I’ve been reading George Packer‘s The Unwinding, a piece of social reportage explicitly modeled on Dos Passos’s famous trilogy—journalism imitating art that imitated journalism. My American friends who live in the art/culture/technology bubble, and who never visit “fly-over” country, should read it. It’s more than depressing, it’s real. And the difficulties faced by Americans these days are not restricted to the abandoned middle and working classes of the red states—everyone is entangled in them. What is most striking is that the logical solutions are clear to so many. One of the individuals followed by Packer is Dean Price, brought up Republican, both parents Glenn Beck followers and Tea Party naturals, who, while watching his Virginia town lose its businesses to Walmart, decides that the country should seek sustainable energy. His contribution is to make his own biodiesel and sell it at his truck stop, which works fine while the price of oil is high, but becomes more difficult with the economic crash. Price allies with a one term Democratic congressman who comes in on Obama’s coattails, and who isn’t afraid to say that America should stop funding both sides of a war, stop sending dollars to “petrodicatators,” and that both parties have sold out to big business. Packer describes this fellow, Tom Periello, as resembling the original populists, which puts me in mind of Lawrence Goodwyn’s great book, The Populist Moment. Now that is a must read for anyone, and never more relevant. Amazing that populism originated in Texas, astonishing that it is the only genuine left wing movement ever in America, eye-opening that it came from the same kind of suffering and dispossession so widely experienced today. And tragic that demagogues are able to deflect and neutralize the energy of people who are, though they don’t know it, organic intellectuals, making the correct diagnosis and fully aware of the right solutions. Populism has become synonymous with the Tea Party—and that’s a tragedy.


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