Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J. D. Vance
HarperCollins, New York, 2016
The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
By Katherine J. Cramer
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016
Before we shove 2016 out the back door, I want to post my last review of the year. A double-header this time.
Like a lot of people, I was pretty shocked by the outcome of the November 8 election. The day after, it felt like I had woken up in a country I didn’t recognize anymore. What just happened? How could it have happened?
I live in the Seattle area, up in the northleft coast. I’m employed in the tech sector. I’m white and well-educated. I thought I understood some of the anger that came out during the campaign, but it was pretty clear afterwards that I didn’t understand it enough.
So I did what I usually do when I don’t understand something. I read.
I read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
Both books are set in Midwest swing states; Hillbilly Elegy in Kentucky and Ohio, and The Politics of Resentment in Wisconsin. Both books helped me understand, in different ways, how the circumstances, cultures and forces at play in these regions contributed to Donald Trump’s election victory.
Although two books do not an expert make, I feel like I’m better informed than before. However, I wouldn’t say I’m more sympathetic.
Let me come back to that. First, I want to review each book briefly and then I’ll offer some unsolicited feedback of my own.
Hillbilly Elegy is certainly the more popular of the two books. It’s been on the New York Times best-seller list for about twenty weeks as of this writing.
It’s J. D. Vance’s autobiographical account of growing up in a dysfunctional, abusive family in Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky.
Vance’s family history mirrors the history of the region. Following World War II, his grandparents moved from the coal mining area of southeastern Kentucky to central Ohio. They were part of a large migration of people, hillbillies, who escaped Appalachia’s grinding poverty and built middle class lives for themselves and their families in the manufacturing centers of the industrial Midwest.
But by the mid-1970’s, things started to change: economic prospects dimmed, globalization and technological change caused many well-paying manufacturing jobs to head overseas, poverty increased and the middle-class began to “hollow out”. The decline has continued for the last forty years.
By the time Vance was growing up, Middletown was well past its economic heyday.
Vance recounts how he was able to rise above his hillbilly roots and impoverished upbringing through hard work and the support of key family members, especially his grandmother, and a few friends and teachers. He served in the Marines in Iraq, and earned degrees from Ohio State and Yale Law School. It really is a remarkable story.
Along the way he’s reflected on the factors and the character traits that lead some people to succeed and others to fail. While he acknowledges the roles that poverty and privilege have to play, he also believes that the values and beliefs of different groups are important factors too.
“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” [p. 194]
Vance criticizes the right for encouraging the view that government is to blame, rather than people’s own attitudes and efforts.
“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” [p. 194]
But he’s no fan of the Democratic Party either, nor of big government. While working as a cashier at a local grocery store during high school he became a keen observer of the store’s customers.
“As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. … We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.” [p. 139]
That resentment and mistrust is a perfect segue …
The Politics of Resentment
The Politics of Resentment is an ethnographic study that Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted over 5 years from May 2007 through November 2012. She travelled extensively throughout the state of Wisconsin, meeting repeatedly with 39 small groups of voters in 27 communities.
The study period coincided with a tumultuous time in Wisconsin history, a time that included the Great Recession, the 2008 and 2012 elections of Barack Obama, the 2010 election of Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin, and the subsequent “ruckus” over Act 10 which among other things stripped many Wisconsin public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
What Cramer discovered in her travels through Wisconsin is a deep rural/urban divide in which “many rural residents exhibit an intense resentment against their urban counterparts.” [p. 5]
“A politics of resentment arises from the way social identities, the emotion of resentment, and economic insecurity interact. In a politics of resentment, resentment toward fellow citizens is front and center. People understand their circumstances as the fault of guilty and less deserving social groups, not as the product of broad social, economic and political forces.” [p. 9]
The explanation for this resentment, the lens through which rural residents view and make sense of their world is something Cramer calls “rural consciousness.”
“Rural consciousness” is the term I am using to describe a strong sense of identity as a rural person combined with the strong sense that rural areas are the victims of injustice: the sense that rural areas do not get their fair share of power, respect or resources and that rural folks prefer lifestyles that differ dramatically from those of city people.” [p. 89]
Whether this sense of injustice has any empirical basis is debatable, as Cramer herself shows by comparing taxes, government spending, household income and several other indicators in rural vs. urban areas. However, the point is that “many rural residents perceive that rural communities are the victims of economic injustice.” [p. 104]
And that sense of identity rooted in injustice drives the politics of resentment.
“This is how the politics of resentment operates – it works through seemingly simple divisions of us versus them, but it has power because in these divisions are a multitude of fundamental understandings: who has power, who has what values and which of those values are right, who gets what, and perceptions of the basic fairness of all of this.” [p. 87]
One consequence of this politics of resentment, pertinent to the 2016 elections, is that people in rural Wisconsin tend to vote Republican. At first glance this makes no sense. Why would working-class rural people vote for Donald Trump or for any Republican candidate when the GOP traditionally favors policies that benefit the rich? Why do they vote against their own economic interests? Are they stupid? Have they been duped?
Cramer argues no. She argues that rural consciousness leads rural people to favor limited government, not as an ideological principle per se, but rather as a consequence of the belief, and the resentment, that government resources and programs will benefit others, not them. Specifically, if you believe you won’t benefit from government programs, and that the people who will benefit are less hard-working and less deserving than you – urban professionals and public sector employees for example, or J. D. Vance’s drug-addicted, T-bone-buying neighbor – then you might tend to oppose government programs generally, and oppose the people and parties that propose them.
Both books are worth reading but if you have time for only one of them, I’d recommend The Politics of Resentment. It’s an academic work so it’s drier reading, but it ultimately provides deeper insights.
As I said at the beginning, these two books have helped me become better informed about the people and conditions in some Midwestern swing states, but they haven’t made me more sympathetic.
Don’t get me wrong: the hardship and suffering of working class people in Wisconsin or Ohio or other rust belt states is certainly real. But so is the hardship and suffering of the urban poor, of single mothers, of African Americans, of Hispanic and Muslim immigrants, of many others. There’s nothing admirable about resenting other groups different than your own just because they live differently or work differently than you do. I am completely unsympathetic to any sort of politics of resentment.
I got the sense that the people described in these books have no more understanding of what’s going on outside their local areas than I do outside mine.
In other words, coastal liberals aren’t the only people living in a bubble.
What these books do shed light on is how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in these states. Without going into a full post mortem on the campaign – another time perhaps – it’s clear that she failed to get across a compelling economic message that offered hope and help to working-class white voters, failed to convince them that a Clinton administration would be receptive to their views and responsive to their needs.
That’s baffling and incompetent and tragic.
The fact that voters in these states felt they either could take a chance or had to take a chance on Donald Trump is, frankly, frightening and also tragic.
If our politics were functioning properly, we’d be trying to figure out how best to help people wherever and however they’re struggling. It’s not. Both Hillbilly Elegy and The Politics of Resentment explore the impact of that dysfunction on individuals and their communities, and help us understand the consequences for the country as a whole.
Review of Hillbilly Elegy in The Guardian.
Interview with Katherine Cramer in The Washington Post.