For anyone still clinging to the notion that America remains the greatest nation on earth, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Tightrope delivers a powerful shock.
It shows—by dint of human drama, placed alongside thoughtful statistical and policy analysis—just how severely the American Dream has been hollowed out over the past half-century.
Tightrope (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95) opens an impressive window to the dramatic, and terribly harmful, consequences of the choices made by both major political parties and most of our national leaders. Worse, their mistakes have trickled down to state and local governments and helped make life far too miserable for too many among us—and far too luxurious for the lucky few.
Elsewhere this week, WW interviews the authors, publishes an excerpt and offers a Harper's Index of sorts for Oregon over the past 50 years. It's added context for a remarkable book that exists as the natural successor to Amy Goldstein's Janesville, an extended narrative of what happens in a factory town when it's abandoned by its largest employer. Tightrope shows what happens when a country is abandoned by its leaders.
The narrative is hardly dry. The book gets much of its energy from stories of the friends Kristof had growing up in the little town of Yamhill, an hour's drive southwest of Portland—where another writer, Beverly Cleary, also spent much of her early childhood. Kristof went on to Harvard, Oxford and The New York Times, where he met and married WuDunn. They've stayed in touch with Kristof's childhood friends, and those long-standing relationships, in turn, created the trust needed to bring forth many of these all-too-painful stories.
Tightrope ventures well beyond the misfortunes of the Greens, Knapps and Pepers of Yamhill to make its fundamental point. In Baltimore, to cite one of many examples, we meet an Army veteran and opioid addict named Daniel McDowell, who, as Kristof and WuDunn show, "was betrayed by the government he risked his life to serve." He is among the 2.1 million Americans suffering from opioid addiction, a number the authors point out is probably a conservative estimate. "When so many Americans simultaneously make the same bad choice," they write, "that should be a clue that the problem is not simply individual moral failure."
At every turn in these stories, a simple but devastating question leaps to mind: Where did our government go? What happened to the spirit and effort that helped America recover from the Great Depression and thrive after World War II?
Harrowing as it may be, it takes a project like Kristof and WuDunn's to show how completely things have gone off the rails. By displaying modern American life in proper context, Tightrope puts the lie to the idea that those who've fallen by society's wayside are there as a result of their own personal and moral failings, and forces the rest of us to face our own responsibility in this calamity.
But beating vividly in Tightrope's background is an enduring belief in the promise of America. The book also contains examples of nonprofits for underserved citizens, like TOPPS in Pine Bluff, Ark., an after-school program for teenagers who don't have anywhere else to go. It works wonders—and imbues the book with a sense of hope that tempers the despair.
"Yes," Kristof and WuDunn conclude, "as a nation, we can recover our footing." Taken as a whole, Tightrope offers as coherent an argument for massive social and political reform as I've seen.
GO: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn appear at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, portland5.com, on Thursday, Feb. 6. 7:30 pm. $37.95, includes a copy of Tightrope.