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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start

Donald Trump's election will almost certainly prove to be a boon for social science PhD candidates, who otherwise would've been scrambling for a dissertation topic. No doubt, each will offer their take on why Trump managed to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate. A handful of explanations have already been put forth, such as a recent essay in the Harvard Political Review on the "Alabamafication of America" and a rediscovered lecture/essay from 1988 by the late Stanford philosopher, Richard Rorty, but I think future dissertations will need to tackle (or at least should tackle) the portrait of Appalachian working class whites painted by J.D. Vance in his instant classic, Hillbilly Elegy. Trump is not mentioned once in Vance's book, but Vance's description of growing up poor in Ohio and Kentucky helps one get a handle on the alienation that much of the working class feels towards the political establishment.

Most folks who read the book presume that Vance is a liberal. He is, after all, an Ivy League (Yale) trained attorney working for an investment firm in San Francisco, and the bulk of the book focuses on the causes and consequences of poverty. Vance, however, is a conservative. Reflecting on this presumption shortly after speaking at a gathering in New York, Vance remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, "It’s very interesting, right? It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you’re a Democrat.” Vance is not a Trump fan, though, and did not vote for him in the election. He believes that Trump "ran an angry, very adversarial campaign that in tone matched the frustrations of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future."

It seems to me that for whatever reason (or rather reasons -- seldom can you reduce any phenomenon to a single factor), the Democratic party has lost touch with its working class base. I'm not sure what it needs to do to recapture it, but reading Hillbilly Elegy is probably as good a place to start as any.

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