Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
There were two things I did in the days following the Presidential election – watch Michael Moore’s “Michael Moore in Trumpland” and read “Hillbilly Elegy” – to try and understand what happened. As a amateur historian, I desperately wanted to study the voting trends and analyze which issues resonated with various groups of Americans. Both the documentary and the book provided insight in to the themes that resonated with “Rustbelt” voters.
Hillbilly Elegy is an extraordinary book detailing the life of J.D. Vance who came from the hills of Kentucky/ Ohio, through the Marines to graduate from Yale Law School and become a successful Silicon Valley executive. His world growing up was one of broken families, drug addiction, poverty, lack of education and welfare. How he succeeded in escaping the downward spiral of poverty and all the influences that should have kept him from being successful is what the author sets out to explain. Vance also tries hard to understand the broader white working class and how their position within the socio-economic hierarchy has evolved. He questions whether we can ever escape our class and upbringing even which has impacted him throughout his life.
Ultimately, it was J.D. Vance’s “mean”, gun-toting, hillbilly grandmother who took him in during high school and focused him on grades and school. Although lacking a high school education, she was able to provide the stability to his life that he craved. The Marines continued his development by instilling in him the life skills he would need to pursue college and a job. By the time he got to Yale Law School, he realized that he was in an alien world for which he was completely unprepared. With the help of some caring Professors, friends and his girlfriend (who later became his wife), he was able to successfully complete his schooling and embark on a professional career but he always felt that his roots and relationships were back home in the working class town he grew up in.
Vance is apparently fairly conservative. It comes through intermittently in the book although he isn’t a supporter of Trump. He was all over TV in the days following the election, as was Michael Moore, being quizzed on why the white working class Rustbelt population voted the way they did. What becomes clear in Hillbilly Elegy is that the thousands of people who migrated from the Kentucky mines to the Ohio factories briefly experienced a middle class life only to be left behind again when the factories left and are voting for someone to change their lives. Eight years ago, it was Obama. This year it was Trump or Bernie Sanders. The status quo won’t help them and it is unclear as to who or what can.
Vance asks important questions, and provides a great deal of insight into the world of the working class whites with low levels of education and once were able to thrive in a manufacturing environment. What he doesn’t have, are answers on how to make their existence better. These middle-class manufacturing jobs aren’t going to come back. Many of the people living in these abandoned communities have never worked or if they have, it is a checkered history. There isn’t the motivation to work and many turn to welfare, drug addiction or both. Failure begets failure and how to raise this class of people back up to a middle class existence is a huge challenge for all involved. Like Vance’s grandmother, this group, depending on their mood can be “radically conservative” or “European-style Democrat” as they look for help. Hillbilly Elegy is a book everyone should read in order to understand this forgotten class of Americans. It is also applicable to our inner cities and any other segment of our society existing in poverty with little hope for the future.