Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

I picked up this book after seeing references in several articles, especially those seeking to understand the “Trump voter” and attempting to explain the frustrations of those in the flyover states.

It does explain one type, certainly, though it’s not a universal portrait. It fills some gaps. In my city, which is in some ways a liberal mini-Seattle in a sea of farm communities, I went through the longest lines ever when I did early primary voting at the county building. Most, from the vote tallies, were Trump voters. They were cheerful middle-class whites who were sold on the idea that government should be treated like a business and only needed a forceful, plain-speaking business type to run things the way they should be.

J. D. Vance was raised in Ohio of Kentucky stock, a people I’m familiar with as my great grandmother was born in Kentucky poverty, migrating later with my grandmother and her siblings to Los Angeles, then Montana, then Alaska.

Vance was a unique victor in the fight against poverty, eventually entering Yale Law School and graduating to a six-figure position in a law firm when he graduated. He survived a succession of step-fathers, an addicted mother, a “mamaw” who was as likely to meet strangers with rifle in hand, and a world filled with a population frequently addicted and deluded.

Much of his success can be attributed to his grandmother “mamaw” who fed and protected him and also pushed him to do his best at school. He cites familiar studies saying that often the difference between rising out of or staying mired in poverty can be attributed to one stable and caring adult in a child’s life, whether that’s a family member or a caring mentor. For her many faults Mamaw was that person in Vance’s life. He was also given powerful lessons in discipline and life management with a turn in the Marine Corps before continuing to college.

Vance expresses understandable frustration with many of the people he left behind. Many were alcoholic or had opioid/heroin addictions. Even when employed many were untrustworthy taking extended breaks or weekly sick days followed by expressions of outrage at the unfairness of being fired. Vance tells about his own problems in overcoming the tendency for a hair-trigger temper and a desire to solve points of “honor” with a fist fight, an expected way of life for the men he was raised by and with.

I don’t think Vance is far off-base in his assessment of the self-defeating attitudes and behaviors that keep people in poverty. I suppose that’s why I’m especially surprised that he still considers himself politically conservative. It would be hard to say that he was a major winner in the birth lottery, certainly not to the extent of his Yale classmates. On the other hand, having that one adult willing to both love him and push him harder certainly makes him a $5 lottery winner who made the most of his prize. Even then it was that same woman who raised his mother who, though she found work in nursing, made serial bad choices in men and made life hell for many as a substance abuser. Whether you choose “nature” or “nurture” as the primary difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t the fact remains that some people never learn or absorb better ways of living, personal responsibility, and the other factors that help people survive. And I wonder how many of those around him had adequate nutrition at key points in their lives for brain development. When he was working as a legislative intern he was even against tighter rules on payday lenders despite the fact that they were charging his old friends and family upwards of 400% a year interest. Vance says that was the only choice for many people. Sure, but was it a helpful choice?¬†Couldn’t the government also encourage community banks and micro-loans?

So if this is a true reflection of Trump voters it basically says that we’re seeing a world of low-information voters, who would rather support the few thousand jobs in coal over the thousands in tourism and alternative energy, and politicians who hate the governments they serve and keep them from responding creatively.

As a bildungsroman it’s quite a book. As a source of political insight it lacks a lot.