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George Packer’s Center Cannot Hold: A Review of “Last Best Hope”


When you read these words, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Last Best Hope is in fact three books in one: a fogy’s lament about the state of the contemporary left; an appreciation of nineteenth-century observers of America like Tocqueville and Whitman, leavened with a smattering of half-baked insights into the contemporary American soul (“Road rage was invented here,” Packer bafflingly informs us toward the book’s end, making the case that automotive violence can be the glue that puts America back together); and a policy paper on measures to combat income inequality. Who exactly is this book for? Occasionally, through use of the second person, the answer slips through: Last Best Hope is for people who needed the shock of the pandemic to “realize that the miraculous price and speed of a delivery of organic microgreens from Amazon Fresh to your doorstep depends on the fact that the people who grow, sort, pack, and deliver it have to work while sick.” In other words, it’s for people like George Packer: comfortable, middle-class professionals who have come to a belated understanding of the American economy’s brutalities, but don’t want things to change so much that they lose the country that has made them a success and brings them their microgreens.

Consistent with this communion, a form of self-love marks every page. In one of his many dreary digressions on lefty conformism, Packer upbraids younger journalists for carrying “the thought police” around in their heads and asking themselves questions like: “Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct?” All questions that seem, to me at least, reasonable predicates to thinking and writing, but not here. George Packer’s advice to young reporters is the same as his advice to the citizens of America: Be more like George Packer. And in fairness, that’s a strategy that has worked quite well for George Packer. After all, this is a man who published his first memoir in his late twenties, and has been reaping the rewards of that self-confidence ever since. (Going to Yale may also have helped.)

Trashing the contemporary left is a way for Packer to reaffirm his liberal bona fides, committing him to the cause of cosmetic reform. There’s something else at work in these passages, however; from a deeper examination of the Packer bibliography, it seems fair to surmise that the bitterness he feels toward the left is born, at some level, of regret. In 1989, Packer, frustrated at the country’s creeping inequalities and the failures of the Democratic Party after a decade of Reaganism, joined the Democratic Socialists of America. He quit the organization a few years after Bill Clinton came to power; by the early 2000s, he was ensconced in the media redoubt of The New Yorker and supporting the American invasion of Iraq, a position he would regret when he wrote his account of the war, The Assassins’ Gate.

In his second memoir, 2000’s Blood of the Liberals, Packer told the story of that missed connection with a more radical leftism. That earlier book anticipates—and in some cases echoes almost verbatim—many of the central obsessions of Last Best Hope: America’s partisan divisions, the decline of liberalism (which “by 1989” had “become both rigidly, almost theologically abstract and hopelessly compromised”), identity politics, the roots of Reaganomics in the tumult of the 1970s, and the nihilism of a post-1960s academy for which “all the universals of the Enlightenment … burned to a crisp under the intensely magnifying stare” of Foucault’s “square metal eyeglasses.” (In the Packer cosmology, rimless glasses represent Real America, while metal frames are the soul of Perfidious France.)





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