Will Democrats Learn All the Wrong Lessons about the Working Class?

Why “Hillbilly Elegy” is Not the Rosetta Stone for Understanding Red America

Robert Kennedy, Donald Trump
Robert F. Kennedy talks with laborers (top) and Donald J. Trump with supporters (bottom). Photo credit: Department of Justice and Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Books trying to explain Red America are flying off the shelves, particularly to shell-shocked Democrats. As we hear in the opening sound bites of this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, JFK (and later Lyndon B. Johnson and Bobby Kennedy) made the personal and policy connection to working-class white America. So how did the party lose touch?

Journalist Sarah Jones tells Jeff Schechtman that she is afraid that Democrats and others may be learning the wrong lessons. While people like J.D. Vance argue that the answer is to promote conservative culture and respond to the “crisis of masculinity” and Horatio Alger mythology, the problem is that taking the cultural perspective may be playing directly into the liberal elitist view of a region of “deplorables.”

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Full Text Transcript: 

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

There are billions of dollars of contracts being led on all occasions but there are very few of them being sent to those areas where the eight, nine, ten, eleven or twelve percent of the population is unemployed. I think federal aid to education, I think the passage of the [?] Bill which provides medical assistance to those over 65, is an effective minimum wage bill which I’m now sponsoring in the senate, federal minimum standards for the payment of unemployment compensation. I think vigorous action by the federal government can make a great difference to West Virginia. In the final analysis, what happens in this state depends in part on the vigor of the citizens but I must say we can do far better than we have done in last year by this administration, which has vetoed and held back all the action which is needed if West Virginia is going to move ahead.

That was John F. Kennedy campaigning in the West Virginia primary in 1960. It’s amazing how many of those same ideas and issues are still haunting us today. Then it was the Republicans who didn’t seem to understand the plight of Appalachia and of working America. Democrats, in the person of JFK, and later Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, made the personal and policy connection. So what happened? How did their party lose touch with that part of America? The answers are complicated and probably best left to historians. However, how the party reconnects is a very contemporary political issue. Books are flying off the shelf trying to explain flyover country to Democrats. Books like Arlie Russell Hochchild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, and most notably J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. But is it possible that some of these books, particularly Vance‘s, teach the wrong lesson. That, just like 1960, the lesson is not one of promulgating conservative culture and Horatio Alger attitudes, but of the failure of government to do the right thing? Take a listen to Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Kentucky in 1968.

People are still having a very, very difficult time. There is considerable hunger in this part of the country. There’s no real hope for the future amongst many of these people who worked hard in the coal mines. And now that the coal mines shut down, they have no place to go. There is no hope for the future, there is no industry moving in. The men are trained in government programs. There’s no jobs at the end of the training program because of the cut back, because of the demands on the federal budget in Washington. People are being cut off and they have no place to turn, and so they’re desperate, and filled with despair. It seems to me that this country’s wealth, as wealthy as we are, that this is an intolerable condition. It reflects on all of us. We can do things all over the rest of the world, but I think we should do something for our people here in our own country.

To talk about and to examine all of this, I am joined by Sarah Jones, who’s the social media editor at The New Republic and whose article, “J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America,” appears in The New Republic. It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Jones Sarah. Thanks so much for joining us.

Sarah Jones: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: It is so remarkable that given the history of the Democratic Party in understanding these issues, of working-class America and Appalachia, and listening to those clips from Bobby Kennedy and JFK, that the party at the moment seems so desperate to try and understand that part of the country.

Sarah: I agree and I think it’s the result of years of neglect, moving away from progressive populism, and neglecting politics at the state level which is really a good way to reach out to these people.

Jeff: And talk a little bit about as you look at it, what you were beginning to see as you set about writing this article and looking at Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy the way in which that desperation is really creating the wrong message, the wrong ideas that seem to be filtering into the party.

Sarah: From my perspective, just as someone who grew up in this area and has kind of moved away from it and is now looking kind of from the outside, it just seems to me that the Democratic Party kind of just wrote this voter base off. “Okay, we’re not going to win them, we can still win national elections without them now.” We can see that that was kind of an egregious miscalculation this time around. And I think books like Hillbilly Elegy, they kind of confirm stereotypes of people already have about white working class voters, especially white working class people and Appalachia. So I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that his book has been so popular, even amongst some liberals, but it was very concerning and indicative to me a broader problem within the Democratic establishment.

Jeff: Talk about the conservative message, the kind of “bring yourself up by the bootstraps” message that’s so much a part of what Vance writes about, and really, the disconnect from public policy.

Sarah: Right, so Vance to his credit, he had a very chaotic dysfunctional childhood. He’s managed to achieve a lot and that took hard work, a lot of effort. He deserves credit for that. His having grown up in a similar region and trying to make it on my own – it is difficult. He seems to have looked at his individual experience and projected it on the region-at-large, and I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. The way he was able to make out was join the Marine Corps for example, or avenues that are not necessarily going to be open to everyone. Furthermore, do we really want a country where you have to join the Marine Corps and get deployed to Iraq in order to get into Ohio State and then Yale Law? You know, it should be easier than that. So as a memoir, the book is interesting and it would’ve been fine if he just left it as a memoir. Instead, it’s kind of presented as an explainer on hillbilly culture and here’s what needs to s a result, it’s very limited and very flawed. You know, if you just worked a little bit harder, pray a little bit harder, you know, fix this crisis of masculinity which he never really quite explains, then things will be at least better, if not fine. And that’s very unusual to me. There’s a lot of public policy that you’re leaving out of that analysis.

Jeff: And talk a little bit about the fact that he looks at it and presents it as a cultural problem more than an economic problem in many respects.

Sarah: Right, which is also a bit strange to me. I don’t know a great deal about Vance’s religious behavior and so I really don’t want to rush to any assumptions here. But I do know that he identifies as a religious conservative, and I do see that as indicative of  conservativism based on my experience with it. You know, it’s a problem of the heart from Christians who call it the sin [agent?]. And if you get right with God, if you live a godly life, and things will be better, and I see it. You know, he doesn’t quite say it that explicitly, but I see it as being related to this idea – if you fix cultural problems, if you fix these problems of the heart, then things will get better. But of course nothing is ever that simplistic.

Jeff: And with respect to the public-policy aspect, in many ways the book is a kind of screed against, against welfare, against public policy and government, really having an important role to play.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s very odd to me and very surreal actually [?] that, you know, there were sufficient services available for people, and it’s very clear that there are not sufficient services available for people, you know. In my part of Southwest Virginia, people will start getting up at four in the morning to start accessing… accessing Medical, which is a rural clinic. It offers free medical services and that didn’t change after Obamacare. People still need these services and these are people who aren’t able to access basic healthcare. Now that’s clearly a failing of the welfare state. You look at our public schools. I don’t know what his public school was like, but mine certainly didn’t have enough equipment, textbooks, or advanced classes in case you wanted to go to college. Again, that’s an issue of government funding not being distributed properly. So there are very clearly policy problems. And when you look at the problem of Appalachia now, and you look at the problem of declining coal jobs, and manufacturing jobs, the solutions to these include the policy aspect. Do we talk about raising the minimum wage for service jobs? Do we talk about universal basic income? What’s the solution? Instead, we just kind of focus on this cultural issue and it’s very reminiscent, and several people not just myself has made this point, of the welfare [agreements? ]. It was simplistic the first time it was proposed, and it’s simplistic now, applied to white working class people in Appalachia.

Jeff: It’s also interesting to look at this in this broader historical context, that many of these issues, and many of these problems, have been festering for 60, 70+ years.

Sarah: Yeah, very much so. When you’re looking at economic decline, specifically mining and manufacturing jobs have been declining for decades. This often [?] to the Obama administration, the EPA, and environmentalism – the truth is, this is more a story about automation, just natural changes to the industry. So it’s weeping, kind of getting to this point of economic crisis in Appalachia for a long time now. The area, like even when these industries were [?], obviously the [?] were wealthy. So this isn’t new, this has been around a long, long time, and I see it as a [?] decades of government, and the ability to address it the way that it needs to be addressed. And despite this general reluctance, the tendency to connect, you know, do you deserve welfare instead of viewing things like healthcare and education, and having that food or roof over your head, just basic human rights

Jeff: Certainly what it goes to, and what’s been a big discussion in coming out of this recent election, and where so much of this goes, is whether or not voters in these places are really clearly voting against their own economic self-interest.

Sarah: That’s a really interesting question because in a sense that is the true thing to say. Like I don’t think anyone reasonable anyway, can say, can look at Donald Trump and say that his administration is going to be better for these people. You know, I don’t buy it for a single second that Donald Trump really actually cares about the plight of the white working class, or that as president his priority’s going to be fixing Appalachia. That’s simply not true. They don’t see it this way, so they don’t see it as voting against their interests. They really do believe that he’s going to bring the jobs back, and they’re not wrong to be suspicious of promises from the Democratic Party necessarily because Appalachia… People made a lot of promises to Appalachia and the poverty is still that it is.

Jeff: One of the points that you make in your piece in The New Republic is that while Democrats may not understand what’s really going on there, there are a lot of other groups even beyond Donald Trump, a lot of other groups that really do seem to understand and are trying to exploit and take advantage.

Sarah: Right, the Democratic Party in my opinion has failed to connect with people on a local level party. My colleague [?] and [?] just had a piece in The New Republic about the Democratic Party’s failure at the state level, and how they currently don’t control a single state legislature in the south, which is unprecedented. And that’s a massive failure of leadership of the Democratic Party. So they’ve created a void. And the Tea Party wing of the GOP especially, has been very good at filling it. So now we see the results of that. You have these extremist groups. You have these white supremacist groups, like [?] groups who are at least saying, “You know, who knows what this will actually do.” But they’re saying that we’re going to do voter outreach push now. Well actually they’re doing that now because they see directly that there is a political void that exists.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the idea of looking at all of this, without the possibility, which is essentially what Vance does, without the possibility of government solutions, and where he thinks the answer will come from other than just “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.”

Sarah: You know, that’s one major criticism of the book is that it’s never really clear where he thinks these solutions are going to come from, except if you ruled out the possibility of them coming from the government. So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with private entities. I don’t think that’s the answer, because private entities are not answerable to the people the way the government ostensibly is supposed to be. It just doesn’t leave you much room to actually think of solutions, or the government’s role in any of this.

Jeff: Part of the other issue with these places, and you can speak about it from your own experience, is the way in which they have been hollowed out in so many respects, not only in terms of jobs, not only in terms of the economy, but even in terms of media, even in terms of local newspapers or the local opportunities for people to communicate in these places.

Sarah: Yeah, one of my very first jobs in journalism was working writing little freelance stories for the Bristol Herald Courier down in Bristol, Virginia. And these little local papers – I shouldn’t call them little because they do play such an important role in bringing communities together, and educating communities – and the Bristol Herald even won a Pulitzer a few years ago for its work. They’re doing important work and they have a really important role to play, but [the] journalism industry is suffering difficulties and I think that affects these little papers a lot. And that’s unfortunate, especially as we’re considering the rise of issues like fake news trending on Facebook. Again, you see people exploiting the void.

Jeff: What do you see, both from the things that Vance writes about, and from your own experience, in terms of the generational change in these places? Because certainly some of these issues seem to pass from generation to generation really without any change.

Sarah: That’s a really interesting question. Mining jobs specifically were kind of viewed as generational jobs. So the same thing with, you know, a factory job, so they could be passed from generation to generation, that was a way for a person to have a fairly comfortable living without a college education, and now that’s not happening. So that’s an interesting thing to consider. You do have generational cycles of poverty as well. [?] Culturally, it’s a very, your family is very important. It’s very difficult if your family has been living in the same place, doing the same work for generation upon generation. You know, to just up and leave, it’s very difficult.

Jeff: How hard is it for young people to get out?

Sarah: It’s very difficult overall, I would say. Again you have certain family pressures again your whole family, your extended family has lived in this place for centuries in some cases and so being maybe the first person to break out of that is very difficult. But also because the region is so impoverished overall, that makes it much more difficult for people to save, to be the first one in their families to go to college. And then maybe you do go to college. Maybe, maybe you can make it that far. And then maybe you won’t be able to find work in your area. So where does that leave you?

 

Jeff: Talk about the state of education in this part of the country.

Sarah: You know, it’s difficult. I graduated from a public high school. For the most part I had teachers who tried very hard but they just didn’t have a lot of resources. And that means kids are kind of at a disadvantage from the very beginning. It makes them less likely to be able to go to college and maybe go on to careers later on. I think education is very important. I think investing in education properly in colleges and universities that exist in the area, community colleges that specialize in vocational training – that is one way to help revitalize the area, maybe bring some economic growth. But unfortunately given the way the state legislatures are stacked right now it just seems unlikely that this is going to happen the way that it needs to.

Jeff: Of course the elephant in the room with all of this is the degree to which, as you write about, racism and misogyny are really so caught up in, so interwoven with, so many of these other issues

Sarah: Right, I mean, we’re really talking about the stuff, so you really can’t have a conversation without factoring racism into it. And it is a very racist place and it is a very sexist place. Of course a lot of places in America that are not in the south are also racist and sexist. But I think that absolutely plays a part in this and it can’t be overstated too much, I think. You know, this is also very, it’s less racially homogenous than it used to be, that’s beginning to change but it has, it is at least somewhat racially homogenous. I think that’s also a factor, to be that isolated from the rest of the world. There’s less excuse for that then there used to be, [Because they were not] exposed to different cultures and ways of looking at the world that the older generations especially, I feel like, have been a bit less tolerant.

Jeff: The other point of this as you point out is that so much of this plays into liberal stereotypes of this part of the country.

Sarah: Oh, absolutely! I know what people think about white trash. I’ve encountered it before, and that stereotype about white trash, liberals have plenty of them themselves. Again, you can count the times I’ve heard liberal people that joke about flyover country, or, you know, people kind of getting what they deserve because they vote the way that they do, all the redneck jokes, the hillbilly jokes. People just make these observations and jokes, really unthinkingly, but they don’t pass without notice in my part of the world and it does build resentment.

Jeff: And is that resentment pretty much the expression of what we have seen take place in this election?

Sarah: I think that it’s part of it. I don’t want to discount how it kind of feeds racism and misogyny which is a brew that Trump exploited so skillfully during the election. But that is part of it. You’re not really going to believe that the Democratic Party, just as an example, is looking out for your best interest if you kind of associate them as a political and media establishment that is constantly making jokes at your expense, or at the very least just hasn’t really fought for your vote, and hasn’t invested in your area, and doesn’t seem to be in touch with the issues that you care about. You have to make the case, and Trump made the case at the very least. He’s kind of failed them later, but at least he bothered to make the case. I really think that the Democratic Party needs to take that lesson away from the election.

Jeff: Sarah Jones, her article in The New Republic is “J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America.” Sarah, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Sarah: Thanks for having me. Thanks.

Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from flag (oohhsnapp / Pixabay) and Sarah Jones (Sarah Jones / Twitter).

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