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How the pandemic exposes rifts in America that exist among regions, races and classes


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: Despite this week`s successful passage of the Senate`s bipartisan infrastructure bill, Washington is still a polarized city. But, as author George Packer recently explained to Judy Woodruff, the divisions in our country are greater and deeper than we may realize. Packer argues the pandemic has exposed rifts in America among regions, races and classes. That`s the focus of his new book, "Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal."

Judy Woodruff: George Packer, welcome back to the NewsHour. The book, as we said, "Last Best Hope".

You start with the premise that America`s government failed all of us last year on so many levels, but especially by not protecting Americans from the from the pandemic. Who is to blame for that?

George Packer: It starts with President Trump, who from the beginning seemed more interested in using the pandemic to advance his own political interests, to divide Americans, to turn us against each other over things that shouldn`t have been debatable, like mask wearing, simple things.

I think the bureaucracy failed. The Centers for Disease Control famously failed at what it`s supposed to be able to do, which is coming up with a test that could allow us to trace and control the pandemic. But really, the failure goes all the way through our society, because the pandemic showed such deep divisions, both between red and blue Americans, between regions, between classes and races.

We found that we are now divided into two categories; essential and nonessential workers, which means those who have to go to work in the middle of a plague and may get sick and those who can sit at home in front of a laptop. And so it became a sort of soldiers and civilians in wartime.

Judy Woodruff: And you go on, George Packer, to argue that every country needs a narrative, to explain who it is, to understand what it`s as you, I think, say is its moral identity.

And you talk about how the political identities that used to be there for decades that broke roughly into Republicans, Democrats is now split into four different disparate groups. Just in brief, I know I`m asking you to condense the whole book, but what are those four groups?

George Packer: Right, so we all know that we are divided at red and blue, every election shows us how deep that that division is it really into two countries. But I think red and blue are themselves fractured and have been more and more over the last, say, 30 or 40 years. I call them free America and smart America, which are sort of the elite narratives that shaped the Republican and Democratic parties.

The free America is Reaganism. It`s the free market. It`s low taxes. And that became Republican orthodoxy for decades still is, in a way, at the top of the party.

Smart America is more Bill Clinton`s America, Barack Obama`s America, the America, the professional class of the educated who believe that if you go to the right schools and get the right degree and work hard, the modern world is yours, that globalization will work for you. You`ll be among the winners.

Real America, I think, is a rebellion against free and smart America. That`s a phrase Sarah Palin used in 2008. And to me, it means the America of the white Christian heartland, the people who work with their hands in small towns and rural areas. That`s who Palin was talking about.

And that became Trump`s base. And in a way, real America has displaced free America as the motor of the Republican Party. The -- at the top of the party, you still hear free market ideas. But the real energy of the party is with nativism, I think, and with anti-immigration, anti free trade feeling, which I associate with free America.

And finally, just America, on the left, is also a rebellion from below, a generational rebellion by younger people against what they see as the hollow promises of progress that the meritocracy of their parents gave them. And instead, it`s a dark view of the country as trapped in a caste system for centuries. That hasn`t really changed all that much. And progress is something of an illusion.

Judy Woodruff: And you write about how each one of these groups in a way fulfills a different aspect of our needs as a country, but how they also are very much pitted against each other.

How do you see this playing itself out? And what do we as a country do about it?

George Packer: Yeah, I think all four of them in some ways are dead ends, they create winners and losers and they are as exclusive as they are inclusive. My narrative is what I would call equal America. It goes back to Tocqueville`s idea that the defining quality of Americans is what he called the passion for equality, the desire to be as good as everyone else.

And today, inequality has become so pronounced that I think it`s at the heart of a lot of the social conflict we see. When equality is denied, it produces endless conflict in this country. So I think the fracturing into those four narratives is largely the result of decades of growing inequality.

So I think there are two ways in which we can begin to at least govern ourselves in a way that we failed last year. One is by creating conditions of equality for more Americans, and that`s largely about economics and policy. The other is by reacquiring the art of self-government, which is a skill that you can lose and that we have lost. And that is more about our role as citizens with a shared sense of responsibility.

Judy Woodruff: And the book ends, in fact, on a note of urging Americans to find ways to see each other to connect, to engage with each other in ways that we don`t see very much of right now, except maybe at the local level.

George Packer: I think in a way, it has to start at the local level. National politics is so poisoned. But if Americans are almost required to face one another as fellow citizens on some level, like through national service or through civics education, they may discover that even though they still deeply disagree, they can imagine a country in which the other still has a role.

Right now, it`s as if each group sees the others as an existential threat that has to be eliminated. And that`s a terrible formula for a country that is going to continue toward a breakdown of our democratic way of life.

Judy Woodruff: And, George Packer, having watched American politics or American life as long as you have, do you think that`s a message that can get through?

George Packer: I have been a little more hopeful this year than in quite a long time. We have begun to emerge from the pandemic through the miracle of the vaccine, and we`ve also avoided four more years of an authoritarian presidency. And instead, Joe Biden, with all of his weaknesses and his the strangeness of this accident of history that puts him in the White House seems to understand that equal America, treating Americans as all deserving the same chance through policy and through his rhetoric, he seems to know how to do it, how to speak to us in a way that doesn`t divide us.

There will be people who don`t like him. There will be people who think he`s not going fast enough or far enough. But at the moment, I think Biden turns out to be what the country needs, and I wish him all the best.

Judy Woodruff: George Packer, his latest book is "Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal." George Packer, thank you very much.

George Packer: My pleasure.

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