Packer’s slim book, Last Best Hope, begins with patriotic despair ... Packer is at his best when he ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist ... But Packer’s lens of analysis is economic.
... incisive, deftly argued ... Packer – who as well as contributing to the New Yorker and the Atlantic has edited collections of George Orwell’s essays – goes on to attempt something close to the ideological fables in Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four ... Despite imperial puffery, we may never have been the best, but we used to be better than this. Now we seem doomed to be last, and there’s no hope anywhere.
Packer brings Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal home at a touch over 200 pages, and for many of those pages it’s unclear whether he’ll have enough material to make it to the end. The physical thinness of these books betrays the frailty of liberal thinking in its moment of crisis: Assailed from both the left and the right, hostage to finance, and no longer able to secure the equality that grounds its central promise of individual freedom, how can liberalism reinvent itself? ... Neither genuinely critical nor full-throatedly prescriptive, these books are closer in spirit to catechism. A basic incoherence defines the genre. Last Best Hope is no exception ... The orientation of this investigation is strangely solipsistic, a fact captured by the surgery that Packer has performed on the line that gives the book its title. Whereas Abraham Lincoln once declared that America was 'the last best hope of earth,' Packer believes—correctly—that the United States can no longer claim to be 'a light unto the nations.' In the hands of a different writer, perhaps even an earlier version of Packer himself, 'last best hope' might have been repurposed ironically, as a critique of America’s projection of its own power abroad or as an injunction to learn from the rest of the world; what we get here instead is its deployment in the service of an earnest, unthinking insularity. 'No one is going to save us,' Packer declares. 'We are our last best hope.' The only way America can fix itself is with more America ... he spends much of the first half of the book summarizing year-old tweets ... Tiny shards of insight do emerge occasionally, but they do not pierce the book’s curtain of nationalist kitsch. Packer is not unaware of the real drivers of American dysfunction, but he never seems particularly interested in probing these causes too deeply. His real interest is in description, not analysis ... a Friedman-esque exercise in overexplaining the obvious, which basically boils down to the idea that radical forces are buffeting the political establishment on both the left and the right. This jaunt through the four Americas sees Packer indulge his flair for dad-style moralizing and the off-kilter character sketch ... What this silly taxonomy makes clear is that Packer’s real beef is not with Free America, Smart America, or Real America, which are mostly treated with humanizing sympathy, but with the wokes and snowflakes of Just America ... In an era crying out for radical thinking, Packer offers the damp squib of incrementalism ... If liberalism is to remain America’s guiding political star, it needs a better vision—anchored in creativity, care, ecology, whatever it might be—of how individual freedom and the common good can knit together. That vision is not the one found here.