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Social decay: what the conversation about Trump and the white working class misses

“I think it’s important to say it’s a social crisis.” — J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy.”

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In June, a Yale Law School graduate and Silicon Valley executive born in the backwater Appalachian region published a book about the white working class in America. Titled Hillbilly Elegy, the book could not have come at a more fortuitous time.

Against the backdrop of a divisive presidential campaign, J.D. Vance’s meditation on the anxieties of the white working class was desperately needed.

There are several cleavages in this election, but none more significant than race and education. According to a July Pew Research Center poll, Trump leads Clinton among non-college-educated whites 57 percent to 36 percent. A September ABC News/Washington Post poll showed an even more lopsided margin, with Trump leading by 59 points among this group.

As my colleague Dylan Matthews noted last month, Trump’s constituency extends well beyond the poor and white working class, but there’s no question that the racial and cultural fault lines run deep in this election.

The question is, why now? What is it about this year and this candidate that proved so combustible?

There are a lot of reasons why Trump has appealed to what Vance calls the “Hillbilly demographic.” Some of it is racial animus, some of it is cultural paranoia, and some of it has to do with economic angst. Truth is, Trump’s popularity isn’t reducible to any one thing. But understanding what’s happening in the poorest corners of white America is certainly instructive.

Which is why Hillbilly Elegy is such an important book.

Vance’s is a unique voice. He offers a tough but sympathetic glimpse into a pocket of white America that is too easily lampooned in popular culture, and he does it as only someone who’s lived in that world can.

I reached out to Vance on Wednesday to talk about his book, what he learned about the rural South and the white working class, and how Trump aligns with the story he tells in Hillbilly Elegy.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

I’ve tried to understand — really understand — why a subset of white Americans feel so alienated. For obvious reasons, nobody wants to hear about how hard a bunch of white people have it, but there’s a genuine social crisis occurring in pockets of white America, and you’ve put your finger on it in this book.

J.D. Vance

I think it’s important to say it’s a social crisis, because it isn’t just economic. In our mainstream political discourses we very often want to focus on the material part, and that’s important, that’s definitely a significant chunk of what’s going on. But at the end of the day when you look at these communities, the thing that worries me the most isn’t the fact that it’s hard for them to find good jobs, although that does worry me.

What worries me is that virtually every other social indicator in these communities is going in the wrong direction, from the mortality rates to the family dissolution rates, even the incarceration rates.

When we think of incarceration rates, we tend to think it’s a problem for black Americans, and for obvious reasons. It’s a very good thing that in recent years the incarceration rate for black Americans has been going down, but it’s been going up for white Americans. And I think that’s just another variable that you have to look at in this community. It’s indicative of a broader problem.

Sean Illing

As you argue in the book, it’s revealing that working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America, despite suffering less poverty than other groups. Clearly something else is going on here, and even if you’re someone who isn’t sympathetic to the plight of these communities, it’s still important to understand what’s happening.

J.D. Vance

Yes, that’s exactly right. If you look at the average wealth or the average income of the white working class versus the black working class or the Latino working class, you still see that white Americans are doing better. Things haven’t been great, but they’re still doing better in relative terms than those other groups.

And yet the level of economic pessimism, the cynicism about whether your kids will have a better life than you had, it’s much worse among the white community than it is among any other pocket of the country. And I think that’s really revealing. It suggests that people are seeing something on the ground that isn’t necessarily captured by just income and employment statistics.

Sean Illing

Well, surely something is happening on the ground that isn’t captured by these conventional metrics, but I think some of this resentment is manufactured by the media in different ways at different levels.

Is it your sense that people in these communities feel like the national media is just blind, or, perhaps worse, indifferent to what’s happening there? Which is why they respond to alternative forms of conservative media that feed on their discontent.

J.D. Vance

Yes, I would say that people feel that the press is either indifferent or, when it does deign to look at the problems of white America, it does so in a pretty condescending and judgmental way. So the gist of what you hear in a lot of these communities is that it’s not just that the media doesn’t care, it’s that the media thinks we’re all a bunch of dumb rednecks.

And I think that impression is a little overblown, but I also think it comes from a very real place. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life around coastal elites, and there is a sense among these people that there is a big pocket of the country that is just morally deteriorating and is not especially deserving of sympathy.

Awareness of this breeds resentment. I think it produces a kind of feedback loop where you feel resentful, and then the media tells your story so you feel even more resentful. And it just constantly feeds back into the sense that you’re sort of detached from the broader country, a country you care a lot about and you still have lot of pride in. But it feels fundamentally divided into two camps, the camp of people like you and the camp of people who look down on people like you.

Sean Illing

I grew up in the South. I know the culture. I hated it when I lived there but I’ve come to appreciate its charms since leaving. One thing that’s clear to me now, as a Southerner living on the East Coast, is how contemptuous the political class is of hillbillies, to borrow your phrase.

White people in the South and in rural America know this, and it’s a big reason for their hatred of all things “elite.” It’s why they love a guy like Trump, who’s a trust fund baby billionaire but he flaunts every aristocratic convention you can imagine. He’s loud, tacky, anti-intellectual, crude.

I’m convinced Trump is completely full of shit, but he is, as Michael Moore said recently, a kind of “fuck you” to the elites.

J.D. Vance

Yes, I’m not sure I can really add to that. I think you’re exactly right. The sense that I get is that people are really animated by this feeling that they are looked down upon by the coastal elite of the country. You hear it in country music songs, you hear it on Fox News, you hear it on conservative radio.

The constant theme that’s running through the sort of cultural memory of this group of people is that for the past 20 or so years, mainstream culture has looked down on you. And so you start to build counter-narratives and counter-institutions to defend against this perception.

And that’s really where I think a lot of this alienation and a lot of these new media enterprises come from. It’s not that these things came out of thin air. My sense is that they were really set by the alienation Middle America feels toward mainstream culture.

Sean Illing

So where do you come down on this question of what’s actually animating Trump supporters: ethno-nationalism or economic grievances? My sense is that it’s not reducible to a single variable, though ethno-nationalism is a bigger factor than a lot of people care to admit.

J.D. Vance

Well, my view is that it’s pretty complicated, and I would say the most frustrating part about this conversation about what animates Trump supporters is the feeling that people are being treated as two dimensional: It’s either these people are driven exclusively by cultural or racial resentment or they have this economic anxiety and that’s really driving them to Trump.

He’s collected millions of votes, and the people who are voting for him are voting for him for very particular reasons — and yes, some of it is economic anxiety, and yes, some of it is racial resentment. But if those are the only two things that we’re thinking about and we’re ignoring that this entire community is struggling in a lot of the ways that we’ve talked about — the drug addiction, the family breakdown, the rising mortality rates and so forth — then I think we’re ignoring a very significant problem in the country.

We’re also ignoring the fact that people are complex moral actors who make decisions for relatively complex reasons. And that failure to recognize the complexity of what’s driving the Trump phenomenon is just another thing that makes people think the media doesn’t understand them and is merely condescending to them.

Sean Illing

I think that’s mostly right. Look, the fact that the median household income of the average Trump primary voter is $72,000 tells you that the Trump phenomenon is about much more than economic grievances.

I suspect I’m less charitable than you in terms of ascribing justifiable motives to some of these Trump voters, but I absolutely take your larger point that this is complex and we should avoid reducing people to caricatures.

J.D. Vance

There’s this study by an economist Jonathan Rothwell that came out recently, and one most of the most interesting findings is that Trump supporters were more likely to be working class and more likely to live in lower employment areas, but they weren’t struggling economically relative to the rest of population

So they were maybe lower income relative to other Republicans, but they weren’t low income relative to the rest of the country. But if you really dig in, you find that Trump supporters are more likely to be veterans, more likely to have lower indices of social capital, more likely to be living in areas with rising mortality rates.

What frustrates me, in terms of how studies like that are reported on, is that we miss what they actually reveal, which is that Trump supporters are absolutely struggling, but they’re not struggling in a way that’s captured by traditional income statistics.

Author J.D. Vance.
Naomi McColloch

Sean Illing

So I’m curious to hear how you think about class. Political theorists have generally held that the most important division in society is between the rich and the poor. It seems to me that poor white people and poor black people have more in common than, say, rich and poor white people do.

But these shared cultural and economic interests are constantly eclipsed by racial divisions. Any thoughts on why that is?

J.D. Vance

I think in terms of cultural similarities you’re definitely right, and that was one of the great geniuses of SNL’s “Black Jeopardy” sketch. If you drill into the narratives that are very popular in each of these groups, they’re actually not all that different.

I think because of politics, race and class are often subsumed into the same category of blackness. It’s been the case for a very long time that if you say poor person, a lot of people immediately think of a black person or of a minority. Obviously this is terrible for black people because most of them are not poor, and it’s terrible for white people because a very large segment of them are poor.

Sean Illing

So politics needlessly muddies the waters?

J.D. Vance

There’s no doubt politics muddies the waters. To think of class as its own unique segment, you would need poor black Americans and poor white Americans to really work together. But because of the politics that exist in this country, poor white Americans have gravitated toward the Republican Party, mostly for cultural affiliation reasons of the sort we just talked about.

I think poor black Americans have gravitated toward the Democratic Party in the past 40 years because that’s the party that has promised to tear down the most legal barriers to black advancement.

So my sense is that because poor black folks and poor white folks are not on the same side of the political divide, it’s very hard to see these classes in a way that doesn’t get swallowed into political conversation.

Sean Illing

Would you say that the Republican Party has cynically exploited poor white people for political gain?

J.D. Vance

I don’t know that I would say cynically exploited. My sense is that truly poor white people probably don’t vote that much. And lower- and middle-income and working-class white Americans have gravitated toward the Republican Party for both good and bad reasons. But I don’t think there are people dealing secretly in back rooms figuring out how to pit the poor white against the poor black.

My inclination would be to say that people tend to follow their individual political incentives, and for the past the past 30 or so years the Republicans have offered an economic story that you may not agree with, but at least up until the George W. Bush administration, produced relatively positive economic outcomes when both Republicans and Democrats were in office.

My sense is that where Trump really comes from is that over the past 10 or 15 years, working-class white Americans have increasingly felt that the economic policies of the Republican Party haven’t been serving them especially well. Maybe they haven’t been destructive, but they certainly haven’t been that helpful.

Sean Illing

Well, I’d say that while the Republicans may have offered a nice “story,” it’s the policies of the Democrats that have aided working-class voters the most. But that’s probably another discussion.

Let me ask you this: How Democrats can engage white working-class voters in a way that connects, that doesn’t feel inauthentic or contrived or patronizing.

J.D. Vance

It’s going to be really hard unless Democrats spend more time in the geographies that working class white Americans actually live. There was this really interesting article by Alec MacGillis in the New York Times a couple of days ago in which he talked about the rising geographic segregation in the United States and how very few Democrats are living in Republican-majority areas. To win these folks back, you have to be their neighbors, you have to understand their attitudes.

You have to identify with them on a level that isn’t patronizing, and to do that you have to actually know them. And increasingly what we have is two countries, a Republican country and a Democratic country, and the two groups don’t talk to each other.

So Democrats have to spend more time with these voters and they have to recognize that the Democratic Party really has become the party of coastal elites.

Sean Illing

The last theme I wanted to touch on with you is agency. You talk a lot about this in the book, and I think it may be the most important part of it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that surrendering to structural or economic narratives is dangerous and counter-productive. By that I mean you acknowledge that much of the poverty and disorder in the poor white community has to do with the hallowing out of the economy, but you shy away from identifying that as a prime causal factor for what’s gone wrong in these communities.

Why is that?

J.D. Vance

It’s not that I don’t care about the role of structure. I think it’s reasonably well understood how structural conditions impact social life. My concern is that we understate or overlook moral agency in these discussions.

The reason that I’m worried about focusing on structural narratives to the exclusion of everything else is that people are responsive to the message that their culture gives to them. And if the message that your culture gives to you is that you have no chance, you have no hope, why work hard because even if you work hard you’re not going to get ahead, I think that’s very self-destructive to kids who grew up like I did.

And I always bring this back to the example of my grandmother, who was a classic blue-dog Democrat who really recognized that life was unfair in a significant way. But she also drilled into me that I still had some measure of control. She would say, yes, life is unfair, but don’t be one of those people who think the deck is stacked against them.

I think it’s really important that, as a community and as a broad American culture, we both recognize the ways that life can be unfair to poor people, but also really fight that impulse that says there’s nothing that you can do, there’s no hope, life is so unfair that you can’t possibly get ahead.

Because I do believe that such narratives destroy the capacity for kids like me to control their lives to the extent that they can control it.

Sean Illing

What do you think conservatives fail to understand about structure?

J.D. Vance

I think conservatives fail to recognize that a lot of the things that they see as bad decisions or as a consequence of some moral failing exist in a cultural context. Often it’s about kids growing up and learning how to behave in a certain way out of necessity, in order to survive their circumstances.

Conservatives sort of fail to recognize that some of the habits and the attitudes that you pick up when you grow up poor, however bad they appear from the outside, they’re necessary for your survival when you’re on the inside.

And so I would like conservatives to spend a little less time moralizing and a little more time thinking about ways to help counteract some of the effects of the culture in which poor kids grow up.

Sean Illing

What do liberals fail to understand about culture?

J.D. Vance

In some ways I feel like people on the left are so unwilling to place moral blame on the poor for some of their decisions that they completely ignore the way that poor people actually grow up and the way that they actually conduct their lives.

You don’t have to think that a poor kid who grew up in dirt poverty in rural Appalachia is to blame for their circumstances to recognize that a lot of the habits that that kid picked up along the way are going to be very destructive in terms of raising a family or going to college or being successful in the workplace.

There’s this sort of weird detachment from the actual lives that people live, and I just think liberals have to get a little bit more comfortable talking about what it is that’s different about that poor kid, not just his material circumstances but also the attitudes and the expectations that he developed in the first 15 to 20 years of his life growing up in poverty, and how can we counteract it.

That has to be part of the conversation on the left.

Sean Illing

You write that public policy can help, but that these are fundamentally cultural problems that have to be solved endogenously.

Culture is amorphous and resistant to change, so I wonder where that leaves us in terms of lifting people out of poverty and bridging the various divides?

J.D. Vance

Well, I hope it leaves us with the realization that there is a problem. Certainly that’s what I hope readers of the book conclude, especially the people from my community who read it.

This is a problem that government can help with, but it can’t be the only solution to a number of these issues. So where I would like to think it leaves us is that each individual actor in a community is going to have a different view on how to address some of these problems.

An individual parent should pick up the book and think maybe the way I’m interacting with my kid is causing a lot of problems down the road and maybe I should try to do it a little bit better. Maybe a social worker picks up the book and says, this is the reality of how these folks are living, maybe this changes how I approach my work. Maybe a church pastor picks up the book and says look, it’s really problematic that there are so few poor kids in our churches, but there are a ton of upper- and middle-income kids in our churches — maybe I need to go out and minister to the least of these as Christ said.

I think that the reaction that each individual person is going to have is going to be a little bit different. But I hope that the takeaway from the book is that we have a pretty significant problem in this country and we have to recognize the nature of the problem.

Then perhaps we can fix it.

Watch: What the media gets wrong about Trump voters