Like thousands of others, I picked up J.D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016) to better understand why the white working class in the middle of the country carried a newcomer to politics and government service, of questionable judgement, into the White House.
Vance starts with geography, focusing in on the hills of Appalachia, most specifically his home of Jackson, nestled into southeastern Kentucky’s coal country, where most workers were miners or small farmers. His mother, Bev, lived a life of fighting and drama, was addicted to drugs, and brought husband after husband into his life. “Settling down wasn’t quite her thing,” he tells us. Vance spent most of his youth living at the nearby home of his grandmother and grandfather. Mamaw, whom he affectionately calls a lunatic and crazy hillbilly, reminded him daily of their code of behavior. That meant sticking up for family, not taking disrespect from anyone, and certainly not waiting for the law to snuff out someone who errs. (He reports with obvious pride that he is related to the infamous feuding Hatfields.) Mamaw pounded into him the lesson of making something of yourself—“Don’t be like those f_ _king losers.” That lesson stuck.
As background, he says that after World War II, his family was part of the mass migration of people from the hills of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee north to the cities and towns of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. There they found work in the new industrial plants. He quickly observed a new economic reality—residential segregation—where poor whites lived, were schooled, and socialized only with one another, totally unaware of what was happening on the right side of the tracks. This insular lifestyle brought about low expectations and little resiliency among his people when those factories shut down. It’s a disturbing story he tells about the anger and distrust that built within that group when they were jobless and mistrustful of the government, politicians and the “elites.”
Yet there is a compelling personal story that underlies the bad cultural news he delivers. So many factors in his early life pointed toward the same shaky path most in his family had taken—unstable work, addictions, tumultuous relationships. They were “set up to fail,” he reminds us frequently. But Mamaw, with all her vitriol and drama, turned out to be the most stabilizing factor in his life. “She believed in me and made me think I could do it.” He almost flunked out of high school, but he and Mamaw knew he was smart enough for college. But all the applications and financial aid information intimidated the two, who knew nothing of that world, so he joined the Marines. There, “giving it all was a way of life,” and he threw himself into it. He found there is “something powerful about realizing you’ve undersold yourself.” That gave him the courage to take his next steps—Ohio State and then Yale Law School.
Understanding Vance’s story and life trajectory, I paid attention when he talked about his people who “worshipped Jesus and the USA” but have lost their patriotism and mistrust the news, politicians and government. Vance has no easy answer to the question of how to address the needs of this angry white working class from whom he came. He’s a Republican but says that his party and the conservatives generally are fueling the notion that government is to blame. His message to those he knows well is “Stop blaming Obama or Bush and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”