Orrin Luc posted an articlePacker's self-described political pamphlet finds hope in an American crisis. see more
Last Best Hope
America in Crisis and Renewal
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller
George Packer’s Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal is a self-described political pamphlet in long-form essay, not unlike Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, written in a period of change, about that very change. Packer’s goal is to find a way Americans can talk with each other again. A modest aim — but in this post-Trump era, perhaps an insurmountable task. Packer addresses what James Baldwin described as our tangled American problem: “In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.”
Packer begins at the confusing, maddening moment when the government, as headed by Trump et al., utterly failed to protect Americans, or as Packer writes, “There was no national plan for dealing with the greatest threat of our lives.” It was not a time we were encouraged to come together to fight the invisible enemy, but rather we were manipulated by a leader who loved to pit people one against another, which culminated in a “strange defeat,” or as some have said, a Cold Civil War.
In his thesis, Packer breaks the nation down into four Americas as he proceeds to unravel the conundrum. Free America is Reagan’s America of low taxes, limited government, and lax regulation. Smart America is open to some of the terms of Free America — free trade, immigration, globalization — and is characterized by a belief in the value of education and meritocracy. Real America is anti-elite, in particular anti-coastal elites, as in Sarah Palin’s position of supporting the “real people,” meaning manual workers, farmers, and miners. In Trump’s version, it is a populist vision encompassing ethnonationalism. In earlier forms it was George Wallace’s white supremacy as well as the countervailing progressive populism expressed in William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896. Just America is another rebellion, in that it takes a stand against the meritocracy of Smart America, seeing it as a failed promise and describing America as ultimately a caste system underpinned by structural racism that keeps underserved citizens of color and certain ethnic groups out of the meritocracy running.
Packer doesn’t want to live in any of these narratives, especially in their purest forms, because each in its own way abuses democracy, dividing us into seemingly irreconcilable tribes with increasingly rigid, uncompromising stances.
Packer doesn’t want to live in any of these narratives, especially in their purest forms, because each in its own way abuses democracy, dividing us into seemingly irreconcilable tribes with increasingly rigid, uncompromising stances. In his analysis, our common ground as a people and a nation has disappeared. He posits that we have to find a common ground if we’re to survive, starting with who we are as Americans and what differentiates us from other nation-states. He looks to Tocqueville’s description of our passion for equality, though Packer thinks we’ve failed to achieve it — but at least, he says, we still have that passion for equality, our openness, inclusiveness, our loud voices, and casualness with waiters. This all feels like grasping at straws, but one wants to go along with him as he leads us toward some kind of a solution: creating a fifth category, an Equal America, where we work toward equality of opportunity — not just hard-and-fast equal results — and where we relearn the arc of self-government.
His prescriptive ideas feel utopian in their progressive wish list: a national safety net; empowerment of workers; using the government to fight against monopolies that take away ordinary citizens’ economic freedom; not supporting public schools through a local tax-base that means rich neighborhoods — primarily white — always get better funding. He calls for civics education that teaches children how to think critically and supports national service for all. (Packer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo 1982–83.) He supports the idea of patriotism as a basic attachment to where you live, “the glue that holds us together,” as opposed to nationalism, which leads to the sins of exceptionalism, hegemony, protectionism, and discrimination against the “other.”
Packer goes a long way with his stunning, synthesizing prose to parse a path through the complicated forest of where we’ve gone wrong. Last Best Hope is a worthy contribution to the canon of political pamphleteering and analysis. One does find some hope in his attempt to save America from itself.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Marnie Mueller is the author of the novels Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador 1963–65. This review is adapted from one originally published by Peace Corps Worldwide.
Communications Intern posted an articleNews and updates from the Peace Corps community see more
News and updates from the Peace Corps community — across the country, around the world, and spanning generations of returned Volunteers and staff
By Peter Deekle (Iran 1968–70)
Carol Anne “Aziza” Reid (Moldova and Eswatini, pictured) honored with the Lillian Carter Award. Writer George Packer (Togo) serves up a stark and compelling analysis of the state of American politics. Doris Rubenstein (Ecuador) tells a remarkable tale of a Jewish family’s flight to Latin America to escape the Nazis. Kim Mansaray, country director for Peace Corps Mongolia, is presented with that nation’s highest honor, the Order of Polar Star. Honors for a librarian, a sustainable kids clothing line, and a new beat for a journalist — and much more.
Have news to share with the Peace Corps community? Let us know.
Tyler LeClear Vachta (2009–11) has been recently appointed Human Resources Systems and Data Analyst at Augsburg University (Minneapolis).
Moses Manning (2016–18) has been appointed a policy intern at the World Resources Institute (June 2021). He is a graduate student in Duke University’s Master of Public Policy, Energy and Environmental Policy program.
Doris Rubenstein (1971–73) is an author and journalist who recently published The Boy with Four Names (iUniverse, 2021). The book is the story of one Jewish family who left Europe and what was an almost certain death by the Nazis to find freedom and safety in Ecuador.
Janet Lee (1974–76) has been named the 2021 recipient of the American Library Association (ALA) International Relations Committee’s John Ames Humphry/OCLC/Forest Press Award, presented to a librarian or person who has made significant contributions to international librarianship. The award consists of $1,000 and a plaque presented at the ALA 2021 Annual Conference. Following her tenure as dean at Regis University, Lee received a Fulbright Scholarship (2017–18) to study in Ethiopia.
Kayla Canne (2018–20) has taken on a new beat with the Asbury Park Press, covering the affordable housing shortage at the Jersey Shore and the Garden State.
Chris Jage (1993–96) joined the staff of the Adirondack Land Trust in July 2021 as conservation program director, overseeing its land protection and land stewardship teams. Since 2016, he has worked as land protection manager with the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Raymond Limon is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Capital and Diversity, and Chief Human Capital Officer with the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has been recently nominated for vice chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board of Directors.
Cordes Lindow (1991–93) has been selected as one of five participants in C-SPAN’s 2021 Teacher Fellowship Program. She will collaborate with C-SPAN's Education Relations team for four weeks to create content for C-SPAN Classroom, a free online teaching resource for educators. She is piloting International Relations Honors at Allen D. Nease High School (Ponte Vedra, Florida) in the upcoming school year.
Carol Anne “Aziza” Reid (2016–18) was recognized with the 2021 Lillian Carter Award. The Lillian Carter Award honors outstanding returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served at age 50 or older. Reid served as a community organizational development volunteer in Moldova from 2016 to 2018, and later as youth education volunteer in Eswatini from 2018 to 2020. Her projects centered on organizing community programs to empower women and youth through both African dance classes and social justice. She is now starting a new position as a Peace Corps Recruiter.
Kimberly Mansaray (2018–present) is Peace Corps Mongolia Country Director. On June 24, 2021 she was presented the Order of Polar Star, the highest state honor. This honor was awarded by Mongolia’s president to Peace Corps and its leadership, including Kim Mansaray, for their invaluable contribution to advancing the friendly relations and cooperation between Mongolia and the United States.
Katie Murray (2003–05) is the executive director of the nonprofit food and fiber trade organization Oregonians for Food and Shelter. She has led the organization since December 2020.
Gordon Brown (1996–98) was appointed in July 2021 to serve as director of legislative affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. He served as a Peace Corps Country Director in Ghana (2018–21) and Benin (2015–18).
Brian Washburn (1998–2000) has published What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training. His new publication offers a “periodic table of learning elements” modeled on the original periodic table of chemical properties providing metaphors for the tools and strategies of the field of learning design. Brian is the co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning, a boutique instructional design company.
Kya O’Donnell (2019–20) is a legislative aide at the Connecticut State Capitol. She was recently hired as head coach of field hockey at Cheshire High School.
Nicholas Sung (2016–18) published a research paper exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the U.S. Ambassador Corps for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He graduated with a master’s degree in public policy from the school this year. With Peace Corps, he served as an education coordinator in Rwanda 2016–18 and a food security specialist in Nepal 2012–14.
George Packer (1982–83) published Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal in summer 2021, recognized as an editor’s choice by the New York Times Book Review. As a journalist, novelist, and playwright, Packer has covered a broad range of of U.S. foreign and domestic policies through his work. Last Best Hope offers an examination of the conflicting interests that define contemporary American politics, free agency, morality, meritocracy, and justice.
Seth Hershberger (2004–06) was appointed in July 2021 as executive director of Wicomico Public Libraries in Maryland. He previously served as public diplomacy professional associate and community liaison office coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana.
Emmery Brakke (2017–20) is a candidate at Brown University for a master of public affairs degree. Her career focus has been refined by the domestic challenges associated with COVID-19.
John Mark King (2001) is the co-founder of Muse Threads, a bamboo children’s clothing line based in Washington, D.C. Alongside his wife and co-founder, he has turned what started as a pandemic passion project inspired by his newborn daughter into a successful, sustainable kids’ clothing line with a growing cult following. He is also a professional voice actor and music producer/songwriter.