I’m going to do something I haven’t done before and write a “pre-review” for my next reading challenge book. I picked up a copy of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance from the library today.
“From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.” Goodreads
We all have a way of seeing the world that enhances our own survival, a “framework” of sorts. This framework helps us understand, relate to, and learn from those around us. When we stop training our frames to recognize new patterns—for example, by meeting new people or reading about new ideas—we risk narrowing the way we think.
One of my reading goals this year is to hear more from voices that are too often silenced. That means authors of color, as well as less-than-popular political opinions. In reading Hillbilly Elegy I hope to better understand the framework that drives 41.6% of the country, while at the same time broadening mine through self-reflection.
This idea first came to me after the debacle that was November 8. To say I was “distraught” is an understatement; I was numb, I was frustrated, and I was fearful. Two days later I attended a public forum hosted by Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party, and Christian Sinderman, a political consultant. There they discussed the results of the state and federal elections, touching on polling results, what happened in the election, and where the two major parties seem to be headed from here out.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the forum was the first time I paid attention to the conservative anger that helped elect a man like Donald Trump. Like others living in predominately blue or liberal states, I underestimated their resentment and strong desire to “realign” America.
There had been a growing stagnation with Rust Belt* voters due to 30 years of bi-partisan alienation. It began with Reagan’s anti-union, anti-government posturing, continued through Clinton’s NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), and culminated with Bush and the Great Recession. While Democrats offered voters less Wall Street and more employment and training services, the GOP offered lower taxes and easier answers. Trump gave constituents a socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment clarity they lacked with previous corporate-backed Republicans.
According to Vance and Sinderman, most voters were rational and not all were racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic (did I leave anything out?). Their choosing Trump was a rational expression of frustration with the “rigged” establishment and economy. In Trump they found somebody that gave voice to their struggles.
This is where I have a hard time empathizing with conservatives and Trump supporters, and this is what I hope Hillbilly Elegy explains to me. I understand why someone would act in their own self-interest, but not when it’s at the expense of almost everybody else. Electing a man who spewed nothing but hatred towards many individuals and groups because he promised you would have your steel manufacturing job back is just cruel. Supporting a candidate who has proven both by his words and by his actions that he will not ensure the health and safety of so many is deeply disturbing.
I say all this because I hope Hillbilly Elegy will give me some clarity. I hope it can offer practical suggestions about how to move forward. I hope it will help me reconcile my empathy for a group of people who are losing their way of life, and my anger at (what appears to me as) their insensitivity.
If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I’d like to read your (non-spoiler) thoughts about it. If you haven’t yet, will you pick it up? Check back later for my full review.
*The Rust Belt is a term for the region from the Great Lakes to the upper Midwest States, referring to economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector.