These remarks were delivered at The American Conservative’s annual gala in Washington, D.C. on May 9.
Well, thanks Jim for that introduction and thanks for hosting me. Thanks so much to Johnny for making this possible, and really thanks to The American Conservative, a publication that I’m very much indebted to. You may know that when Hillbilly Elegy, my book, came out in June of 2016, it was received reasonably well, but wasn’t even close to making the bestseller list.
And then I gave an interview to a guy who reached out to me by the name of Rod Dreher on The American Conservative website, and it was a really engaging interview. I mean, it was a written interview, and I remember the questions were insightful and perceptive, and I answered them as best I could.
And when I checked the Amazon ranking of my book—as any author will know, you check it obsessively in the age of the modern internet—I noticed that it had leaped up to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. And around that same time, I got an email from Rod telling me that we’d crashed the servers, which I was hoping that tonight I’d get to buy a drink for The American Conservative IT guy because I think I owe him a few things. I haven’t met him, but I appreciate his work on my behalf. But the book would simply have not reached the audience that it had without the work and without the support of Rod, especially, and The American Conservative, more generally.
And more importantly, just because of where I grew up and how I grew up, I think that as exciting as it is to spend some time in rooms like this, and as invigorating as it can be to spend time with the American elites, as people back home call them, it is sometimes a little off putting and unfamiliar and even a bit terrifying.
And it’s been good to rely on the friendship of some of the people in this room, especially Rod, who’s been really a guide, a person who has listened to me when I needed a friendly ear, and has kept me from becoming too big for my britches when I needed a stern talking to. And so, I appreciate Rod and I appreciate everything that The American Conservative has done on my behalf, and really on the behalf of this broader movement.
I wrote Hillbilly Elegy because I wanted to answer a very big question, but in a very personal way. I wanted to try to explore why it was that so many of my friends and family back home, and really even myself at certain times during my life, had lost faith in what we call the American dream.
There was this sense in which the future had been a very optimistic place for my grandparents, for my great grandparents, for the entire lineage of the people that we came from. And yet, by the time that I came around, people looked to the future with a little bit of frustration and a little bit of uncertainty.
There were some very funny iterations and funny examples of that particular phenomenon. I found myself, after I went to Yale Law School, in environments that were very unfamiliar. I remember one in particular where I was at an event not too dissimilar from this trying to get a job at a fancy D.C. law firm, and I remember beforehand they had us corralled into this cocktail reception and a waitress came around and said, “Would you like some wine?”
And I said, “Sure, I’ll take some wine.” She said, “Would you like red or white?” And I said, “I’ll take some white wine.” And then she said, “Do you like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc?” And I actually remember thinking to myself, “This woman is screwing with me. She’s playing a joke. She needs to cut out these fancy French words and just give me some white wine.”
I used my powers of deduction to recognize that those were two separate types of white wine, and so I ordered the Chardonnay because that was the word that I found easiest to pronounce. But while my lack of place among the American elite sometimes had some funny consequences, it also had some not so funny consequence and not so funny implications.
And what I realized very early on in my education at Yale Law School is that people like me just didn’t quite belong there, we didn’t know how to navigate through that environment, we didn’t know how to find mentors, we didn’t know how to seek and achieve the professional relationships that were necessary.
And it hit me that there was something very deeply wrong about what was going on in our society if a kid like me, a kid raised to believe in the American dream, was so unfamiliar with it when he actually encountered it, or at least when he encountered what people expected it to be.
That’s why I wrote Hillbilly Elegy, and if you read the book, you’ll know that one of the tensions that runs throughout that book, the tension of a life of a person who came from what we call disadvantage or lack of privilege. My family didn’t have a lot of money, there was a lot of addiction in my household, there was even some abuse in my household.
But the tension that runs through this book, and really the tension that animates so much of my life and how I think about politics, is where does personal responsibility begin and where does responsibility of the broader community end?
I have been criticized from the Right for writing a book that if taken to its logical conclusions, would lead to a lot of big government programs, and I’ve been criticized from the Left for writing a libertarian small-government manifesto. And I don’t totally know what that means, maybe I’m just not a very good writer.
But what I think it means is that I was and continue to struggle with this idea of where does personal responsibility interact with the responsibility of politics in the broader society? I was in Southeastern Ohio, which is really ground zero for the opioid epidemic not too long ago, and I was talking with a woman who’s the only licensed youth counselor in that section of Ohio, a very tough job in an area very hard hit.
And she was telling me about an eight-year-old kid of hers, an eight-year-old patient, who had become addicted to opioids. Now, the way this kid had become addicted to opioids is that his parents, like a lot of folks in the area, dealt drugs on the side to support their habit, and because they didn’t have a lot of money, they would reward this kid, they would send this kid on drug runs to deliver the drugs. And when he made a successful delivery, they would give him a Vicodin because they didn’t have a whole lot of money laying around, but they had a whole lot of pills laying around.
And so, at the tender age of eight, this kid is addicted to a substance with incredibly powerful and long-lasting effects on his young brain. And it occurs to me that folks on the Left will look at a kid like that and say, “Well, if that kid just had better job opportunities and better educational opportunities, that all of his problems would go away.” That strikes me as so naïve, so ignorant of the role of family and community, so ignorant of the role of some individual choice, that despite that kid’s disadvantage, he still has some hope in the world.
But for the folks on the Right, and I think there’re unfortunately too many of them, who look at that kid and say, “Well, he just needs to exercise some more personal responsibility and he’ll have his fair share of the American dream.” I think that they’re missing something fundamental, something that Edmund Burke would’ve recognized, that the institutional and economic and community dynamics in which we’re raised, they influence us, they influence what’s possible to us, they influence what’s available to us, and they influence how we ultimately exercise that personal responsibility that’s so important.
And so, at a fundamental level, I think we have to develop a cultural aesthetic within the conservative movement that encourages that young boy to see himself as an agent, to see himself as a person with hope and optimism for the future. And one of the reactions I’ve always had to the politics on the Left is this view that somehow because people are disadvantaged, because they are poor, they have no control and they have no agency. I rejected that as a kid, it’s one of the reasons that I adopted the politics that I did.
But we make a mistake, I think, many of us on the Right, many conservatives make the mistake of looking at that kid and ignoring the role that politics must play in giving that kid a better shot and a better chance at his dreams. And I say his dreams because that is an important thing that is so often missing from this conversation about the American dream.
It’s a concept that if you ask 100 different people in this town, you would probably get 100 different answers, but Washington, D.C., as we all know, is fundamentally a town of strivers, it is a town of people who are seeking power, responsibility, influence.
But the American dream of my youth, and I suspect the American dream of that eight-year-old boy, is not to become a chief of staff to a powerful member of the Senate, it’s not to become an executive of a Fortune 500 company, it’s to become a good dad one day, a good husband, a person who works at a dignified and meaningful job that allows him to put food on the table.
That’s the American dream that is in crisis, and that’s the American dream that is shared by so many people across the broad middle of the country. It is not the American dream of the strivers, it is the American dream of a fulfilled and happy and simple, but I think a very pure and very decent life. And that is, in my view, what is most in crisis in our country today, and that’s something that we conservatives have to fight for and we have to defend.
There’s an economic component to the decline of the American dream. We can talk about stagnating middle class wages, it’s of course a topic that earns a lot of attention and deservedly so. We can talk about the fact that a child born in the 1950s had over 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents, but a child born in the 1980s, when I was born, has about a 50 percent chance of earning more than their parents. But I think those economic indicators and the economic focus misses something so fundamental that’s going on at the heart of Middle America right now.
There is, of course, an opioid epidemic that last year, I believe, claimed over 70,000 lives, more lives than gun violence, more lives than car accidents, more lives than HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic. There is still, in the midst of a great economy that’s seeing rising wages for the first time in a very long time, there is family disillusion, there are elevated rates of family trauma, there are far too many kids who are growing up in single parent families without a mom and a dad.
And that social component of our crisis, that way in which if your American dream is to be a good dad or to be a good husband, a good mom or a good wife, that is the American dream that seems to be disappearing even in the wake of a solid economy. Because for the past 20 or 30 years, we’ve had booms and busts, we’ve had recessions and good times in the business cycle, but the very consistent trend is that people in the middle of the country have not done well economically, and more importantly, they haven’t done well socially either.
What do we do about that? My fear and the thing that I want to criticize tonight is that this crisis in the American dream requires a conservative politics. And I don’t mean to be glib when I call it a conservative politics. What I mean to say is that it requires more than a libertarian politics, which is what I think we’ve had in the domestic area of the Right for a very long time.
It is very common to hear from folks on the Right that all we need to solve the problem of Middle America and the declining American dream is maybe a supply side tax cut and a little bit of a lecture about personal responsibility. It is all too common, from the leadership of the American Right these days, to place the focus on the commercial interests who donate to Republican campaigns and not enough on the people who actually work and vote for Republican campaigns.
What I worry about is that we have outsourced, in the conservative movement, our economic and our domestic policy thinking to the libertarians. And that’s not always bad. The libertarians have very good ideas. The reason we did it, I think, is in part because Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek were very compelling in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and their ideas still carry a lot of weight.
But at a fundamental level, if we’re worried about moms and dads not being as involved at home, if we’re worried about rising rates of childhood trauma, if we’re worried about the fact that in this country today, for maybe the first extended period in our country’s history, we’re not even having enough children in this country to replace ourselves. If we’re worried about those problems, then we have to be willing to pursue a politics that actually wants to accomplish something besides just making government smaller.
Sometimes government needs to be smaller, but sometimes it actually needs to work better and it needs to work for goals that conservatives actually care about. Now, I know my libertarian friends, they hear things like that and they say, “Well, why should we care if people are having fewer kids if they choose to have fewer kids?” And there’s definitely an economic argument for why we should care about declining fertility in this country.
There’s the simple fact that if you look at the economic evidence, places that have fewer children have less innovation, less dynamism, they’re less stable societies. There’s the very basic mathematical fact that we have a social welfare state that is built around more young workers coming in as older workers retire, and you can’t have more young workers unless you have more children.
But I’d suggest that if we focus too much on the economic factors, we’re missing the very thing that makes us conservative. I care about declining fertility because I’ve seen the role of fatherhood, the positive role that it can play in the lives of my friends and in my community. I’ve seen young men who are relatively driftless, but became rooted and grounded when they had children. I’ve seen people who become more attached to their communities, to their families, to their country, because they have children. And in my own life, I’ve felt the demons that come from a traumatic childhood melt away in the laughter, in the love, of my own son.
I would say that we should care about declining fertility, not just because it’s bad for our economy, but because we think babies are good, and we think babies are good because we’re not sociopaths.
Now, I won’t sit up here and preach at you a conservative platform for the next 21st century. I will not tell you precisely what that conservative politics looks like for two reasons. The first is that it’s pretty late, and I imagine you’ve had a fair amount to drink, and I don’t want to keep you too long. But the second is that we still need to figure out a lot of the details for how this vision of conservative politics, a pro-family, pro-worker, pro-American nation, conservatism actually looks in practice.
There’s a lot of work to be done. I think in broad strokes, there are a few things that that conservatism will posses. Let me illustrate first, just by telling a story. I had dinner not too long ago in Aspen, Colorado, that headquarters of American conservatism, with a labor leader, not a natural political ally for somebody from the Right, who told me about an off-the-record conversation he had with the CEO of one of America’s largest financial corporations.
And that CEO got very frustrated when the labor leader suggested that American corporations owed something to the American nation. The CEO said, “Well, my shareholders are international, my customers and clients are international, my employees are international. Why do I care about what happens to the American family more than I care about what happens to a family in China or in Europe?”
Now, my response to that is, your business is built on the back of shipping lanes policed by the American Navy, your international trade system would be impossible were it not for the security provided by the American Air Force, the secure life that you lead would not be possible were it not for the protection of American Marines, soldiers, internationally, and American policemen at home.
You enjoy remarkable medical advances that prolong the life of you and your loved ones built on the back of American research dollars at American research institutions. Of course you owe something to the American nation that you don’t owe to everybody else, and we need to build a conservatism that recognizes that fact.
That conservatism would focus in immigration policy in a way that recognizes the remarkable contributions of American immigration, but does so in a way that maximizes the benefits and the upsides for the American worker. It would build a foreign policy that was built around fiercely securing and defending America’s national interests, but not sacrificing so many of the people that I served with to imperial hubris.
And it would build a family policy that made it easier for American families to care for their children, to educate their children, to ensure that their children had access to high quality healthcare, and that recognized, at some fundamental level, that we are all in this together as Americans. And if we want to live in a country that’s prosperous, and free, and secure, and safe, and dynamic, we’ve got to have the next generation of Americans able to live their American dream, whatever form that might take.
Now, I’d suggest that as we’re building that next generation of conservative politics, as we figure out the details of the policies that need to take shape, we focus our minds and our efforts on who we’re for. Who are we for as conservatives? It’s not just commercial interests. Commercial interests are important, businesses are important, but at the end of the day, if we’re only listening to commercial interests, we’re not listening to other folks.
We are on the Right rightfully worried, and even appalled, by some of the rhetoric from the Left on abortion these days. Governor Northam of Virginia talking about aborting a child in the third trimester, the fact that every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed, in some measure, third trimester abortion.
But when I think about the modern Democratic Party’s rhetoric on abortion, the thing that worries me most is not what they’ve said about third trimester abortions, it’s what Stacey Abrams said about the Georgia heartbeat bill not long ago, that it was bad for business. And of course, she’s right. Workers with children are more expensive, their healthcare policies cost more, they are less dedicated to their jobs and more dedicated to their families, and I say we want more of those workers and less of Stacey Abrams’ workers.
But we’re for a lot of people. We’re for people like my grandma who raised me, who picked up the slack when no one else in my family could, who couldn’t afford her prescription drugs, but made sure that I had a calculator that I needed so that I could do well in math class in high school. We’re for American workers who want to build a life in their homes with dignified jobs and raise the families supported by those dignified jobs.
And I think, on this topic of family policy, we’ve got to be for families and we’ve got to be for families explicitly. When I was in law school, I took a train from New Haven to New York City, and I sat next to this young woman, probably no older than 21, who had a toddler probably not much older than my two-year-old son. And if you’ve traveled with a kid, you know how much of a nightmare it can be, and this kid was just a real terror. He did not want to be on that train and he did not want to be stuck there with his mom.
And what occurred to me when I sat on that train is how unbelievably rude and unsupportive everybody around us was. People were sighing, they were giving her dirty looks, they were casting negative glances, they were getting up and leaving in a very performative way. And I think about this woman a lot because I think that in some ways she’s done one of the most heroic things imaginable.
I could tell by the way that she was dressed that she didn’t earn a lot of money. I could tell by the circumstances of her life that she didn’t have a whole lot of support with that kid. And because she was a black woman, I could say with some statistical probability that she probably wasn’t supporting Republican candidates for political office.
But I think we have to build a Republican Party that supports her, even if she doesn’t want to support us, at least not in the beginning. Because I think about that woman and as stressed out as she was and as hard as it was, she was a good mom. She was patient, and she was kind, and she was dedicated to that baby. And if we are not for good mothers and the dreams of their children, then what the hell are we doing?
Now, we live in a very exciting moment for American conservatism. I do think that Donald Trump has really opened up the debate on a lot of these issues, from foreign policy, to healthcare, to trade, to immigration. But I think one of the lessons of the Trump presidency, this far in, is that a politician with good instincts on issues like trade is not enough to build a political movement around. We need think tanks, we need intellectuals, we need academics. We need people debating these big public policy issues, and we need people figuring out how to turn our values into real actionable public policy.
That is hard work, but it’s work that I’m excited about. I’m excited about it because I know so many of you and I’ve spoken with so many of you this evening. I’m excited about it because we have journals like The American Conservative where we can debate, engage, and support the important ideas that exist on the Right. And because of that, I’m incredibly grateful and honored that you folks welcome me here. I’m grateful for the work that you do at The American Conservative, and I encourage you, with every fiber in my being, to keep doing it because it’s so very important.
J. D. Vance is the author of the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
See full video, including introductory remarks by TAC editor W. James Antle III, below.