George Packer's Four Americas
Are young people who demand justice forcing a revolution in business?
Quote of the Moment
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
| William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
In a magisterial essay in The Atlantic, The Four Americas, George Packer lays out a perspective of a deeply divided America, fragmented into four groups that can hardly communicate with each other, let alone find a common cause. I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety. I am going to pull just one thread from the fabric of his arguments and focus on its ramifications in the world of work.
In The Atlantic Daily newsletter, Caroline Mimbs Nyce summarizes Packer’s four Americas:
1. Free America -- Libertarians who resent regulation in favor of individual freedom, tracing a through line from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Ted Cruz
2. Smart America -- A class of high earners and technocrats who attend competitive schools, embrace meritocracy, own MacBooks, and don’t intermingle with the rest of the country
3. Real America -- White Christian nationalists, as recently energized by Sarah Palin and Donald Trump
4. Just America -- A young generation that believes injustice is at the heart of the country’s problems and speaks the language of identity politics
All four narratives, Packer argues, “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years”—and all four are helping pull the country apart.
I defer discussion of Free and Real America, at this time, since I am focused on the workplace tensions between Smart and Just America.
Many American and multinational corporations are headed up by older executives deeply invested in the mythos of Smart America, based on the premise of a meritocratic society, where the best and brightest can rise, but, as Packer points out, there are inner contradictions in Smart America, because
[…] a system intended to give each new generation an equal chance to rise created a new hereditary class structure. Educated professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with less and less chance of seeing their children move up. By kindergarten, the children of professionals are already a full two years ahead of their lower-class counterparts, and the achievement gap is almost unbridgeable. After seven decades of meritocracy, a lower-class child is nearly as unlikely to be admitted to one of the top three Ivy League universities as they would have been in 1954.
This hierarchy slowly hardened over the decades without drawing much notice. It’s based on education and merit, and education and merit are good things, so who would question it? The deeper injustice is disguised by plenty of exceptions, children who rose from modest backgrounds to the heights of society. Bill Clinton (who talked about “people who work hard and play by the rules”), Hillary Clinton (who liked the phrase God-given talents), and Barack Obama (“We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect”) were all products of the meritocracy. Of course individuals should be rewarded according to their ability. What’s the alternative? Either collectivization or aristocracy. Either everyone gets the same grades and salaries regardless of achievement, which is unjust and horribly mediocre, or else everyone has to live out the life into which they’re born, which is unjust and horribly regressive. Meritocracy seems like the one system that answers what Tocqueville called the American “passion for equality.” If the opportunities are truly equal, the results will be fair.
But it’s this idea of fairness that accounts for meritocracy’s cruelty. If you don’t make the cut, you have no one and nothing to blame but yourself. Those who make it can feel morally pleased with themselves—their talents, discipline, good choices—and even a grim kind of satisfaction when they come across someone who hasn’t made it. Not “There but for the grace of God go I,” not even “Life is unfair,” but “You should have been more like me.”
And in the business context, women and People of Color (POC) know that the dream of meritocracy is at best an approximation of reality and at the worst is a rat race where they are disadvantaged by unequal opportunity, pay, and pull.
Relative to Packer's characterization of younger Just Americans, who do not buy into the narratives of Smart, Free, or Real America, which they consider a pack of lies:
Call this narrative “Just America.” It’s another rebellion from below. As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the heart of its social problems.
But Just America has a dissonant sound, for in its narrative, justice and America never rhyme. A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration. For Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled. In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value at all—it can never be made better.
These young adults have been slammed by the economics of our age:
Many of them entered the workforce, loaded with debt, just as the Great Recession closed off opportunities and the reality of planetary destruction bore down on them. No wonder their digital lives seemed more real to them than the world of their parents. No wonder they had less sex than previous generations. No wonder the bland promises of middle-aged liberals left them furious.
So, the tensions we have seen between Smart American executives and younger Just American workers will persist, because their worldviews are incommensurable: they do not share a common language. We can then expect continued conflict in the workplace that arises from the friction between Smart and Just visions of America.
Just America wants more unionization to be able to collectively bargain with Smart American executives, who have worked for decades to roll back union power. Similarly, younger Just Americans will push for increased benefits, more work-life balance, minimum viable office, and greater autonomy while Smart American bosses see nothing wrong with exorbitant executive pay, stock buybacks, and demanding a wholesale return to the office.
Packer borrows the perspective of Peter Tuchin, who foresees the danger of elite overproduction when an overabundance of college-educated workers cannot find work that requires their college-based skills. Tuchin points to the fall of Rome and the French Revolution as periods of unrest brought on by exactly these pressures.
Another way to understand Just America is in terms of class. Why does so much of its work take place in human-resources departments, reading lists, and awards ceremonies? In the summer of 2020, the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year. Just America is a narrative of the young and well educated, which is why it continually misreads or ignores the Black and Latino working classes. The fate of this generation of young professionals has been cursed by economic stagnation and technological upheaval. The jobs their parents took for granted have become much harder to get, which makes the meritocratic rat race even more crushing. Law, medicine, academia, media—the most desirable professions—have all contracted. The result is a large population of overeducated, underemployed young people living in metropolitan areas.
Can Smart America companies play a role in calming the unrest in the hearts and minds of Just America? What will happen as Smart America-era leaders begin to leave the workforce? Will Just America-era norms and principles come to dominate? Or are we headed for a revolutionary transition into a new economics and new thinking about the relation of the worker to the business, and the obligations of businesses to their workers and communities?
Packer in the end despairs about the trends in Just America:
Just America’s origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of 1930s left-wing ideology. Liberalism as white supremacy recalls the Communist Party’s attack on social democracy as “social fascism.” Just American aesthetics are the new socialist realism.
The dead end of Just America is a tragedy. This country has had great movements for justice in the past and badly needs one now. But in order to work, it has to throw its arms out wide. It has to tell a story in which most of us can see ourselves, and start on a path that most of us want to follow.
I hold out hope for the promise implicit in the desire for justice in Just America, while Packer has set himself the greater task of hoping for reunification of all four Americas, and he sees Just America as a potential impediment to that end. I disagree, but like Packer, I see a difficult road ahead, in the corporate workplace and across society, at every scale.