Packer Book Suggests There is Work Yet to be Done

by Anne Molleur Hanson

If you are like me, fretting that  the “American Experiment” may have arrived at its twilight, a relatively quick read will provide a framework, perspective, and a possible pathway out of the dark hours of this moment.

Inspired by political pamphlets of former times, journalist George Packer has delivered a compelling analysis in a concise and deftly written little book, “Last Best Hope, America in Crisis and Renewal.” As the title suggests, the overall analysis is that our nation is not yet at “lost cause status” but there is work to be done. It must begin with us, and yesterday would be a good time to begin.

Packer uses the tactic of zooming in and then zooming out. It’s an effective technique for providing perspective, and through that “long view” this author delivers a radical suggestion: American Democracy is an ideal, always more an aspiration than an actualized thing.

The prologue takes us to fall of 2020, just before the election, and relays a personal experience that illuminates a familiar American tension: that of the rural folk-transplants who co-exist, yet have almost no idea of the other’s experience: a non-understanding that could be an undoing.

Packer then goes back in time, revealing an insight from French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visit in the first half century of post-revolution America led him to identify what Packer later names the hidden code encrypted in the ideal of America. The hidden code, much like our state motto of freedom and unity, is simply stated yet paradoxically complex, so spacious that it can be easily derailed by the greatest and most common of our human foibles: self interest and greed.

Nope, I’m not going to reveal the code in this review because I don’t want to deprive you of the experience of reading this book.

I will tell you that Packer is a realist: he does not shy from our collective hypocrisies: the way our nation projects itself as originator and savior of Democracy, even while our closed eyes or non-participation has brought us to the brink of losing the very institutions and civil conduct that make Democracy possible. He could lament that we have only ourselves to blame, he could finger-point at all the ways “those people” are destroying our country. That’s fashionable right now, but it’s not where he goes.

Instead, he tells a story, four of them in fact. Packer writes that America today can be best understood through the narratives of “Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America.” This is a workable framework that focuses our attention and translates the experiences of those we don’t understand. It’s a necessary translation since we’ve largely stopped talking to people who are out of our tribe. Though there are moments when it feels like Packer is painting with too broad a brush, his four stories give us a way to see ourselves and those who differ from us. The insights in each story have an uncomfortable accuracy that glimmer like a clear pool: when we look into it, we may see things about ourselves that we’d rather not. By holding up that mirror anyway, Packer provides a helpful map to navigate the complicated landscape of understanding not just what America has become, but who it is and why.

Packer’s writing makes for an easy read, which is remarkable for the density of ideas this slim book contains. He draws on wisdom from near and far times, from a French resistance fighter and historian whose analysis of his nation’s fall to Germany is as prophetic and salient as the measured voice of Jacob Blake’s mother.

Packer shares a segment of the unrehearsed speech she gave in Kenosha, days after her son was shot. Later in the book he introduces us to thought leaders of former eras whose work advanced America’s Democracy even when it seemed sure to founder. Horace Greeley, Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin are part of the history of evolving America from parchment promises that excluded too many and whose work brought us closer to the actualizing of American Democracy. Each of these Americans responded to crises that could have derailed the nation. Because they did, they strengthened the fabric of what this nation could be. 

Those of us lucky to live in communities where the scale of human living still necessitates a baseline of interdependence are well-positioned to read this book and begin a new day. Most of us understand that we are at a point of converging crises. “America’s Best Hope” suggests how we begin the hard but not impossible work of renewal.

Please buy it locally or find it at your library.

[Anne Molleur Hanson is a resident of Craftsbury.]