©2019 by Connor Rothschild

What I'm Reading: J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy

July 18, 2018

I recently finished J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. I initially became interested in the book because of The Economist's review, which boldly asserted that "you will never read a more important book about America this year."


Hillbilly Elegy was a remarkable book, for a lot of reasons. I had a few takeaways, which are listed here in a poorly structured and only semi-coherent way.

Vance's writings first and foremost provide a human face to the "white working class," an oft-used, yet poorly-defined enigma in American politics. His explanation of "hillbilly culture" details communities which are defined by fierce loyalty, family above all else, and a resentfulness toward the wealthy elites. His peers would denounce welfare recipients and preach the value of hard work, but blame the "Obama economy" when they are put out of a job and refuse to find a new one. 


The "hillbillies" Vance writes about may not make up the entirety of the "white working class," but Hillbilly Elegy recounts the unique dynamics present in many of their communities.


Moreover, data suggest Vance's story is more than just anecdote. Much of rural America is currently facing a crisis: while much of the economy has been thriving, incomes for white men without a college degree have declined 9% since 1996. In November of 2016, researchers Justin R. Pierce and Peter K. Schott published a paper which revealed that recent trade had been especially harmful to uneducated white communities, concluding that "counties more exposed to a plausibly exogenous trade liberalization exhibit higher rates of suicide and related causes of death, concentrated among whites, especially white males."


Disconcerting statistics such as Pierce's and Schott's are examples of the "deaths of despair" which have become increasingly common in working-class white communities in the Rust Belt. Another notable example is the damage done by the opioid crisis:




The mortality rate for uneducated whites has shot up in recent years, shifting from 30% lower than the African American mortality rate in 1999 to 30% higher as of 2015:


Whites without a college degree are facing a crisis, and it seems they increasingly feel like no one wants to acknowledge them—they've been left behind to experience the worst parts of capitalism while attention has been devoted elsewhere.

President Obama, no matter how dedicated he was to helping the Rust Belt, could never have been granted the votes of Middletown, Ohio because he represented the best of the American Dream while rural whites were subject to the worst of the American experience. Vance's peers hate President Obama because he manifests everything they could not achieve. In Vance's words: "We dislike the things we envy."


And if Obama was to the white working class an example of everything they could not be, Trump was the savior that told them their failure wasn't their fault. Trump's bullheaded vilification of nearly everyone—from the media for lying, to the immigrants for taking "our" jobs, to the Chinese for their unfair economic practices—gave anxious whites a reason to believe that their misfortunes could be attributed to circumstances outside their control.


Reiterating what I mentioned earlier, many of their maladies were the result of bad luck. New literature suggests international trade, most notably with China, has played a significant role in displacing American workers. These job losses have been more concentrated in rural areas similar to J.D. Vance's hometown:



And so when then-candidate Trump vows to rethink American trade (or really to do anything which disrupts the status quo) he offers an ostensible remedy to the displacement which has disrupted the livelihood of so many Americans.


I've always found the phrase "Make America Great Again" to be odd. When my peers and I first heard President Trump promise to make America great again, our immediate question was: by what metric has America lost its greatness? To those of us who grew up in healthy, thriving communities and had the privilege of our exposure to adversity being most present in debate classrooms rather than in the real world, making America great again sounded more like a promise to unravel the civil and racial progress of the last few decades than it did a harbinger of prosperity. It was hard to imagine a world in which America needed to restore its past to restore any semblance of success.


But that view, I now realize, was somewhat shortsighted. The experiences put forth in Hillbilly Elegy, and the literature which proves Vance's community's experience wasn't an anomaly, have shown me why "MAGA" was so appealing to so many disaffected citizens (as this chart shows):



This doesn't excuse the many actions and words of Donald Trump which suggest MAGA may indeed mean a blast to the past in which America was more racially homogeneous and less progressive. But it does help foster some empathy for those who made the decisions they did in 2016, and helps explain some of the unexplainable appeal of Donald Trump.


The book shows that appeal on a psychological level—showing the distrust of institutions (or, politics as usual) which is rampant in places like Middletown, Ohio—and on an economic level, by documenting the trends which have destroyed rural communities, provided little relief for displaced workers, and left citizens wanting change.

Relatedly, Hillbilly Elegy is a sobering reminder of the life experiences of those in rural America, provided by a person who avoided the worst of those experiences but saw them firsthand.


Vance says he only survived his upbringing and transcended his bleak chances at success because of a few key sources of stability: a loving grandfather, a caring sister, and eventually a mentor at Yale Law School. Without these people, Vance says he would have fallen victim to the same life outcomes as those who he grew up with.


Whether its rural America or any other struggling community, the inequality of opportunity across different regions and cities is worthy of much criticism. Studies continue to show that the biggest determinant of a child's health is the ZIP code they are born into, and that a child's chances at achieving the American Dream depend a great deal on where they are raised. 


Although, thus far, the book may seem to be a critique of trade and institutional failures to look out for the disadvantaged, Vance at times seems to have little sympathy for his own community. In his concluding chapter, Vance writes that the solution for these problems won't be found in public policy: "We created them, and only we can fix them." He is wary of government intervention because 1) much of the problem that Vance's community is attitudinal, and 2) because governments never truly understand the lives of those individuals they seek to help.


Thus, Vance may capture the true duality of what seems to be the 'hillbilly' experience: living in a community that so desperately needs help, yet refuses to accept assistance due to a deep-seated distrust in its surroundings, institutions, and outsiders. 


Given his sometimes combative attitude toward government assistance and his preexisting conservative beliefs, Vance tends to believe that most of his community's problems are his community's fault. Maybe using his own experience as evidence, he believes the solution has to come from an attitudinal shift toward a more robust work ethic.


His book argues that hardship—in the context of one's upbringing—should make us sympathetic and understanding, but that hardship isn't insurmountable.


The environment we are born into can have a profound impact on our development—J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy is both a testament to that axiom and a reminder that it is not absolute.

The book also provides a perhaps unintentionally nuanced look at privilege in America. By almost every metric, Vance is the prototypical privileged American: a straight, white, protestant male. Yet nothing about his upbringing was marked by privilege. It was instead defined by constant disruption and hardship, from the death of family members, to an unceasing revolving door of temporary fathers, to a community-wide disregard for exceptionalism and success.


Despite his identity, J.D. Vance wasn't raised in a manner which remotely resembled a privileged lifestyle. And despite that upbringing, he was able to transcend expectations, eventually becoming a Marine and later a Yale Law School graduate.


Possibly his identity played a slight role in assisting him throughout, and perhaps life would have been notably more difficult had he not been afforded the privileges that come with being a white male (the literature does suggest that moving up the socioeconomic ladder is 4x easier for poor whites than it is poor blacks). Regardless, Vance's experience is a reminder that privilege is not always as black and white as black and white.

He also touches on the complex nature of familial love, a topic which I am starting to learn more about as I read Andrew Solomon's exceptional Far from the TreeAlthough not exclusive to the hillbilly community, Vance's writing captures the tension a child can feel as their parent makes confounding decisions, questioning the relationship between nominal love and love vis-à-vis actions. Vance recounts this tension by transcribing his own experiences—how are you supposed to believe your mother loves you when she threatens to drive her car off a cliff while you're a passenger?

Vance's memoir is a sobering one, and it is equally thought-provoking. It influenced the way I looked at the despair of a rarely talked about (and if talked about, usually pejoratively) population in crisis. As American politics continue on a path toward toxicity and our discourse continues to be filled with vitriol, its healthy to understand each other—Vance's memoir helps us do exactly that.

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