“In 2020, I began to think that American democracy was at risk of committing suicide.”
Award-winning journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer delivered these harrowing words to students in all sections of the first-year seminar “Progress?” on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 3, at the first of three events he would speak at that day. At the morning event, Packer provided additional insight for first-year students into his July 2021 article “How America Fractured Into Four Parts” for The Atlantic, which is derived from his 2021 book “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.”
Packer was the second of three guest speakers in this year’s Point/Counterpoint lecture series, “Democracy at a Cross Roads,” held Thursday evening. Packer also spoke to members of the newly formed student organization Amherst Students for Democracy about ways that students can actively participate in democracy. Currently a staff writer for The Atlantic, Packer has had work featured in The New Yorker, and is known for his account of the U.S.-Iraq War in his 2005 book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.”
At his lecture in Fayerweather Hall’s Pruyne Lecture Hall, Packer addressed an overcrowded audience, many of whom were forced to stand or sit on stairs. Among attendees were “Progress?” students, students taking classes or majoring in the Law, Jurisprudence, & Social Thought (LJST) department, and President Michael Elliott. James J. Grosfeld Professor of LJST Lawrence Douglas and Professor of Philosophy Nishi Shah moderated the event, prompting Packer with prepared questions for about an hour before opening the discussion to questions from the audience.
Much of the lecture was focused on Packer’s “four Americas” concept. Packer explained that categorizing Americans as “red” or “blue” was too simple, and that opposing ideals existed within these classifications.
According to Packer, “red” America can be divided into two further classifications that often come into conflict. “Free America,” an elite, somewhat antiquated, libertarian sector of the Republican party to which former President Ronald Reagan belonged, clashes with “Real America,” a relatively new sector of the party whose ideals are unconcerned with individual pursuit and talent, instead seeking to identify “who really belongs [in America].”
“Real America is essentially the white Christian heartland of the country,” Packer said.
Packer diagnosed a similar split in “blue” America. “Smart America,” the Clintons’ and Obamas’ division of the Democratic party that supposes education to be the “only path to a good life,” was supplanted by “Just America,” a “rebellion” against the other three narratives, which holds that the U.S. does not offer equal opportunity and instead reinforces historic hierarchies between oppressor and oppressed.
Packer also explained a curious link between the seemingly polar-opposite Real and Just America — arguing that both are more concerned with dogma than with legislation. He offered the examples of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who emerged from Just and Real America, respectively; although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Packer said, both are building brands and “distinguishing themselves from the establishment by shocking.”
In stark contrast to Congressman Jamie Raskin, the first Point/Counterpoint speaker of the semester and an avid optimist about the future of American democracy, Packer seemed solemnly resigned to the very real threat of its “suicide.”
“Individually and collectively, we’re losing the skills that we need to be able to govern ourselves together,” he said. Nations like France or Russia aren’t at risk of self-destruction, according to Packer, because they aren’t “defined by something as fragile and tremendous as an idea.”
Packer emphasized the rigidity of the country’s structures of inequality and the “mirage” of equal opportunity and meritocracy. Recent data shows that increasing numbers of wealthy adults were also born into affluent families, he said, rather than truly being rewarded for their talent alone, as the concept of meritocracy implies.
In addition to emphasizing the country’s past and current failings, Packer also laid down some ideas for a path toward the reconciliation of America’s parts and the rectification of its inequalities. His suggestions included dissolving corporate monopolies, empowering workers in the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder, and moving away from a public school system that relies on property values in school districts, which reinforces aristocracy.
But Packer remained uncertain about the winning chances of plans to bridge inequality. “Because inequality and polarization are so entrenched, I don’t quite believe anyone who claims to have the answer to these ongoing problems,” he said. “I’m going to be skeptical of any 10-point plan, including my own.”
When asked what he thought about the potential of the Supreme Court ruling against the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies, Packer made the case for class-conscious admissions in the face of a dramatic drop in students of color admitted to elite colleges and universities. This might reduce the inequality that would arise from the end of affirmative action, and perhaps make the system more just, Packer said.
“I don’t know what your president and other academic institutions are going to do,” he said. “The other answer is for Amherst and other colleges to go back to what they were before I was born: essentially havens for the well-connected and wealthy.”
Elliott, who stood at the back of the room, interjected: “Since you called me out, we are thinking very hard, and we are not going back.” He was met with applause from audience members.
One of Packer’s main concerns going forward is protecting free speech, which he said is also threatened in the current political climate.
“I’m a journalist,” he said. “As soon as I start drawing lines around what I think is acceptable speech, I’m setting in motion the process by which someone tells me my speech is not accepted.”
Packer remarked that the idea that words are associated with action, or even violence, is one that emerged from the left, and is a slippery slope. He emphasized that when speech is considered a form of action and harm, it paves the way for censorship across the political spectrum.
“It’s a potential form of harm and violence that can be abused by either side,” he said.
At one point, Packer prompted the audience to raise their hands if they felt comfortable saying what they thought in class. Some raised their hands, and fewer students openly indicated that they felt they had to censor themselves in class.
“And how many of you are too scared to answer?” Douglas quipped.
Student attendees shared their thoughts on the lecture with The Student.
Jaden Richards ’25 voiced that Packer’s was a refreshing perspective to hear at Amherst. “He was saying things that, in the context of Amherst, are most certainly true, but for some reason, people are afraid to acknowledge them or don’t want to [acknowledge them],” Richards said.
By virtue of recognizing that the protection of free speech and self-censorship is a point of contention on campus, Richards said, Packer’s message was a beacon of optimism for the college. Refusing to recognize a problem, according to Richards, is a “scarier” thing than the problem itself, because it means that “people don’t feel able to express themselves.”
“Having that pessimistic strand to what [Packer] was saying gave it an urgency that will hopefully propel the 35 people in that room to care a little more,” Richards said. “When I left that talk, I think that I was a bit more optimistic than even he might have been.”
Claire Holding ’26, a student in Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy Alexander George’s “Progress?” section, “loved” his four Americas argument, calling it a “very smart way of dissecting the country.”
A qualm of Holding’s was Packer’s idea that all Americans belong to one of these groups, which she understood from the first talk. She felt she could identify with multiple Americas, a sentiment reflected among her peers, although the evening Point/Counterpoint lecture provided more clarity for her.
“He clarified that [the model] is not meant to be exclusive,” she said. “It’s meant to be a way of analyzing what’s going on in a way that is useful for us.”
Holding also critiqued Packer’s uncertainty in his own prognosis for rectifying both inequality and the multilayered division in American society.
“I think he sold himself a little short,” she said. “You kind of have to take a leap of faith with reform. It’s not going to fix everything, for sure, but there are definitely ways to improve.”