Donald Trump won the presidency in part by reaching out to those he called “the forgotten men and women” of America. Trump appealed more powerfully and more persuasively than any recent Republican candidate to those who feel left behind or left out. These Americans attribute their challenges to the neglect of the larger community and its conventional leaders.
The 2016 presidential election has thus highlighted an important and painful issue. We live in a very wealthy and powerful country. In many ways, the United States is the envy of the whole world. Yet in the midst of all this prosperity, there are pockets of persistent poverty—groups of Americans who just don’t seem to do as well as the country does. These ongoing disparities in economic well-being are embarrassing to a nation that genuinely believes in equality.
When we look more closely at this problem, moreover, our embarrassment is apt to turn to outright shame. A closer examination reveals that material poverty is only part, and not the most painful part, of the issue. Too many of the forgotten men and women suffer from moral and spiritual poverty as well. We are, then, confronted with disparities not only in wealth—which is only an external and instrumental good—but also in human well-being, in the goods of the soul, which are, as Aristotle teaches, the truly human goods.
America is not only rich and powerful, but also free and civilized. Accordingly, it provides a stage for a degree and variety of human flourishing unheard of in human history. Nevertheless, in the midst of all this happiness, we find persistent pockets of multi-generational misery—groups of Americans suffering not only poverty but ignorance, violence, drug addiction, and despair.
These facts cannot be ignored by anybody who can think and feel. As thinking beings, we have to wonder: why do these disparities in well-being arise and continue, despite all the opportunity that our country offers? And, as feeling beings, we have to care about the fate of these people who are not just our fellow humans, but also our fellow countrymen. They are our people, and we cannot be indifferent to their sufferings.
Understanding Our Cultural Crisis
In a welcome coincidence, at the very moment of Trump’s rise a book has appeared that helps us both to understand and to sympathize with the plight of these forgotten men and women: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. As the subtitle indicates, the book is not a work of political analysis or advocacy. It is rather a personal story—Vance’s tale of the rough and underprivileged culture into which he was born, from which he escaped, but to which he still, in a way, belongs.
As his title indicates, Vance and his people are hillbillies—Appalachians rooted in Kentucky, some of whom later moved into Ohio in search of prosperity. They found it, but were not able to hold onto it as securely, or to transmit it as fully to the next generation, as one would have hoped. Vance’s grandparents were rough people by normal American standards. Some of his most memorable—and in some cases grimly amusing—stories have to do with the interactions between the violent honor culture in which his family was raised, on the one hand, and the middle class respectability of native Ohioans, on the other. Here we learn important life lessons. For example, if you don’t want your lights knocked out, don’t publicly criticize a hillbilly’s child for his public rowdiness.
Despite their rough edges, however, Vance’s grandparents achieved a kind of middle class respectability. But in the career of their daughter—Vance’s mother—the family experienced not a further advance but a decline. She was a perennial drug abuser, somewhat prone to run-ins with the police, and incapable of staying with any one man for any considerable length of time, subjecting her son to a “revolving door of father figures.” Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of how Vance’s family, and the larger culture in which it was embedded, both saddled him with disadvantages and provided him with some of the resources to escape—via the United States Marines, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School.
Rejecting Simple Explanations
You would think that one man’s story would, by its narrowness, tend to oversimplify the problem of misery in the midst of prosperity. In this case, however, you would be wrong. Part of what makes Vance’s tale so interesting and so helpful is that it reminds us that many of the simple explanations, to which we may be attracted due to our ideological proclivities, do not do full justice to the phenomenon.
Americans of the left are inclined to blame persistent poverty and inequality on racism or the legacy of racism. Of course, they have a point. African Americans were enslaved for hundreds of years and then, after being freed from slavery, subjected to Jim Crow for another century. The disadvantages arising from that history could not reasonably be expected to dissipate in just a few decades.
Nevertheless, Vance’s story reminds us that racism cannot be the whole explanation. Hillbillies, after all, are white. There has been a good deal of discourse over the last several years about “white privilege.” Hillbilly Elegy challenges that discourse not as totally wrong but as insufficiently subtle. Hillbillies certainly don’t think of themselves as participating in any system of privilege. And, from the evidence Vance brings to light, they don’t seem to be participating in one that they refuse to acknowledge. On the contrary, many of them are suffering from the same sorts of difficulty that plague many African Americans in inner cities—poor education, lack of economic opportunity, family instability, drug addiction, domestic violence.
Another explanation emphasizes the economic hardship caused by a changing economy. America’s manufacturing sector used to provide hard but well-paying work for people of modest educational attainments. In the past, a man with a high school education could support a family—often even a large family—in relative comfort and respectability by taking up a “blue collar” occupation. Free trade and mechanization have eliminated many such jobs, on which whole communities once thrived.
Vance’s memoir lends some support to this explanation, but it also points to its incompleteness. From him we learn that his hillbilly ancestors moved into Ohio to work in industry, only to find later on that the jobs that lifted them into the middle class were disappearing. He also reports, however, that these communities now offer other jobs—jobs that sometimes go unfilled because members of his generation lack the responsibility and drive to be useful, successful employees. Some joblessness results from forces beyond the individual’s control, but some of it, Vance suggests, comes from a learned helplessness that he unlearned by joining the Marines, and that he wishes others could unlearn as well.
On the right, social and traditionalist conservatives are apt to blame a decline of religion for the persistence of self-destructive social pathologies. Vance’s account offers some confirmation for this view, too. Sincere Christian piety, it seems, reformed his father, making him a responsible and caring man who could be a good husband and father in the new family he formed after leaving Vance’s mother—and who could provide a temporary refuge for Vance during a time when he could not continue to live with his mother.
At the same time, however, we also see that religion is not a social cure-all. After all, most of Vance’s fellow hillbillies—even the most disorderly of them—are professed Christians. If you have ever wondered why some very religious, conservative parts of the country nevertheless have high levels of social disorder—in the form of, say, drug use and domestic violence—Vance provides a kind of answer. These are places where a lot of people lie to social scientists about going to church. In such places, it seems, religion is a socially respectable idea to which almost everybody pays homage. But it does not, for many people, function as a vital force in their souls that can help them to live well.
The Impact of Family
If Vance’s story points to one social factor as more important than others in determining our life chances, it is family. Hillbilly Elegy reminds us that family is a very powerful force—for both good and ill. On the one hand, the most serious obstacles placed in his path were placed there by his own family. On the other hand, his family also saved him—especially his grandmother, Mamaw, who provided him with a haven of order in an otherwise chaotic life, and who taught him simple but crucial lessons about the importance of education, self-improvement, and work.
His family, however, could not save him entirely from his family-inflicted wounds. Mamaw provided him with the path out of chaos and into order, but even her benevolence could not cancel out the chaos of his childhood, to make it as if it had never been. In one of the most memorable and painful passages of the book, Vance reveals that, even now, he cannot recall the instability of his childhood without experiencing “an intense, indescribable anxiety.” This is a heartbreaking thing to read—even and especially from a man strong and capable enough to succeed in the Marines and at Yale Law School.
Without going into the question explicitly, Vance’s story thus reminds us of the conflict between sexual liberation and the well-being of children. If it means anything, sexual liberation must mean the freedom to change—to change partners, to change lifestyles. This might seem interesting and exhilarating to adults, but it is not so good for children. They crave stability, predictability, and order, and they need them to flourish.
Hillbilly Elegy, then, not only helps us to understand the social phenomena highlighted by Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency; it also reminds us of other things that have been obscured by that rise, but that we ought not to forget. During the campaign, Trump avoided as much as possible talking about the culture war issues concerning sex and the family that have agitated our public discourse over the last decade. His instincts probably suggested to him that these issues have been, for the time being at least, politically exhausted. Here, as elsewhere, his instincts served him well.
Nevertheless, the fact that people have grown tired of arguing about these things does not mean that they are not important to the quality of our society. They will have to be addressed if our country is to solve or ameliorate the problem of misery in the midst of plenty.
Carson Holloway, a political scientist, is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.