Hillbilly Elegy - Explaining the rural vote

We’ve talked a bit in the general election thread about Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. It’s a terrific book, and besides being a well-written personal tale, it’s a great look into rural life and why the voters from those parts of the country vote the way they do. Vance talked about it a bit here.

The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

Let’s say you don’t want to spend $15 on a Kindle copy to read while sipping a latte in your bohemian cafe. What to do? This Cracked article by David Wong is a pretty good breakdown of the salient points.

“Nothing that happens outside the city matters!” they say at their cocktail parties, blissfully unaware of where their food is grown. Hey, remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Kind of weird that a big hurricane hundreds of miles across managed to snipe one specific city and avoid everything else. To watch the news (or the multiple movies and TV shows about it), you’d barely hear about how the storm utterly steamrolled rural Mississippi, killing 238 people and doing an astounding $125 billion in damage.

But who cares about those people, right? What’s newsworthy about a bunch of toothless hillbillies crying over a flattened trailer? New Orleans is culturally important. It matters.

To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites. “Are you assholes listening now?”

The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal mines. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse.

Yeah, I know. “Racists!” I’m right there with you. It’s all too easy for me to lump them up with the actual neo-Nazis and get stuck on their less-than-generous attitudes towards gays or minorities. I do it all the time. Still, I try to remember what my life was like when I was a kid and my family used to move from one podunk town to another while my dad was a career soldier. Even back when I was in the military, I was a lot more like them than otherwise.

Anyway, I know we’ve picked the motivations of rural voters apart countless times, so I guess I’m just soapboxing for a really good book.

Much like the endless false equivalence going on with this current election in the media, the media is also substantially responsible for two important things:

  1. Over-reporting the bad shit that happens in cities to give rural communities a completely wrong impression about how “dangerous” they’ve become despite overwhelming statistics which show they’re generally safer than ever.

  2. Under-reporting about how destructive GOP mayors and governors have been in those primarily rural states, by refusing to take free money for Obamacare, by cutting taxes to destructive degrees which results in cutting education and countless other vital services, refusing to take the minimum wage out of poverty levels, and other stances.

So yes, rural folk have been horrifically ignored, awfully informed about cities, and disastrously run by their government officials, yet convinced it’s all the fault of a Democratic president.

I missed whatever conversations you guys had about this book, so can I be a dissenting voice? While I appreciate Vance’s anecdotes, I didn’t really need a lecture on social conservative values from some young rich guy who made it out of the hood. That’s about a third of the book, it seems. i was rolling my eyes by the time it was over. “Let’s wrap this up, dude. You’ve run out of things to say…”

And my overall takeaway wasn’t so much insight into why white trash are trash (being white trash myself, I already knew that). My overall takeaway was that joining the Marines will kick your ass into shape. I already knew that, too, but that was the part of the book I most enjoyed.


Remember how Kanye was tarred and feathered for “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?

Ah, the halcyon days of yore, when a good ol’ boy was President and we all lived in harmony. You know, before Obama invented racism.

I’ll admit I liked that part a lot too.

The funny thing about the military is that as much flack as it gets for being a bastion of deep red hawkish sentiment, it’s also pretty good at exposing the enlistees to other people and other cultures. For some people, basic training is literally the first time they meet and work with someone of another skin color, or someone from outside of their hometowns.

At this point, the best thing for the rural white is for their opinions to be ignored. Their support of Trump pretty much has become the last straw for many folk, and I really think this is going to be the legacy of 2016 more than anything else- I suspect this is the demographic tipping point election.

I say this as one of those rural whites myself who managed to get out- due to the military.

The military was a great melting pot. It was my first experience with people from all over the country who were all on an equal playing field. It was eye-opening and embiggening.

However, I did meet my share of racists, especially being stationed in South Carolina. If you really want to hate people, no amount of melting will save you. Oh, and don’t be gay or female (at least when I was in).

Yep- same- I was stationed in SC as well- wanted to see the world, got to go the one direction in America I didn’t want to go. Mississippi was almost as bad.

Civilians gonna be civilians.

I actually put that David Wong piece on my Facebook page, and I never put stuff on Facebook. While not a perfect picture, it sure captures the essence of what is a big piece of what’s happening now.

I like to tell the story of how my wife and I volunteered some years ago to work for Howard Dean’s campaign. We live in Vermont, outside of Burlington, and are fairly liberal in a lot of our positions, though not necessarily all. In any event, Dean’s campaign seemed worthwhile (while there still was a campaign, pre-scream, of course). In the course of our brief work with this doomed enterprise, we attended a Move On (Democratic, liberal political organization, to which most of the Dean campaign folks belonged) meeting at one of the other volunteers’ condo. It was…eye opening.

The condo was very nice, certainly ritzier than our house in the near-boonies. They had some sort of designer dog. No, really, this dog I think was some obscure breed you had to like fly in from Zanzibar or something. Most of the people drove to the meeting in, I kid you not, late-model Volvos; we arrived in IIRC a rather dusty Subaru (we live on a dirt road). White wine was, indeed, served, and there might have been Brie, but certainly some sort of fancy-ish cheese.

So, already primed by this bizarre stereotype becomes reality tableau, we should not have been shocked when the conversation turned to the imminent arrival of (gasp! the horror!) a WalMart in the area. Or maybe it had just arrived and people were still miffed, I can’t recall exactly. The point is, though, that everyone except us there was adamant in their righteous anger against the evil corporation and its evil ways. Ok, admittedly, WalMart ain’t the most wonderful of corporate citizens in a lot of ways, and their labor record is hardly admirable. But here’s the kicker: none of the people at this meeting, besides me and my wife, had ever been to a WalMart, much less bought anything there. We sat there and listened to these folks go on about buying locally-made clothes at local boutiques, buying local food at organic markets, and in general all the “right” ways to consume, all the while tsk-tsking the ignorant rubes bedazzled by WalMart’s lure of cheap stuff.

We never went back, to the campaign or Move On. Both of us grew up in middle-class-ish families, hers more working class and urban than mine, as I grew up on Army bases around the world but my father was an officer. Neither of us are strangers to shopping in a variety of inexpensive stores. Hell, for years going to a civilian grocery store was a treat; it was usually the weekly commissary run, and for non-food stuff Kresges and its successor K-Mart, along with Sky, Grants, and any number of other cheap discount chains were the norm. Sears was high end. But the folks we were meeting with had zero clue about any of this. Virtually all of them were scions of what we’d call a liberal elite. While our politics coincided, our life experiences were very divergent.

So yeah, I fully agree that the GOP and the right have royally screwed the rural, small-town white working class. Absolutely. And the media has failed dismally, well, everyone, in every way. But the liberal elites have to bear some of the blame, too, because it’s been oh so easy to pretend that everyone can do like you do, that everyone has the education, the opportunities, and the resources to make the right choices relatively easily. There’s no excuse for racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and violence, but there sure are reasons for a lot of the feelings prevalent in the heartland.

On that note, it was an eye-opener for me too! Despite growing up in crappy little military towns, I’d never actually bumped into a real honest-to-gosh white supremacist until basic training. He came from somewhere in West Virginia and proudly told everyone how his “granpap” was an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK.

It was surreal being around him. He’d talk your ear off about hunting or fishing like he was your buddy, then casually drop a bomb about “the ni**ers” or “the ch*nks” ruining everything. I would just look at him an be like. “Hello? Asian guy here?” He’d get a “aw shucks” look and pass it off with “Well, not you, man.”

As long as the party of no government has a lock on the rural voter it’s not going to get any better. Democrats don’t care,and don’t need to and Republicans can just keep peddling their faith based solutions to all the problems, with predictable results.

Basic logic would say that eventually people would try something different, instead of more of the same, but even harder this time.

I was listening to the Foreign Policy podcast today which discussed the long term implications of Trump’s campaign. All were in violent agreement - in fact the conversation was framed as a discussion about - about the problems that Trump’s sexism, racism seditious behavior will cause in the long run. They wondered if this lanced boil, or crazy uncle, is interrupting the reckoning that the Republicans will have to make with their own demons in order to survive. But one commentator was especially strident even beyond this. To paraphrase: America isn’t a democracy and it’s a joke to pretend otherwise, because the existence of the Senate gives disproportionate influence to rural, white states. And it struck me then that I was hearing exactly what conservatives have said all along - that until every city, every state, and every county is a rainbow of diversity a white majority is a racist majority, which we abhor and want to, by measures, eliminate. Liberals look forward to the wave of ethnic change that will sweep away white America as the final solution to conservative dysfunction.

Peasants va the literate classes, basically. The idea that “liberal elites” look forward to the elimination of “white America” really is true, to one extent or another. Whether or not the peasants are doe eyes pastoralists or mouth breathing white trash racists is incidental to their apprehension of this existetial threat of their historic continuity as an “entity” (nation, ethnic group, tribe, ect.). Make of it what you will.

The Senate has always been a conservative, and at times reactionary, institution. The whole Civil War thing centered on the Senate serving to keep the slave states on board, by virtue of its two-senators-per-state-regardless-of-population thing, at a time when the non-slave holding North was growing, largely in its cities and towns, and eclipsing the South in the House. On paper, it sounded like a good compromise, and was, until around 1820 and Missouri, but from then on things started going downhill. What started as a way to balance big and small, agricultural and mercantile, ended up being a backstop for slavery and resistance to change (or progress, as the North saw it).

But it’s enshrined as part of our government, partly because the founders certainly wanted a conservative firewall against radicalism in general, and pretty integral to the way the republic is set up. Don’t know what anyone could–or should–do about it per se.


This topic felt really familiar until I did some Googling and remembered it came up in an article in The Atlantic.

I still think class is going to make race and gender issues seem quaint in the long run, especially when you throw robotics and AI into the mix. Wee!

I don’t get what Trump is offering that can be any type of salve to these folks. I’ve yet to read a single valid Trump ‘plan’ that would actually help anyone or any thing. I mean he is recognizing the hardships but that’s about where it ends, other than playing up their fears to galvanize his support.

Four more years of pretending that the world hasn’t moved on.

Might not have been good social science, but somewhat relevant:

Besides this, many anti‐Semites — the majority, perhaps — belong to the lower middle class of the towns; they are functionaries, office workers, small businessmen, who possess nothing. It is in opposing themselves to the Jew that they suddenly become conscious of being proprietors: in representing the Jew as a robber, they put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed. Since the Jew wishes to take France from them, it follows that France must belong to them. Thus they have chosen anti‐Semitism as a means of establishing their status as possessors. The Jew has more money than they? So much the better: money is Jewish, and they can despise it as they despise intelligence. They own less than the gentleman‐farmer of Périgord or the large‐scale farmer of the Beauce? That doesn’t matter. All they have to do is nourish a vengeful anger against the robbers of Israel and they feel at once in possession of the entire country. True Frenchmen, good Frenchmen are all equal, for each of them possesses for himself alone France whole and indivisible.

The Senate is increasingly obsolete in the face of growing Federal authority - really it should have been eliminated after the Civil War - and would in an ideal world become the equivalent of the House of Lords. But in my example above, her beef wasn’t with the institution of the Senate, but the fact that the Senate disproportionately gave white voters power; presumably her objections would disappear once this fact had changed, though tbh she didn’t speak long enough for me to tell if she was looking at this from a historical perspective or not.

I had a big, long, tiresome screed no one wants to read mashed out, then deleted it. Basically though it’s easy in the US to find traditional racially motivated explanations as to the rise of Trump, since the US has a history of racial conflict, but these seem to fail to explain why then nationalist parties are on the rise across Europe. Many see a parallel to the gross sexism of Trump as being somehow fitting final obstacle to overcome in the first female Presidential campaign, but it’s also in a sense the last speed bump before a globalizing, neoliberal socioeconomic view becomes not the unintended consequence but guiding philosophy of the age, and so maybe the apprehension of that impending philosophical success is the link connecting these movements around the world.

[To Engigm’s post; for some reason the quote thing quoted the wrong thing.]

It’s a bit of a stretch, but not much, to see what you’re describing as the latest in the tale that began (for us) with the agrarian-mercantile split between Jefferson and Hamilton. We used to point to the election of 1896 and the death of the original Populist movement as the point where the agrarian vision faded away, but the echoes of it appear to have had remarkable staying power, only now stripped of much of their actual agricultural trappings (just as the industrial vision that triumphed with McKinley has been stripped of its actual manufacturing trappings).