How America Fractured into Four Parts
June 11, 2021 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Four Americas by George Packer. Longform essay at the Atlantic on how the United States has ended up where it is.
posted by zardoz (42 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Alternate link, from the Wayback Machine.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:28 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

This is ... interesting. I see some stuff I don't agree with, and "Smart America" is as poorly chosen a name as "brights" was, but he's described the major faultlines.

I don't know how well he's distinguished between Free America and Real America, both being "people of the land, the common clay of the New West." But I would certainly like to believe there is a distinction, rather than that Free America is the pop-eyed tumor-infant of Real America and will inevitably arise from it in every generation.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:34 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

The Lawyers, Guns and Money blog got into this article too - they mentioned that this articles basically ignores non-white working class folks of which I gather there are *a few* in the states.
posted by LegallyBread at 3:05 PM on June 11 [55 favorites]

This was pretty thought-provoking. Certainly a lot of details to agree or disagree with.

Along the way I kept expecting the fourth one to be something like "outsiders" and be the non-white working class, and then it wasn't. So that LGM response is definitely on point.
posted by allegedly at 3:29 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

I’m gonna wear my Just America hat for a sec and say that if you’re gonna reference a certain event in 2014, Ferguson, MO, you owe both the annals of history and your readership, as well as the victim, the dignity of a name.

It’s Michael Brown, jackass. That really bothered me, because if you’re so clear-eyed about these divisions, how do you not say his name? And I want to be clear, I think overall, the article nails a lot of my intuitively reached, significantly less-informed sense for these things.

As far as inclusion of the PoC working class? Shit man, a not insignificant number of dim-witted, zealous “Just Americans” are only engaged enough to prop up a sense of superiority. They’re pissed off, not possessing any real conviction about these things. Needless to say, social media has not helped this one bit. It’s a pretty gnarly pet peeve of mine, the cudgel the young left uses. It’s morally just, and ineffectual in its blunt application, serving only to inflame.

Sure, he should have addressed working class people of color. But it doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t, since they’re tossed away by all four groups, to one degree or another. They’re actively reviled by the right wing set, benignly disregarded by “smart america” and used as a prop by a very large number of “just Americans.”
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 3:40 PM on June 11 [32 favorites]

Pundits gonna pundit. Take in the breadth of diversity in this land and decree FOUR (not three, not five) types of people, ALL whomst are flawed in key ways that only the pundit can suss out. Yawn.

This para, and his whole gloss on "Just America", had me scratching my head:
But another way to understand Just America is in terms of class. Why does so much of its work take place in human-resources departments, reading lists, and awards ceremonies? In the summer of 2020, the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year. Just America is a narrative of the young and well educated, which is why it continually misreads or ignores the Black and Latino working classes. The fate of this generation of young professionals has been cursed by economic stagnation and technological upheaval. The jobs their parents took for granted have become much harder to get, which makes the meritocratic rat race even more crushing. Law, medicine, academia, media—the most desirable professions—have all contracted. The result is a large population of overeducated, underemployed young people living in metropolitan areas.
"the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year" … errr cite please. I think probably he gets away with it because "disproportionate" really just means "higher percentage than base demographics", which is interesting but can not at ALL support the argument he tries with it. Also are they underemployed or are they making $100K a year? Can't be both.

Overall a kind of bog standard handwringing piece from another aging white male pundit, for, primarily, other white male pundits.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:41 PM on June 11 [39 favorites]

Yeah...this was an interesting? Read. Some thought provoking analysis but also a lot of flaws, as mentioned by others above. It falls short of being what it thinks it is.
posted by supermedusa at 3:55 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]

But in identity politics, equality refers to groups, not individuals, and demands action to redress disparate outcomes among groups—in other words, equity, which often amounts to new forms of discrimination. In practice, identity politics inverts the old hierarchy of power into a new one: bottom rail on top. The fixed lens of power makes true equality, based on common humanity, impossible.

And what is oppression? Not unjust laws—the most important ones were overturned by the civil-rights movement and its successors—or even unjust living conditions. The focus on subjectivity moves oppression from the world to the self and its pain—psychological trauma, harm from speech and texts, the sense of alienation that members of minority groups feel in their constant exposure to a dominant culture. A whole system of oppression can exist within a single word.

ummmmmm okay dude
posted by dusty potato at 4:09 PM on June 11 [26 favorites]

Some models are useful and all models are flawed. But the way a model is flawed is often more informative than the model itself.
posted by klanawa at 4:59 PM on June 11 [13 favorites]

and not a word about the fact that millions of poor working people have decided to sit out a system that has treated them horribly for years - or the anger of people whom the government has put out of business - or the sorrow and disgust of black community leaders at the continuing violence on our streets - (we just had another demonstration for peace on the streets in kalamazoo)

these people all have one thing in common - few of the leaders of the 4 americas know anything about them and many don't care to know
posted by pyramid termite at 6:01 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]

Well.. that took a weird turn at the end? Kinda like blaming the critique?
posted by ovvl at 6:13 PM on June 11

This is an excerpt from his book, that’s coming out next week. I’m not going to buy it, but maybe we can look in the table of contents and see if he covers some of this stuff elsewhere.

I sympathize with some of his arguments, but there are some gaps as pointed out, and he’s making these weird asides and not backing them up.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:27 PM on June 11

From the article: "Call this narrative “Just America.” It’s another rebellion from below. As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America."

It always kinda leaves a bad taste in my mouth when upper-middle-class white Baby Boomers can now see the way their generation of leadership failed America and made it worse, BUT want to excuse themselves by being like "... but our kids get it." It always feels like the unspoken coda is, "... so we don't really have to reckon with our own actions."

... which means it only made me scowl more and narrow my eyes further when I got to the ending that was all "Kids today and their critical theory! All abandoning objective reality and American foundations!" Like, the thesis of the piece is that the failed Smart Americans gave birth to the Just Americans, but the Just Americans' ideas are too wacky and they must be scolded by the failed Smart Americans?

  • "They converged and recombined in American university classrooms, where two generations of students were taught to think as critical theorists."
  • "The most famous of this work, The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, declared its ambition to retell the entire story of America as the story of slavery and its consequences, tracing contemporary phenomena to their historical antecedents in racism, sometimes in disregard of contradictory facts."

  • Okay, this in particular ... I went to college with Nikole Hannah-Jones. I didn't know her well, but we have mutual friends. And while certainly there were some scholars doing critical theory there? THERE WAS NOT A LOT OF CRITICAL THEORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME IN 1998. Notre Dame was (and still is) absolutely whole-hog on classical Western education and "Great Books" curricula -- two theology classes and two philosophy classes for every student in the entire university, not just liberal arts majors; mandatory ethics classes in every major, with a strong traditionalist bent; a mandatory Great Books small seminar sophomore year (that every professor was required to teach a section of every few years). Dorm life literally modeled on the Rule of St. Benedict, with priests and/or nuns living in and supervising every dorm. The most conservative student body of any top-25 university. Now, it's a great education, from great professors, and it made me hella more progressive. But Nikole Hannah-Jones is not the product of a university education steeped in critical theory; she is the product of exactly what cancel-culture conservatives on Fox News are always claiming they want: An education focused on the history of Western thought and the "classical" great Western thinkers, with Christianity and religion front and center throughout the whole thing. If the 1619 Project is the result of its creator's university education, then it comes from Plato and the Bible and Milton and Great Books courses.

    Pretty sure it's not "critical theory" that made younger people reject the "Smart America" consensus and start talking a lot about structural failures, pretty sure it's just smart people looking at the country and noticing the, uh, objective reality of what's going on in it.

    "The narrative can’t talk about the main source of violence in Black neighborhoods, which is young Black men, not police."
    Proof positive this guy reads not one single Black-owned news source.

    "The mild phrase achievement gap has been banished, "
    Literal nonsense.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:55 PM on June 11 [73 favorites]

    The jobs their parents took for granted

    Uhh. So I'm an elder millenial, or xennial, or last gasp of gen-x, depending on who you ask, and well-educated, and supported BLM protests and such, so I guess theoretically he's talking kind of about me? But my parents most definitely did not take their jobs for granted. Any of the multiple jobs they each had, in fact, because of the whole thing that got drilled into my generation's heads at university about how we couldn't expect to have one job for the rest of our lives. Remember that whole "jobless recovery" in the later '90s to the recession that took up the first half of the '90s?
    posted by eviemath at 7:19 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]

    The more you guys tell me about this piece the less I want to read it.
    posted by emjaybee at 7:22 PM on June 11 [17 favorites]

    where two generations of students were taught to think as critical theorists

    Eyebrows McGee, I just noticed this due to the phrasing of this particular quote - maybe the author, and some of the right wingers who try to drum up fear about the radical left takeover of universities or whatnot, are confusing critical theory and critical thinking? :P
    posted by eviemath at 7:23 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

    I am also not a fan of "Smart America," and while I acknowledge it would break the parallelism he's going for, I think "the Professional Managerial Class" is what he's describing there, and calling "Smart America" that, instead, would provide a useful breadcrumb were one interested in exploring where it came from, via Barbara Ehrenreich.

    I'm still going back and forth on the distinctions between "Just America" and "Smart America." I'm going to keep using "Just America" in this comment, but Packer sticks a lot in there that I don't agree with.

    On the PMC tip, I just finished Catherine Liu's Virtue Hoarders and she sort of collapses what Packer would call "Just" and "Smart" into each other, but I've been coming around to thinking that "Smart America" is just busy figuring out how to manage and co-opt "Just America." That has backfired in terms of electoral strategy, but I think it's the core dynamic. "Smart America" invented the weaselly "yes, and" that is "diversity of thought" to help it over its discomfort with "Just America." "Smart America" is quick to say "let's not lower the bar," and no amount of corporate diversity training can break it of that tic. When I facilitated Ally Skills workshops, we had a whole scenario devoted to that one, and it was the one that most frequently stymied the room in the manager editions of our workshops -- why wouldn't you do everything you could to preserve The Meritocracy?

    I eventually got disinvited from doing those workshops, and then they were rebranded into generic and less threatening DE&I HR classes. Since then, I've grown more alienated and resistant to the ... style? ... of "Just America," but reading through the report a diversity consultant prepared for the company I work at reset me a little: I may not like the style of "Just America," but feel closer to the outcomes it wants than I do those of "Smart America," which is who writes the check for those diversity consultants then generally ignores them when they suggest things that endanger its comfort. When I set that style aside, there aren't enough consistent politics within "Just America" for me to accept or reject. It's sort of a hodgepodge of ideological currents and relative priorities within each, with a thing in there that feels like a glimmer sometimes.

    And that takes me to this idea from Adolph Reed:
    "What can ultimately ensue is an ideal of society such that if 1% of the population controls 90% of the resources, as long as that 1% were apportioned in a way that more or less faithfully reflects the composition of different ascriptive groups within the population, then that society could be considered just. That is to say, if the 1% were [approximately] half women, 12% Black, 14% to 15% Hispanic, et cetera, it would be a just society, even though 90% of the people are getting the short end of the stick. That’s the logic of a neoliberal notion of social justice."

    That sentiment leads some people to describe "Just America" (or "wokies," "race/identity reductionists," etc.) as just another flavor or current in "Smart America" (the neoliberal PMC), a bad-faith distraction engineered by "Smart America," or an ideological/programmatic vacuum; but I buy the idea there's something more nuanced and distinctive going on there, even if I think Packer's being sniffy, shitty, and off the mark when he describes it.

    It's the thing going on in bell hooks' "the soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination." There is room for more of a political program in that sentiment than vulgar Reed acolytes want to acknowledge. That's the glimmer that provides the distinction to me.
    posted by mph at 7:25 PM on June 11 [16 favorites]

    Maybe I live in a serious bubble, but economic leftists, who support a “Fair America” paradigm, contribute to the American political discussion, too.
    posted by vim876 at 7:43 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

    This article is the intellectual uncle of just about every ridiculous, hole-ridden, aggrieved-white-male-centric diatribe on the internet dividing people into two or more types.
    posted by sillyman at 8:05 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

    This piece really pissed me off. I get that it's an essay from a larger book, I get that it's a deliberately simplified view, but still. There is no excuse at this moment in history for this dated, crusty not even wrong take.

    Where the hell is my story, my parents, relatives, and friends' stories in these four grand narratives that have shaped the past 50 years? Queer people, BIPOC folks, non-Christians, disabled folks. We are here. We have always been here. But our stories are....where? How do our experiences, needs, and aspirations find expression in these overarching tropes? Predictably, we get to serve as sidekicks or tragic inspiration (at least say his name, Packer: Michael Brown) for the youthful (white?) protagonists of Just America to continue The Struggle or to Do The Right Thing with their new fangled theoretical tools. In the other three narratives, like members of the Black working-class, we are nearly invisible.

    Parker starts off with a flawed premise: "People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning." I ask, "Who the hell is this 'we' that agreed about America once upon a damn time?" Spoiler: my people weren't included in that set. A whole lot of other folks weren't either.

    He asks: "Is reconciliation possible?" My hot take is: "No, not until we rearchitect this nation so that all Americans can see our complicated, intersectional lives reflected in our grand historical narratives." I don't much like our chances.
    posted by skye.dancer at 8:09 PM on June 11 [29 favorites]

    This was done better in Colin Woodward's American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. His thesis is that America has always been made up of parts, and they have fundamental disagreements over a lot of things, particularly slavery. I suspect a 12th tribe of Fox watchers has appeared since this book was written, it's certainly borne out in COVID vaccination data.

    Or for a more recent take, this classic I come to again and again: I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People
    posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:17 PM on June 11 [17 favorites]

    The freedom it champions is very different from Alexis de Tocqueville’s art of self-government. It’s personal freedom, without other people—the negative liberty of “Don’t tread on me.” from the article.
    Really, let's just look at Alex when he came to Flint Michigan in 1831.

    "Before long the woods resounded with the barking of dogs, and we found ourselves in front of a log cabin, from which we were separated by no more than a fence. As we were about to pass through the gate, the moonlight revealed a large black bear standing on its hind legs and tugging on its chain to indicate as clearly as it could that it intended to greet us with a friendly hug. ‘What the devil kind of country is this,’ I said, ‘where they use bears as watchdogs?’"

    Nothing says don't tread on me then a Bear.
    but Alex made an accute observation the next morning.

    "What is more, it was not only Indians whom the American pioneers took for dupes. We were daily victims of their inordinate greed. To be sure, they do not steal. They are too enlightened to take such risks, but I’ve yet to see an innkeeper in a big city more shameless about overcharging than these denizens of the wild, in whom I had expected to find the primitive honesty and simplicity of ancestral ways. Everything was ready. We mounted our horses, and, fording the river that marks the outermost boundary of civilization, we entered the solitude of true wilderness at last."
    posted by clavdivs at 9:35 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]

    Barf. What a waste of waaaayyy too many words.
    posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:07 PM on June 11

    This is an ad-man's segmentation of the US populace into targets for political commercials. He asserts the existence of the four affinity groups without mentioning a shred of research. There's not even a lazy journalist's anecdote about the opinions of the taxi driver taking him from the airport to his hotel.
    posted by monotreme at 12:10 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

    The overriding culture, floam, includes the individual narrative. It's shaped through generations. It may not survive, culminating into the pasts present narrative. If our Vice Presidents narrative can be tilted into the optic gaffer pixilation machine, an individual narrative can be a challenge, for contrast, John Adams and Malcolm X. Something in their narration moved people.

    Adams is mostly forgotten while Malcom X continues to inspire and has inspired generations through his narrative however marganalized it may be precieved.
    posted by clavdivs at 12:21 AM on June 12

    Is this George Packer a white guy? Ah, yes, he is. That's all I need to know. *plonk*
    posted by seanmpuckett at 6:24 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

    It's almost self-parody how this proposes that America is broken into four symmetrically-flawed factions, with the truth (and Atlantic writers) caught in the nameless center. To make this narrative even remotely work, Packer has to create a "Just America" which is a funhouse mirror version of "Smart America". There might be two or three people who genuinely see the end goal of society as a Hamiltonized version of the status quo, but this does not describe the actual positions of "critical theorists".
    posted by Pyry at 6:26 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]

    It also kind of makes intuitive sense that minorities, the disenfranchised, these groups literally excluded would not define any of his four American powers though, right?

    These are not empirically grounded narratives. As monotreme mentioned, Packer hand waves these groups into existence with cherry picked and misread stats. The well-published, middle-aged white guy says these are the four key American narratives and behold, they are, just like that. Define the term Americans using this one simple, rhetorical trick! If you asked Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, or Rachel Levine (as high profile examples) for their grand American narratives, I'd bet they would look different from Packer's. Aren't they Americans, too?

    klanawa nails it with this statement: "Some models are useful and all models are flawed. But the way a model is flawed is often more informative than the model itself."

    These narratives are flawed because Packer chose to make our lives invisible. We are seeing the themes that are important/relevant from his POV, without a pause for critical reflection on the vast limitations of his subject position. He is careless, entitled, and arrogant in his scholarship. It's 2021; he should know better. His model is built on faulty assumptions and deliberately excluded data (people's actual lives) but is reified as truth through the magic of publishing. Which is precisely why this kind of bullshit is offensive and dangerous. Books like these reinforce the notion that we--the people upon whose backs and stolen lands the United States was built--have no place in the historical narratives of our own country.
    posted by skye.dancer at 8:33 AM on June 12 [20 favorites]

    Good line, this: "Candidates reserve the truth for their donors, using the direct language they avoid with the press and the public..."

    I'm glad Packer identified anti-communism as a major, long-term cultural current.
    Although I think he dismisses it too quickly with "the end of the Cold War rendered [anti-communism] obsolete." John Kenneth White (Still Seeing Red) did a good job of showing how anti-c persisted through the 1990s. And today's GOP is clearly eager to fight reds - cf the successful appeal to some Latinos wrt Venezuela Cuba etc.

    "Smart America" - I'm reading that as a tongue in cheek term, or one that recognizes the group's pride unto arrogance. Like "Real America" it's a self-name.

    Interesting to see how Packer locates neoliberalism across several of his "nations." "The narrative of Free America shaped the parameters of acceptable thinking for Smart America."

    I'm personally interested in the powerful role Packer assigns academia in his schema. Universities and colleges make Smart America and Just America. Real America and Free are formed in part by reacting against higher ed.
    posted by doctornemo at 8:47 AM on June 12

    The descriptions of "Smart America" and "Just America" were such absurd caricatures that I think the best thing about this essay was how it led me to question my assumptions that make its descriptions of "Free America" and "Real America" seem less so.
    posted by biogeo at 9:38 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]

    This is positively David Brooksian.
    posted by MiraK at 11:18 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

    Long ago, the Four Americas lived together in harmony.
    Then everything changed when Real America attacked.

    posted by FJT at 11:56 AM on June 12 [16 favorites]

    That's far out man but I don't really know what you're saying to be honest.
    posted by floam at 9:00 AM on June 12

    I believe the comment you made, were I responded has been deleted. So, understandable.
    posted by clavdivs at 11:57 AM on June 12

    > Long ago, the Four Americas lived together in harmony.
    > Then everything changed when Real America attacked.

    BRING ME TO YOUR ZUKO is that so much to ask pls just
    posted by MiraK at 12:02 PM on June 12 [6 favorites]

    This article is not good and not really worth discussing. This article is anti -math, anti-sociology, just gross.

    There have been very many articles like this before; this one is like all of those cliches were pureed in a word blender, into a big anti-logical mush of cliches.
    posted by eustatic at 7:45 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]

    This article is transparently trying to segue to, “How do we pull together instead of fracturing apart?” It’s an ad for his book, which purports to answer those questions.

    The only of his Four Americas that will read it, his deliberately chosen audience, is Smart America, the flattery naming of which echoes back to Rush Limbaugh’s constant assurances to his listeners that “study after study” shows they are the smartest, and best-informed.

    He’s telling them how to talk to their kids (Just America) and how to understand Trumpists (Real America). But those divisions are derived from, and as artificial as, those concocted and maintained by our two political parties for the purpose of maintaining power.

    Despite all that, I found value in the notion that to understand and communicate with people who disagree with you, you need to identify their values, their perception of their own virtues, and of their nation’s. It’s more nuanced, and more valuable, than writing them off as sociopathic capitalists, wild-eyed anarchists, or aggrieved racists.

    I also liked his point that faith in meritocracy and scientific method is as much of a trap as any other ideology, backed up by historical context.
    posted by panglos at 10:31 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

    I have to admit, this didn't strike me as that insightful. All it does is acknowledge the existence of four demographic groups (Free, Smart, Real, and Just: libertarians, technocrats/upper-middle class progressives, nationalists and social reformers) that have some interrelation, and then add an extreme amount of linguistic padding along with some history and opinion.
    posted by metabaroque at 4:17 PM on June 13

    My father sent this to me with the trying note that he appreciated that someone is trying to pull apart these conflicts, in his words, "someone is trying to identify the forests that are dividing us". Does anyone have any good articles I could send him that might be a better approach?
    posted by Carillon at 10:53 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]

    The shock collar that nearly everyone the author's age was equipped with that prevents him from actually reading what real leftists have to say about any of this is fully functional it seems. "Marxism is just like Ayn Rand" is as insightful as we get.
    posted by Space Coyote at 6:14 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

    Does anyone have any good articles I could send him that might be a better approach?

    "A People's History of the United States" or "The Underside of American History" books are probably way too long, then, eh? And sending along an actual sociology curriculum a la one of this morning's new posts is probably a bit passive-aggressive. But I imagine there is a more gentle and generous way to point out that there is quite a lot of more careful and detailed study of such topics, it's just that forming accurate and actually useful conclusions takes a little more time and background than was perhaps put into this piece.
    posted by eviemath at 8:06 AM on June 14

    If somebody sent me a 40 year old book as an explanation of the current political moment, I don’t think I would appreciate the gesture.
    posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:21 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]

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