J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been often cited to explain the white rage that surfaced and was grotesquely showcased during and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign. Vance’s bestseller is an intermittently interesting if not ultimately cohesive hybrid: part memoir, part summation of sociological reports. Vance’s own bootstrap exodus from poverty is inspiring and even moving. But he doesn’t explain so much as morally indict “hillbillies”—and the “welfare state” that, in his view, has abetted their desultory-unto-criminal ways.
An asset of Vance’s origin is that he can blast his people, as it were, for being shiftless without risking the accusation of elitism. His bluntness can be refreshing. But his lack of deep historical perspective and good solutions troubled me. Beyond the moral of his own story—get lucky with one or two parental figures and work like hell—Vance offers cursory insight into his former culture. This may stem from his getting his own answer early on, in high school, reading studies of America’s black underclass. He saw a direct parallel. In short, the poor will always be with us, so don’t coddle them.
Yet he shows himself, late in the book, having graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School, volunteering to do try to help stray kids from Appalachia and its broad diaspora. It’s what worked for him, a few random, happenstance interventions, plus his own herky-jerky yet upwardly moving efforts.
Vance seems most influenced by what he learned early—from his kick-ass Mamaw, from welfare cheats and lazy workers he encountered in jobs, from studies of inner city black folks. In short, he blames “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” Nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to carry freeloaders. But where’s the balance between that sense of justified outrage and the resentment that led to the utter horror of England’s old debtors’ prisons? (Which largely stocked the Appalachians initially with the British Isles’ downtrodden.)
I flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to American anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!
I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George Bush.
The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.