J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been one of the go-to books for Democrats trying to understand where they lost track of their white working class alliance. While insightful in its own ways, I don’t see how this book relates to where the Democratic Party went wrong, as it offers no explanation of rural white working class despair beyond self blame.
From Vance’s conclusion:
I was able to escape the the worst of my culture’s inheritance. … At every level of my life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and lifelong friends who supported and enabled me. … But I often wonder: Where would I be without them?
Any chance [Brian, a current hillbilly boy similar to Vance in family background] has lies with the people around him – his family, me, my kin, and the people like us, and the broad community of hillbillies. And if that chance is to materialize, we hillbillies must wake the hell up. Brian’s mom’s death was another shitty card in an already abysmal hand, but there are many cards left to deal: whether his community empowers him with a sense that he can control his own destiny or encourages him to take refuge in resentments at forces beyond his control; whether he can access a church that teaches him lessons of Christian love, family and purpose; whether those people who do step up to positively influence Brian find emotional and spiritual support from their neighbors.
I believe hillbillies are the toughest goddamn people on this earth. … But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms are children?
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. … We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance. I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better (pp. 253-256).
This can be summarized as “buck up, hillbillies; have pride in yourselves; beyond that you’re on your own.” … And, pray for some contingent luck that the right people will come along at the right time of need in your lives.
It’s not clear what audience is writing to when he asks “are we tough enough to do what needs to be done…?” — a sentence written from a Washington Beltway journal office. Is he really expecting his nominal addressees to purchase this $27.99 hardback? No. It is merely a rhetorical device to lay out his view of things. Vance long ago left his nominal addressees (the “we”) and went onto the Marines, university, Yale law school, Washington Beltway political organs and now a Silicon Valley private equity firm. In short, Vance is not part of his rhetorical “we” anymore.
Understanding the causal argument he makes as to why he got out of the dysfunctional cycle and so many of his peers did not will presumably shed light on Vance’s social prescription for solving the problem of Hillbilly rural poverty. If the environment influences children as his statement “our conduct harms are children” (quoted above), makes clear he believes, then how does he explain his avoidance of debilitating harm.
Vance inventories hillbilly world of “truly irrational behavior”: poor spending habits, no sense of thrift, chaotic homes, ungoverned emotional outbursts, no encouragement of education, no work ethic, no modeling of personal work ethic, bad eating and exercise habits, weak and transient parental supervision…; the reader gets the sense that he wanted to go on, but his editor made him stop after two pages.
He then acknowledges that there are “two separate sets of mores and social pressures” — evidence by his no nonsense grandparents and his drug addled mother. Vance’s family were cussin’, drinkin’, fightin’, honery, honor bound people who lived in a hermetic world with sharp divides between insiders and outsiders (his mother had to hide in the basement so that her visiting brother would not see her black eye from marital abuse). But, despite her addictions, his mother, and his grandparents raised him to be curious about the world and knowledge and not associate being smart with being feminine (a very interesting insight into dysfunctional working class culture in the post-industrial age). Vance used that curiosity, drive and some good luck to get out of his rust belt Ohio town and borderline poverty level white community and onto his white collar, elite success. Vance learned what generations of immigrant stock and small town yokels have learned, that the “ties that bind” can be stultifying and smothering and the only option for the ambitious is to get the “hell out of town” to the big city (see, relatedly, sociologist Georg Simmel on the cosmopolitan personality).
Vance avoided the dead end fate of many of his peers by changing the structural conditions of his life:
- He removed himself from dysfunctional social relationships and found new friends and colleagues (Marines, college, law school) that reinforced his better interests
- He got educational credentials that provided social capital skills that gave him purchase in elite national labor markets
- He relocated to a growing urban area that had better job prospects (DC and now Silicon Valley).
All three changes were structural in nature.
Yet Vance’s lecture to his left-behind brethren is devoid of any structural advice and seems largely like an angry son lecturing his estranged family on how crazy they are. The critique may be true (e.g., a hometown warehouse manager finds it impossible to fill a loading dock position that pays comparatively well despite rampant unemployment p. 6), but family Thanksgiving dinner Jeremiads never accomplish anything — especially when delivered in such a looking down your nose at the relatives way as a $27.95 hardback book.
Vance cares about the fate of future young generations who are not lucky enough to have grand parents like his to rescue them from their dysfunctional families. But he offers no suggestions on how the society can provide such rescue options.
He states, “[p]ublic policy can help” but then discounts even that claim by his anecdote of a social worker threatening to take him away from his loving grandparents if they were not deemed fit and certified caregivers. It is unclear what his complaint is about state intervention in child welfare. Because he did not provide a timeline for the social worker’s statement it is unclear if these words were uttered before the social worker met the grandparents or after. The former would seem like a legitimate concern (albeit perhaps too bluntly stated to a fragile youth), the latter may be a sign of a tone-deaf bureaucrat or overly restrictive policies. We don’t know, but Vance let’s us assume the worst of the government worker. Is Vance claiming the state should default to family ties in all circumstances? Would he have wanted that in the period before his grandfather stopped his drinking and whoring and his grandmother felt the need to retaliate for his behavior with her own aggressions? Would Vance want the state’s “hands off of the family” approach for children whose parents are cooking meth in their rural Ohio kitchen?
OK, if not state intervention in this deep structural problems, then what? I think we can all agree that social workers monitoring families and foster care are undesirable conditions. But, they may be the least bad of options available to profoundly at risk children. This is an extreme example, but the general principle applies — if the market and the civil society have failed are we to leave our nation’s children’s future to fate and luck?
Vance flees from any programmatic explanation of his fate, ultimately taking credit for himself and implicitly blaming is left behind peers and future generations like them.
I’m sure a sociologist and a psychologist, sitting in a room together, could explain why I lost interest in drugs, why my grades improved, why I aced the SAT, and why I found a couple of teachers who inspired me to love learning. But what I remember most was that I was happy … and out of that happiness came so many opportunities…” (emphasis in the original, p. 151).
Vance is telling Hillbilly youth, buck up, don’t be depressed.
At what age are we, the citizens of the United States, prepared, as to say to our youngest fellow citizens, “Yeah, life is hard and unfair, deal with it”? — Age 18, Age 15, Age 10, Age 5, Age 2, in utero?
I’m reminded the philosopher John Rawls’ concept of the “original position” – a positive covered by a “veil of ignorance” from which you must specify the rules of justice in a society before you know if you will be an elite or working class member, healthy or ill, young or old, etc. Would Vance have the same “just so story” prescription for success to the problems he identified in rural white culture — be better, buck up, have a thick skin, be happy — if he did not know in advance what family he would be born into? Is there any point in Vance’s moral order when grit and self-sufficiency become merely blaming the son or daughter for the sins of the father and mother?
Is that our, as a nation’s, definition of fairness and justice?