Tl;dr of Hillbilly Elegy (or what’s in the minds of these Trump supporters?)

What it’s about: A guy from the red states explains the “poor white” experience. He made it out, still has it in him, and reflects on the culture clash. It’s a cool-temperature cri de couer without a lot of recommendations, like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Tl;dr: “Southern whites” are poor, socially dysfunctional people as wrecked as any inner city; but they are extremely proud so don’t be a jerk about it.

Here’s what I took from it (this isn’t a summary):

  • Hill people are a thing. There is a coherent cultural origin to a big chunk of white people (Scots Irish?) stretched across Appalachia (rural New York through rural Ohio through Kentucky, TN, Alabama). Basically the “Deep South” culture but not the West.
  • The culture is like pretty much all old-fashioned cultures: “honor culture”, tribal, traditional, emotional, authority/power-abiding, suspicious of outsiders/nationalistic, family/clan duty. Maybe what’s interesting is that it persists in this fashion today while California culture or New York City culture is not like this. (survey)
  • This group has never been rich or very functional. They were dirt-poor working farms then mining then in factories. And in this recent factory past that the book’s author remembers: they were stabbing each other and smashing up stores, beating their families, getting addicted to drugs, dropping out of schools. Religion has never been very strong (church attendance) though folks talk about it.

Beforehand, I did kind of equate all white people and wonder why some of them were so irascible. I thought “being Southern” was the main differentiator, but I missed the rich-vs-poor dynamic entirely.

These folks are poor, not descendants of plantation-owning slaveholders.

And I thought all this “when they closed the factory, they destroyed our way of life” stuff was accurate; it’s not. These folks had never built up the cultural resources to sustain their communities. The factory era was a 20 year blip of boom times. Without institutions — schools, churches, government, courts, neighborhoods, clubs (see this great book, Why Nations Fail) — you are toast.

He missed a few observations, which I’d like to learn more about. Not really errors or things I disagree with, but I didn’t notice coverage on these points:

  • What was lost when the Farmer-Owners left and the Store Owners left? He mentions that “town” is now a pathetic couple of city buildings and fast food restaurants. I suspect in 1965, the local restaurants were owned by someone and that someone would have been some sort of patriarchal figure in the area. Kind of like in the Dukes of Hazzard — there would have been some group of community leaders to intervene with your drunken husband or wayward kid or whatever. Those folks moved away perhaps when McDonald’s and Wal-Mart crushed them.
  • How do these hillbilly folks connect with the “other” poor whites — northern-midwest folks who are German/Nordic, southeastern French types? What other ones are there?
  • Very little discussion of black people or racial attitudes. He does make parallels between the migration of poor whites to the North and the migration of poor blacks, and that many similar problems arose. But not a lot of thought applied there.

A couple of political matters seem obvious from all this:

  • These cultural themes are very Republican. Honor, duty, god, country, etc.
  • The role of Free Will in *his* view (it’s important) is interesting given how much he faults his culture with Determinism (the lazy “we can’t change anything” or Learned Helplessness) view. He did it. He made it out. Hard work, a little luck, etc. Bootstraps, Horatio Alger, the American Dream…Lincoln…the Founding Fathers.
  • American doesn’t feel great to these people. It feels like a failure. They don’t know the facts and don’t care. “Make America Great Again” is a fact-free totem to a bygone age of family lore — grandpa coming back from the war, grandma scaring off those thieves, how our uncle stood up for mom at the high school, those days at the plant in Cincinnati when dad was a big man….

Here are some blind spots in his book, and it’s kind of a bummer. Brilliant guy, having his moment, and these are holes in this thinking —

  • What to do about this disaster zone? He basically complains that he doesn’t have any useful ideas here. “Hard to change”, “it’s culture”. But he points to a bunch in plain view.
  • Military as a Federal Government Institution for Behavioral and Social Preparation. He credits his four years in the Marines deeply. Huge. It changed him. It taught him everything his family never did. Way beyond just physical but a mindset and out into how to buy a car or get a bank account. So: a government institution that systematically tackled his broken cultural and family heritage and spit him back out fixed. 70 of 85ish guys in his basic training completed it — he’s proud of that, but 80% success rate? That’s waaaay higher than his high school graduated. Every country knows the Army has played a huge role in that people’s education. But with the end of mandatory service in America, it’s stopped helping everyone.
  • Churches as a Local Institutions for Moral, Social, Family, and Community Infrastructure. His drunk father and others in his story clean up and become Church people. The Churches are a bit zany but they keep these guys working and clean and with their wives, and their economic situations improve a ton. But people in this region don’t really go to church much (he says it’s the lowest attendance rate in the US), and they are likely frequently corrupt (televangelism…maybe I’m just speculating but public service is not the primary aim of most churches I can think of).
  • Civil Society generally. E.g., in Rifkin’s great book on the end of capitalist society dominated by business or government (review). Where is Civil Society today?
  • Family services through school and welfare service. The core to his story is his family was falling apart, and it is for many people. It is obvious that the schools and welfare services didn’t save him. But they could have. He lists their flaws and mistakes and shortcomings. Aren’t these obvious institutions that should be fixed, tailored, localized, maybe even expanded with more or different funding? The drunks and drug addicts needed health care treatment, the families needed counseling, the students needed advice and guidance and coaching on their future, they all needed “home economics” courses, etc. Weirdly Vance thinks “culture does that for rich people, but not for me”. Is it bizarre to think the local library should have a computer and the local school should have some night classes or something?
  • If the culture is the problem, shouldn’t we all try to change it?; or, what’s with the “I’m insulted” vibe throughout? This was disappointing really because Vance is so cool and collected surveying the scene. The heart of the issue, the heart of the outlook, is that the Northern Elites (who he says are happier, richer, better families, longer-living, “beating us at our own game”) are insulting these folks. These folks are an honor culture and they get upset, and at a fundamental level so does Vance. He is insulted when people don’t understand him at Yale or wherever. The culture is him, he wants to stay part of it– he doesn’t want to change it. Sure it has it’s problems but it deserves sympathy, he says. So that’s the core contradiction: if the culture has such a core role in the problem, it won’t do to just ape the honor-code “don’t insult my people, you snobs” posture throughout. So I was basically just bummed that he had not yet transcended his wounded feelings yet. Maybe he will eventually. (In a way he is doing it by riskily, publicly airing his culture’s dirty laundry.)
  • Why do White Welfare Queens vote Republican? The “make your destiny” vibe is true in Republican positions, but Vance’s “we can’t change anything” summary of poor whites don’t fit with this at all. That’s what Trump is super-charged by. He is saying “I will change it for you”. But it really is odd that these communities have voted Republican for 40 years. It’s economically self-defeating as Vance admits, but he doesn’t touch this worldview difference. These folks are sitting in poverty, culturally collapsing, struggling to fit in to modern times, with no belief in the bootstraps and hard work narrative of Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, McCain, Romney. How has this worked so well?
  • Addiction. A weird “addiction is a disease” but “if you call it a disease you encourage bad behavior” schism in Vance’s discussion. Public health problems are solvable — smoking, seat belts. You decide what’s right, educate and advertise and nudge using laws and rules, and then: people clean up. It will work on addiction and it will work on obesity.
  • Free Will vs. Paternalism. Vance likes free will because it saved him, but he is constantly falling for the paternalism of Yale or the Marines and others. “Government Paternalism” is creepy on drugs or child welfare services, but Government Paternalism saved him on his car and finances, and Elites paternalism saved him on his job choices.
  • Modern times. My last blind spot for Vance is: this is not a story about a community from the future. It’s a story about a community from the past. Unless you think history is going to slow down, this group has no chance as long as it thinks of itself as upholding some ancient ways. Somebody needs to get embedded and begin the Adaptive Leadership (the legendary book, Leadership Without Easy Answers) work of confronting the dissonance of the values and the realities.

OK, now for some prescriptions. What should be done?

  1. Military service or National service modeled on the military. Make it mandatory for everyone aged 18-20.
  2. Education. Make high school mandatory to age 18, and include content on family, behavior, conflict resolution, home economics.
  3. Social services through schools. Add the family situation to the mission of schools and use schools as a base for reaching kids and families at home.
  4. Family services. Clearly don’t work well enough yet for the world described.
  5. Social services through churches. (One reads about this in Republican policy manuals a lot. Is it not happening? WTF?) Surely social and family services could be delivered with more trust through churches. Perhaps they don’t get government funds, but this seems like a trusted institution in these regions.
  6. Addiction as a health problem. Get people health insurance and make sure everyone is monitored and treated for this.


Interview that gets into it.

Vance’s op-ed in the Times.

The Times book review.

Another wide surveying book, with more and better facts on the history of white poverty vs. white elites

David Brooks

The book, Hillbilly Elegy itself.

Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Underground Railroad

The end of white Christian America