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Cap Times Idea Fest: George Packer and Charlie Sykes discuss the fracturing of America
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Cap Times Idea Fest: George Packer and Charlie Sykes discuss the fracturing of America

Idea Fest Fracturing of America 091821 02-09182021223921 (copy)

Staff writer for The Atlantic George Packer speaks with MSNBC/The Bulwark editor-at-large Charles Skyes during a Cap Times Idea Fest session in Shannon Hall at the UW-Madison Memorial Union on Sept. 18.

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America has fractured into four nations, and all four exist within the state of Wisconsin, author and staff writer for The Atlantic George Packer said Saturday.

Packer, whose most recent book "Last Best Hope" came out in June, spoke with Charlie Sykes, political commentator and editor in chief of The Bulwark, at the Cap Times Idea Fest. The two both identify as part of the political center, with Packer leaning left and Sykes to the right.

The country's division is something of a self-fulfilling prophesy, Packer warned, blaming political elites and the news media for stoking disunity to further their own goals.

"I don't want to sentimentalize the people; the American people are quite capable of dividing against one another without help, but it's become to the great advantage of both political and media elites to stoke this," Packer said. "At this point, MSNBC has no audience if it doesn't stoke this every night. Fox News has no audience if it doesn't stoke this every night. And half the members of Congress can't get reelected if they don't stoke this."

People are generally too focused on "the ways in which we hate each other" to see the bigger-picture traits that unite them as Americans, Packer argued.

Sykes and Packer discussed all four identities that Packer contends make up the United States. Cap Times editor and publisher Paul Fanlund also spoke with Packer about the "four Americas" in a column published in July.

"Free America"

"'Free America' was Reagan's America," Packer said. "It was the shining city on a hill. 

"The roots of 'Free America' are in the 1970s, when the concept took hold that less government and a stronger free market would strengthen the country," he continued.

Government's diminished role was supposed to give way to a strong, connected community, Packer said, but along the way, "the idea of owing something to each other was lost."

"Smart America"

"Smart America" is composed of more societal elites, Packer said.

"Smart America is the America of educated professionals, and it became, in the '90s, the heart of the Democratic Party," Packer said, naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as the embodiment of this group.

In "Smart America," people believe in a meritocracy rooted in the assumption that, with an education, anyone can propel themselves from the bottom to the top. But those who have benefited from the so-called meritocracy can't always see that its benefits are primarily confined to people raised with similar sets of advantages.

"Real America"

If the Clintons are "Smart America," former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin represents "Real America," Packer argued.

This group is primarily white and Christian, living in small towns and rural areas, he said.

"Real America" has led to a new kind of "white identity politics," Packer said, in which the group saw itself as "on the way to being another aggrieved minority that needed to assert its identity in order to be heard."

"Just America"

Another way to describe "Just America" would be "Woke America," Packer said, noting that this group is primarily made up of younger generations.

"Just America" stopped believing in "Smart America" — much in the way that many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders felt disillusioned by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Both "Just America" and "Real America" see the world as damaged and reject traditional perceptions of patriotism, Packer said.

How do we get past the fracturing of America? Packer suggested a few approaches, including implementing a set of policies that seek to undo the growing inequalities of the last 50 years.

In addition, those who seek to move past the fracture should avoid thinking of the issue as one that will result in one side "winning" or "losing," he said, arguing that such an outcome would only deepen divisions.

"We have to see each other as fellow citizens again," Packer said.

"If we could find ways to bring Americans together, especially young people, from the separate tribes from the separate parts of the country, not to argue about politics but to do something — whether it's like a civilian conservation network or whether it's Teach For America with some national service projects, or serving in the military … we would have the experiences of being around each other as human beings and realizing that we are not entirely the caricature we become on Facebook and Twitter."

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