Rattled by Trump and Brexit, elites have vowed to listen to the heartland. For example, the well-funded centrist think tank Third Way dispatched several experts to Western Wisconsin to talk to focus groups of voters. Reporter Molly Ball followed the researchers, and chronicled rambunctious meetings and polarized political views. “We don’t have any Muslims here, and that’s a good thing, because Muslims are trouble,” said one Chamber of Commerce official. A “hippie” pushed single-payer health care. Union members demanded much more spending on social services: “If we can’t help each other,” one said, “what are we, a pack of wolves—we eat the weakest one? It’s shameful.” The tour revealed an America growing more divided, with few if any horizons of understanding shared by the left and right.
And what did Third Way make of these diverse opinions? That the community’s “biggest frustrations” are “laggard government and partisan squabbling”—exactly Third Way’s point of view before its listening tour. Despite hearing earnestly partisan sentiments, Third Way stuck with its preconceptions about the wisdom of centrist bipartisanship. Western Wisconsin could speak, but official circles would only hear it in a certain way.
Sadly, this tendency does not just affect think tanks. Guardians of our public discourse do not like to acknowledge social conflict. When they do, they do not want structural forces or actual figures on inequality at the forefront of the conversation. Better, instead, to focus on personal stories, cultural politics, the comedies and tragedies of manners that unfold when very different citizens of a deeply divided country somehow find themselves cheek by jowl. Do not burden us with the sense that there might just be irreconcilable differences among citizens, they insist—and, if you do, please lighten the message with a sense that politics might not matter that much after all.
The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild advances the first of these messages in Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press, $17.99, 416 pp.). The financier J. D. Vance advances the second in Hillbilly Elegy (Harper, $16.99, 288 pp.). Hochschild wants to build bridges between red and blue America, while Vance tries to assure each side that their policy disputes pale in comparison with the role of culture and family in perpetuating inequality. Their fans bill them as tellers of hard truths, willing to challenge orthodoxies with hard-won insights into the character, views, and outlook of rural America in general and Trump voters in particular. But both books ultimately reinforce elite meta-narratives about the wisdom of centrism and the limits of politics. Fortunately, along the way to these conventional conclusions, Vance and Hochschild unintentionally reveal the real foundations of America’s political divides.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an inspiring story of personal transformation and growth. Vance grew up in an unstable, impoverished household in Appalachia. But during high school, his grandmother (Mamaw) took him in. Mamaw is the hero of the book: a fierce and profane matriarch, pained and breathless from a long series of chronic illnesses, but still loving, loud, effusive, blustery. Mamaw goads, cajoles, inspires, demands—and the young J. D. heeded it all, successfully applying to Ohio State University.
Daunted by a mountain of financial-aid forms, and worried that he isn’t yet disciplined enough to succeed in college, Vance had second thoughts, and detoured into the Marines. After succeeding in military public relations, he returned to OSU, working a number of jobs to put himself through college. The next stop was Yale Law School, where he studied diligently, earned some plum job offers in conservative politics and law, and fell in love with a fellow law student.
A progressive could easily tell Vance’s story as an object lesson in the value of government. Many in his town could have starved if basic disability, old age, or nutritional benefits dried up. Medicaid was probably a lifeline, too. Vance vacillated on whether he should go to college, but the G.I. Bill covered enough of his tuition that he could pay the rest with wages. He took out loans for law school, and those may well have been subsidized. He credits the military with transforming him into a strong, competent, brave soldier. In other words, when he submitted himself entirely to government control—of what he ate, when he woke up, how much he exercised, where and how he had to work—he finally matured.
But Vance tells exactly the opposite story in his book, offering a familiar tale of rugged individualism. If only there weren’t so many government handouts, maybe the ne’er-do-wells in the “holler” would get their act together and hold down a steady job. Reflecting on the fate of young people in Appalachia who don’t have a “Mamaw” figure to guide them, Vance writes, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” He continually minimizes the power of government to do anything positive for Appalachians. This is music to the ears of people like the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who runs a hedge fund where Vance has worked.