making phrases that describe and influence the vast majority of Americans who don't make their livings that way."

I rebuked Packer especially for giving David Brooks room to stage one of his periodic, Houdini-like re-positionings away from his own movement's and party's blunders (the Iraq fiasco, the Katrina debacle, the mortgage and financial-industry meltdown, to name just a few), which conservatives couldn't keep blaming on liberals, as Brooks had been doing so masterfully for nearly 15 years.

Packer almost held Brooks' hand as Brooks tried to re-ingratiate himself as liberals' favorite conservative by professing to doubt a lot of what he'd been doing for the likes of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. But Brooks wasn't really coming clean about his abidingly reactionary tendencies, and I noted that his exchanges with Packer resembled "a couple of monkeys grooming each other in the chattering classes' zoo."

What, I wanted to know, did the conservative movement's ordinary adherents and foot-soldiers, not its spin-meisters, think? "[W]riters in a democracy should help non-writing people to speak for themselves, not just have them spoken about," I noted. "There's plenty of unpaid, unpublished testimony out there." I urged Packer to go out and find it.

Well, now he has, and has he ever! The inward-looking force in his portraits of individual Americans in his book The Unwinding is strong enough to unsettle and even crack the thick crust of conformity to the "new normal" into which most of us have been baked, half-consciously, since around 1980.

By "thick crust," I mean a regime, really, of casino-financing at work; of big-business' degradation of our daily and political choices using consumer marketing, self-marketing, and predatory marketing; and of Orwellian "national-security" violations of faith in authority that, taken together, comprise a system that few people anywhere on the political spectrum still feel is legitimate or sustainable but that no one knows how to escape, other than through "every man for himself" tactics that make matters worse.

Packer doesn't preach about this. He doesn't theorize about it. He doesn't measure or model it. Working as the kind of writer that Brooks has sometimes been, but going far beyond that, he takes you into the lives of real Americans, at least one or two of whom will resemble any likely reader of the book, as they discover, sickeningly, that they're ensnared and blocked by forces beyond their individual control.

To portray this, Packer didn't impose or serve an ideology. Although his own premises are left of center, most of the people he writes about are anything but. He has worked hard to win these individuals' trust and be faithful to their experiences and assessments.

Brooks, I'm sure, has had a lot more fun presenting what he calls "comic sociology" about representative types or groups such as Home Depot shoppers, "Bobos," patio men, New York Times wedding-page couples, and liberal political consultants. Such composites can make readers squirm or laugh in a safe sort of self-recognition.

Packer's more-intimate portraits draw you inexorably into deeper, broader reckonings with what's happening to our country and our aspirations. Without seeming to, he makes us feel almost as if we're moving and thinking inside his subjects' skins - as, in truth, at some level, we all are.

No wonder that The Unwinding has unsettled Brooks, as his grudging, almost churlish praise for the book in a review for the Times makes excruciatingly clear, and as my remonstrance of five years ago more or less foresaw.

Although Brooks dutifully calls The Unwinding" a gripping narrative survey of contemporary America" and its stories "beautifully reported," he's only paying his dues to the blurbocracy that lives on out-of-context superlatives. Most of his review is a grumpy complaint that Packer doesn't "analyze" what he portrays and that he doesn't subject the dark horizons that emerge through these portraits to any empirical testing.

"As a way of understanding contemporary America, these examples are tantalizing," Brooks writes. "But they are also frustrating. The book is supposed to have social, economic and political implications, but there is no actual sociology, economics or political analysis in it."

And again: "Packer's work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape," and this "undermines the explanatory power of 'The Unwinding,' just as it undermines the power and effectiveness of modern politics more generally."

But as Brooks' own political ideology has failed him time after time, he has fled to social science in fruitless, often embarrassing forays, and, when those failed, into preachy invocations of Edmund Burke and Reinhold Niebuhr, public thinkers whom I consider worthy of great respect but who I'll bet would have found themselves understood and challenged better by Packer's work than by Brooks'.

What I think unsettles Brooks most, although he doesn't say so, are Packer's accounts of the young Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, and of Joe Biden's No. 2 man and Washington wheeler-dealer Jeff Connaughton - two representative Americans whose ways of approaching the world Brooks has celebrated but which he can no longer defend with any credibility.

Brooks must also find discomfiting -- because he tries to dismiss in passing -- Packer's brief, crisp portraits of Colin Powell's faith in a civic-republican America that lies broken for him now, and of Robert Rubin's self-evisceration across a long, empty public career as a leader of no genuine conviction. (It was Rubin, a member of Harvard's governing board, who installed his Washington protégé, the aspergerial Lawrence Summers, as president of Harvard, where Summers played liberal education as a brilliant game of money, power, and public relations that might have embarrassed even Mark Zuckerberg, a sophomore there at the time.)

Neither impressed nor amused, Brooks frets that "Anybody who covers Washington and Wall Street knows there is an awesome amount of self-dealing in America's power centers, most of it perfectly legal. But in what sense has this elite -- which comes from the finest universities and is the most diverse and equal-opportunity elite in history -- failed? This is the sort of question The Unwinding doesn't help answer."

Brooks has been looking for answers to that question this year by prowling around Yale to update his Princeton-based essay of 2001, "The Organization Kid," for The Atlantic.
But the question he really should ask after years of courting, tweaking, and celebrating the Ivy elite and trying to cajole it into Burkean noblesse oblige, is how its members and most other Americans have become wired into arrangements that none of them can really believe in.

Packer brings us face to face with that question, and Brooks blinks. He clings to his practice of tweaking up and sniffing down, teasing but sucking up to elites while never missing an opportunity to blame victims and their "cultures," imagining all the while that what he and Packer both love about a civic-republican America will be saved without a second American revolution.

It won't be. And Edmund Burke, who wound up supporting the first American revolution, would understand.