Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

hillbilly-elegyIt baffled me this past year when pundits claimed that the hardships of America’s white working class remained virtually unconnected to Trump’s ascension. I listened to Ezra Klein’s podcast and heard painful attempts to convince skeptical guests (Yuval Levin, Francis Fukuyama, and Arlie Russell Hochschild) that “look, guys, we all know this was just about racism, right?”. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones called the economic anxiety thesis a “red herring”. Matthew Iglesias of Vox labeled it a “fake explanation”. Fortunately, the election put a lot of this to rest; see the calls of Democratic leaders, whether Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, and the President, for renewed understanding and outreach of this demographic. Enjoy your cultural bubble if you think Trump’s admittedly deplorable racial dog-whistling (and worse) rather than seductive (if false) promises of renewal for collapsing communities better explains Election Night in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Or before you write articles like this in Slate, talk with some journalists in the field.

When I saw The New York Times“Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win”, I was pleased that Hillbilly Elegy made the cut. Vance’s tour of the networks is now extensive post-election. But setting aside our need to find Trumpism’s “root causes” or psychoanalyze “the Trump voter”, Hillbilly Elegy offers much for understanding a world most know dimly.

Vance traces the story of his Appalachian family from their ancestral home in Northern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents built a financially stable life thanks to work at Armco Steel Company. The peculiarities of Scotch-Irish and Appalachian culture do not leave them, however. Driven by honor and family loyalty, Vance’s grandparents (“Mamaw” and “Papaw”) nearly destroy a store after a clerk rudely chastised their son. In one marital brawl, “Mamaw . . . calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her [then drunk] husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life”. This postwar family was not keeping up “with the Joneses”. But Mamaw and Papaw ultimately save their marriage. As wiser grandparents, they achieve a redemption of sorts for their failed parenting in their raising of Vance. Their love, accountability, and protection save Vance from his mother’s painful drug addiction, his own waywardness, and the tyranny of low expectations surrounding him in a post-industrial, fractured Middletown.

Vance’s account is a page turner. He paints powerfully the Marine Corps’ formation of his character, as he goes from a chubby, anxious high school graduate to a confident, fit, well-spoken Public Affairs Officer in Iraq. He writes movingly as the child of a person tortured by addiction, and the subsequent need for both love and distance. The depth of his portrayals of Mamaw and Papaw are so rich that their ultimate passing become a tear jerker. This was especially moving to me after the recent passing of my Grandmother, who while hardly Appalachian, shared much of Mamaw’s fierce Scotch-Irish spirit.

The political worldview of Appalachians is truly fascinating in Vance’s reading. Even as Mamaw and Papaw voted for Reagan and detested Mondale, they carried an old school Democratic populism as fiery as William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson. “Depending on her mood”, Vance recalls, “Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social democrat”. Even Appalachian distrust of Obama, at least in Vance’s rendering, is driven less by racial animosity than a broader cultural gap between their world and the nation’s meritocracy. For Reform Conservatives like myself, Hillbilly Elegy gives hope that these voters could perhaps embolden a new conservative populism purified of white identity politics and able to break the stranglehold of GOP libertarian orthodoxies. Likewise, the calls of Tom Frank, Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb for aggressive Democratic outreach to the white working class should feel emboldened. The descendants of the New Deal’s “forgotten man”, the men and women after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own heart, may yet find a home again in the liberalism of today.

As an actual survivor of hard beginnings, Vance refuses the false choice between “culture” and “structural barriers” explanations. He understands Middletown’s downtown of “abandoned shops with broken windows” as a direct result of a nearly extinct manufacturing sector. While smug authors like National Review’s Kevin Williamson ask why these people don’t just leave, Vance explains out how structural barriers make relocation nearly impossible. But Vance takes his Mamaw’s words of rigorous individual and collective self-help to heart. Yes, his high school surely needed more resources, but parents were not stressing education. An engrained distrust of outsiders gave people an excuse to blame their failings on the “Obama economy” or race-based affirmative action. When Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw complained about welfare abuse, they weren’t referring to “black welfare queens” but their first-hand witness of neighbors recklessly squandering resources. Middletown is a victim of the “cultural contradiction of capitalism” described by Daniel Bell, as the system’s celebration of consumerism and instant gratification, necessary for market revenue, undermined thrift, restraint, and work ethic, the very preconditions for a healthy market society.

For Vance, it’s not that inequality, globalization, or an inadequate safety net are trivial. But a tough backdrop might not by itself explain why people are “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible”. It’s here where my experience in Camden gave me some insights into Vance’s story.

Camden and Middletown

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I traced the contrasts between Vance’s childhood in Middletown and the lives of inner city African-American and Latino adolescents I had the privilege of accompanying for over 16 months at a non-profit youth organization (Urban Promise) in Camden, New Jersey. Despite Camden’s ranking among “America’s worst cities”, there were crucial positive mindsets among the city’s youth that look absent in Vance’s Middletown. For my students, church, or even only a broad Christian belief, was an integral part of their lives. Kids could go from jamming to Nikki Minaj to instantly singing by heart Kirk Franklin and other Gospel stars. Even kids who never attended church regularly had one aunt, grandparent, or sibling who instilled a Christian sensibility that could guide them through moments of crisis. I still remember a co-worker, then in high school, calmly telling me his willingness to forgive his parents even as their drug addiction had wrecked his childhood. As Vance explains, our image of a pious, God-fearing “Middle America” does not play out in the data of church attendance and participation. Both Camden and Appalachia struggle with forces of deindustrialization, stagnant economic mobility, and social breakdown. But in the former, the church survives as a mighty, if indeed battered, fortress. In Middletown, faith lives on but without an actual community that could give it real force.

Present in Camden too was a narrative that young people saw themselves in. During Urban Promise’s Martin Luther King Jr. Speech Contest, kids eagerly prepared speeches on their own heroes, ranging from Rosa Parks to Muhammad Ali or the school custodian who overcame a past hard-knock life on the streets. As a teacher, I marveled at the drive of second-generation Vietnamese, Haitian, and Mexican-American students to live up to and exceed the hard-earned victories of their parents. In other words, there was a narrative of elusive but real progress, a story students could place themselves even amidst Camden’s manifest decline. And present, too, was an ability to seek guidance and help. On balance, I saw kids, aware of what might be missing in their lives, hungrily seeking mentors, whether a teacher, coach, camp counselor, or older, more mature peers. For Vance, hillbilly culture instead “[deals] with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them”. To seek help from outside a narrow circle is an invitation to failure, betrayal, and disappointment.

I cannot claim sociological rigor to my comparison. I can only speak of the kids and families who consciously came to the organization I served with, so this obviously presents a partial picture. I did not work with students from the most broken neighborhoods in the city. But Brookings’ Carol Graham presents a similar picture, where she compares the striking optimism about “the American Dream” and resilience among urban minorities compared to rural whites. Many Trumpist intellectuals idealize the Southern and Rust Belt white working class as the vanguard for recapturing American values. Per Patrick Buchanan, they are the “silent majority” keeping alive founding virtue amidst national decay. You could perhaps say that poor African-American and Latino communities, despite their progressive political views, are far better exemplars of a certain cultural conservatism. They are more deeply informed by Christianity. Their youth can place themselves within a story to see above present hardships. They better cultivate resilience and the ability to seek support. They are optimistic about the future. Are such places not better incubating American Greatness than the “down and out” voters and communities voting to “Make America Great Again”?

Can We Escape “the Bubble”?

Hillbilly Elegy will make you grasp for solutions based on your political instincts. Vance’s picture of “downtown Middletown [as a] relic of American industrial glory” could make you cry out for expanded Medicaid or job retraining. You might call for a neo-Victorian revival when you marvel at the father losing a good paying job because of four daily thirty-minute “bathroom breaks” and his subsequent self-victimization.

But the last chapter of Hillbilly Elegy makes me think of the broader insufficiency of these recommendations. They are all about what “the elites” will do for the populace, whether through a renewed Great Society or moral pedagogy. They are not about changing the very composition of our elite. And this is what is required today. Not the abolishment of “an elite”, a fatal cure worse than the disease. But instead a leadership class more fluid in its make-up, with greater roots in a wider American life.

This is where Vance’s account of Yale Law School is quite instructive. One professor complains that the acceptance of students from state schools was forcing him to conduct “remedial education”; the real solution was to limit acceptances to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale graduates. Only an emergency phone call with his girlfriend saves Vance from a disastrous mishandling of dinner silverware at a meal for candidates to a boutique DC law firm. Social capital and the rules of networking, not merit alone, are real tickets to big opportunity. Even as a “tall, straight, white male”, Vance was no more than at home in these East Coast powerhouses than his classmates of color.

Vance’s memoir here was powerfully on point. I indeed know my Bowdoin degree will open doors less available to equally and more capable graduates from lesser known universities. Given this situation, students almost entirely from New England and the East Coast benefit the most. I can understand rationales why we might “need” open doors between NESCAC and the Ivies and various companies and firms, but the aftertaste is discomforting all the same.

Senior Year was like watching in real time the formation of the “SuperZips” described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. How many fellow top liberal arts college alumni would be present at our next job? Who among us was not flocking to the delights of New York, Boston, DC, and San Francisco? Would even exciting, hip cities like Raleigh, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or Columbus be on our radar? Would anyone of us consider roles of more humble but critical leadership outside the coastlines?

Ultimately, students like Vance, and the communities they hail from, were not part of the conversation at Bowdoin. There was extraordinary community service pursued by students in Maine’s struggling white working class communities. But, compared to countless (and, yes, necessary) conversations on gay rights, Black Lives Matter, or immigration, there was next to nothing on Rust Belt blight, the opiate epidemic, or rural poverty. Many white, first-generation friends and classmates from “flyover country” found it very hard to find a place at Bowdoin. My fantastic, mostly white blue collar co-workers from Maine in dinning also were frustrated. Where did all their struggles and problems fit into the constant talk of “white privilege” they read about in the campus newspaper? Ultimately, “class” was arguably the real “undiscussed” at Bowdoin.

How can we make for an elite that is more genuinely open, not only in its racial composition but in class and geography? Some ideas floated around could be a real start. A national test taken by college graduates could allow employers to examine the true abilities of applicants and thus break “the Ivy League monopoly”, helping more bright kids of all races from the South, Midwest, and Great Plains. So too would efforts to end the grade inflation explosion. More aggressive recruiting by schools in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and rural America. But none of this will mean much if the top 10-20% continues to self-segregate in “The Bubble” so vigorously lampooned this weekend by SNL.

Places like Vance’s Middletown and wide swaths of our country need educated, entrepreneurial, and high powered leaders. This will never come to pass if Robert Reich’s “secession of the successful” continues. With Trump’s election and our accelerating Balkanization, we can expect this abdication of responsibility to continue. But other paths lie before us. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports Vance will soon be leaving Silicon Valley and San Francisco to return to Central Ohio. Any hope for national renewal will demand highly capable millennials taking a similar step.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. Really wonderful analysis, David. I didn’t monitor the news analysis pre-election as closely as you (and I’m currently in a bit of a self-imposed media blackout for sanity’s sake). Nonetheless, I agree that it is simply wrongheaded to ignore how the white working class and poor are hurting. Yes, white individuals who are working class and poor do still benefit from white privilege — they are less likely to be shot by a police officer, etc. Yet, they can be just as alienated from the culture of power as black students in Camden. I enjoyed reading and plan to pick up Hillbilly Elegy. -Doris


    1. Thanks for your kind words, Doris. And fantastic work with your growing podcast series. What a delight. Best wishes – David Jimenez


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