Over the summer I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. On one level the book is a fairly conventional rags to riches autobiographical story of the American dream. Despite humble ‘hillbilly’ beginnings JD manages to go to university and end up with a postgraduate law degree from Harvard. However, the book has been hailed as offering insights into Trump’s America (something that it does not overtly claim to do) and so merits a closer read.
As a career narrative the book functions as a fairly subtle discussion of the relationship between career and environment. The argument is made that growing up poor and white in a deindustrialising community in USA creates a significant barrier to the realisation of the American dream of upward mobility. However, the author is also fiercely critical of structuralist interpretations that shift blame entirely onto economic and labour market changes. The hillbilly diaspora of poor white working-class people has undoubtedly experienced some bad economic breaks, but the book argues that they have responded to these changes badly, taking refuge in drink, drugs and the blaming of others. While he has a number of policy ideas about how this situation could be addressed he is also arguing for some cultural changes within his community.
His own story of social mobility is carefully handled. Although JD is clearly a pretty outstanding student, soldier (he spends a few years in the Marines) and now lawyer, he argues that it is not his ability, drive or ambition that accounts for his ability to transcend his background and outperform the expectations of those around him. One of the most interesting themes in the book is what it is he feels can enable (or disable) social mobility. He doesn’t offer simplistic answers, but broadly he argues that there is a need for supportive extended families and communities in geographical proximity with each other which can pick up the slack when parents fail to cope. The book largely operates on this meso level, arguing that we need to look beyond the individual but that the direct involvement of the state often creates more problems than it solves.
I’m not sure that I agree with JD’s analysis, his (moderate) Republican politics come through fairly clearly and I think leave him overly negative about the role of the state. Personally, I think that there needs to be some balance between family, community and professionalised state structures in the raising, educating and career developing of young people. But, I can see how he comes to that conclusion out of his own story and recognise that sometimes the tensions between these different sources of support aren’t well resolved.
Perhaps more importantly many of the social ills that JD Vance attributes to both the white working class and to the state are exactly the sort of things that Donald Trump made his political capital out of. Vance is a considerably more thoughtful, consistent and even-handed commentator than Trump, but the feeling that there are large areas and communities in the USA that aren’t working for anyone is a powerful one.
Vance’s book gives us some insights into this world and helps us to understand, empathise and consider the complexity of solving some of these issues. It is well worth a read.
Trump’s populism does have antecedents in American politics where the two big parties have been seen as too similar and lacking radical solutions to the toughest problems. And within the parties there have been radicals like William Jennings Bryan and really FDR whose patrician background allowed him to push for very progressive actions. But currently, neither party seems to be able to give voice to the problems of forgotten communities, hence the opening for Trump