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Why Liberals Love ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

J.D. Vance's bestselling memoir has a fan club on the Left
HillbillyElegy Final Jacket

My friend Matt Sitman tweets:

Yes, but the more interesting question, at least to me, is why so many liberals like it — or at least why they are writing to me in droves saying how the interview J.D. Vance did with me deeply resonated with them, and inspired them to buy the book. (By the way, that interview was published two weeks ago today, and it’s still drawing so much web traffic to this site that our servers are struggling to handle it.) I’ll give you a sample below of the kind of correspondence I’m getting (with a couple of tweaks to protect privacy). There’s lots of it just like these below:

Mr. Dreher, this article was fantastic.

I grew up in rural Alabama, proudly declared myself “politically somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun”, and enlisted when I was 17. I had a difficult time getting out at 23 years old, several states away from my family, with a grownup’s bills to pay but an MOS that didn’t match the career I was suited for or needed as a civilian. I spent the next several years desperately poor but “self-sufficient” – as far as I knew, anyway.

In reality, of course, I had zero understanding of how taxes work. I saw about a 28% bite taken out of my paycheck, and didn’t understand that FICA/SS didn’t ultimately go to anybody but me, myself, and I, and that I wasn’t actually paying any income tax. I also had heard of but didn’t really understand or care about things like “every federal tax dollar that leaves SC has three federal tax dollars pass by it coming in.”

Truth be told, I wasn’t just unaware, I actively disbelieved that I wasn’t “self sufficient” at all, and I naively thought that I was paying for the “welfare” that the tiny, tiny portion of the population “poorer than me” was getting. I was also completely unaware that I was “desperately poor” at all. I was making $6/hr and I thought I was middle class! I knew people who made $10/hr, and I thought they were on the low end of upper class!
Eventually I made a real career for myself, started my own business, and spent less time scratching and kicking and fighting just to stay alive. The more time and resources I had, the more I learned about how the world, and politics, worked, and the more progressive I became. I am not, today, someone who would normally read articles from a site called “American Conservative”.

But I read yours, and I’m glad I did. What you and J.D. Vance had to say in that article are exactly what I want to hear from the conservative wing of American politics. Speaking candidly, I’m unlikely to be a “conservative” again – I’m a progressive, and likely to stay that way. But what you and Vance said was thoughtful, and reasonable, and – like I try to very publicly be myself, having “been there and done that” – understanding of the realities of the working poor. It’s the real and sensible ballast that even the best of real and sensible balloons (if you’ll permit the analogy between conservative and progressive, and we can both agree to handwave away the fact that the current DNC is neither as real or as sensible as it should be) needs.

That’s probably way too much to slog through, but seriously: thank you.

Another one:

I thoroughly enjoyed this article! The conversation is not one that I have witnessed anyone else having. It is so easy to dismiss people as racist without ever considering from where their views and positions are derived. I am certainly going to read Hillbilly Elegy and look forward to reading more of your articles, By the way I am black, liberal, I most often vote Democrat and I don’t like Trump (for Reasons too high in number to state). I enjoy intelligent conversation and debate and have learned to carefully listen to and understand those who I may disagree with, so I might be educated fully on the issue not just entrenched in my beliefs.

Thank you for a refreshing read in a sea partisan sludge.

Another one, this from a reader who mistakenly believed that J.D. Vance’s experiences were mine. Still, his letter is fascinating:

I wandered in on this article today… and couldn’t stop reading. I’m Californian, a progressive and a Sanders supporter, a former Nader supporter, a former UAW organizer, currently a medical
devices engineer in [state], and have a Ph.D. in engineering. I grew up in a town 5 miles north of the Mexican border in south San Diego, and grew up among Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented… they were my neighbors, my friends, my elders. I myself am an immigrant, came here as a kid with my parents, who were liberals who wanted something better than that right-wing dictatorship in [another country].

But I did grow up around the poverty line. My parents fought hard to
stay out of welfare, to stay together, and to teach us the value of
work. At 43, I have always worked since I was 14, and have always
associated these traits with working-class liberal values… and was
quite surprised many election cycles ago to hear silver-spooned class enemies in the GOP pick that up. What did these bastards know about real work? But it also pains me to see the elites, especially the East Coast elites, take over the Democratic Party.

I’m sorry to hear about your experiences at Yale Law. And I’m glad that I didn’t go to a private school, or a school in the East Coast. After moving to [my current state] 3 years ago I’ve found that liberals “out east” (east of the Sierra Nevadas) seem to come from privilege, are more dogmatic, disconnected from the working class, and can be super competitive and vindictive. I even remember starting out as an undergrad and scholarship kid at UC San Diego, how I felt the sting of class. I felt disconnected culturally from the liberals. It wasn’t until friends from high school began shipping back from Desert Storm all crazy and screwed up that I found common cause with these liberals.

As with the folks of Appalachia (I was a member of the Southern Baptist Church… it was a big military town), the defense of our neighborhoods was also paramount to us. What south San Diegans were seeing during the 90s was an entire generation deployed to guard oil fields in Iraq while the princelings of Kuwait lived it up in night clubs, and folks in Sacramento setting up laws that attack immigrants as a cheap shot to get elected. Everything was fine at the border until these demagogues (Republicans in this case) started showing up in our town in staged photo-ops.

Trump does have that appeal of at least pretending to listen to the
broken and forgotten. But just as we were about to forget the vengeance we swore against those who hurt our town, Trump comes by and reopens all the wounds, reminding us that while we might hold some conservative values, Republicans will always see us as sub-human.

I do think dialog and empathy are something of a short supply in
American politics today. The neoliberal policies and unfair trade pacts supported by both parties have been crushing our respective beloved hometowns. And we have a lot more in common than what these entrenched political entities say that we do. I’ve read “Rivethead” and “Deer Hunting with Jesus” and felt this familiarity. I will look for your book.

And here’s another one:

I just wanted to write and tell you that I was fascinated by your interview with the author JD Vance, and I speak as a socialist, agnostic, gay white male who’s never voted Republican in all his years! As a lifelong resident of the suburbs of Houston, Texas, it’s long occurred to me how insulated I am from the struggles of poor and working-class folks today; however my family started out poor, with my parents divorcing when I was six. Luckily our mother was strong enough to help us make it out of the hole by excelling in her profession as a nurse. I remember her telling me that in the days when my sister and I were very young, for Christmas she’d spend $20 on each of us at the dollar store, and she always hoped that we enjoyed our presents. That made me love my mom so much more, and I realized how lucky we’d been to have her, given how things might have turned out. In Houston as you probably know there is a staggering number of people of every imaginable type, and my school years were spent among kids from every walk of life, of every ethnicity and persuasion you can imagine. As an outsider myself, being gay and openly agnostic in an environment where neither was considered acceptable (high school was in the late 90s), I can identify with the feeling of seeming hopelessness, isolation, and fear for the future that Mr Vance describes, though certainly on a different level and for different reasons. I also feel a greater understanding now of the appeal of Trump to certain strata within our society…along with a renewed sense of how dangerous he really is to all of us (not to mention the rest of the world)! I would like to feel as hopeful for the future as Mr Vance seems to, but I’m afraid that until November (though hopefully not after!) I’ll be suffering a case of non-stop indigestion. Maybe we could all use a touch of that hillbilly idealism in our lives.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling out of me. Cheers for an excellent interview, and congratulations for gaining a new reader of the blue persuasion!

I could go on and on. I’m getting so many e-mails like these above that I can’t begin to respond to them all. I’m passing every one of them on to J.D. Vance, though. Interestingly, if I’ve received a single e-mail from a conservative about the interview, I can’t remember it.

I’m genuinely surprised and grateful for all these generous e-mails, and I’m sure J.D. is too. What I find so hopeful about it is that someone has finally found a voice with which to talk substantively about an important economic and cultural issue, but without antagonizing the other side. JDV identifies as a conservative, but his story challenges right-wing free-market pieties. And I’ve gotten plenty of e-mails from liberals who either come from poverty or who work with poor people for a living, who praise JDV’s points about the poor needing to understand that whatever structural problems they face, they retain moral agency.

What do you think, readers? Do you think the runaway success of Hillbilly Elegy, and the powerfully positive response from liberals to a book about class written by a conservative, bodes well for the possibility of constructive engagement around issues of class and poverty? To be sure, I’ve received a handful of letters from angry liberal readers who reject the idea that there’s anything wrong with poor and working class white people that government action can’t solve. I believe, and so does J.D., that government really does have a meaningful role to play in ameliorating the problems of the poor. But there will never be a government program capable of compensating for the loss of stable family structures, the loss of community, the loss of a sense of moral agency, and the loss of a sense of meaning in the lives of the poor. The solution, insofar as there is a “solution,” is not an either-or (that is, either culture or government), but a both-and. From a Washington Post review of the book:

The wounds are partly self-inflicted. The working class, he argues, has lost its sense of agency and taste for hard work. In one illuminating anecdote, he writes about his summer job at the local tile factory, lugging 60-pound pallets around. It paid $13 an hour with good benefits and opportunities for advancement. A full-time employee could earn a salary well above the poverty line.

That should have made the gig an easy sell. Yet the factory’s owner had trouble filling jobs. During Vance’s summer stint, three people left, including a man he calls Bob, a 19-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend. Bob was chronically late to work, when he showed up at all. He frequently took 45-minute bathroom breaks. Still, when he got fired, he raged against the managers who did it, refusing to acknowledge the impact of his own bad choices.

“He thought something had been done to him,” Vance writes. “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”

Perhaps Vance’s key to success is a simple one: that he just powered through his difficulties instead of giving up or blaming someone else.

“I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god—-ed people on this earth,” he concludes. “But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . 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.”

The loss of industrial jobs plays a big role in the catastrophe. J.D. Vance acknowledges that plainly in his book. But it’s not the whole story. Anybody who comes to Hillbilly Elegy thinking that it’s going to tell a story that affirms the pre-conceived beliefs of mainstream conservatives or liberals is going to be surprised and challenged — in a good way.

By the way, the viral nature of the TAC interview with J.D. Vance has pushed Hillbilly Elegy onto the bestseller list (more details of which will be available shortly). It’s No. 4 on Amazon’s own list as of this morning. They can barely keep enough in stock. It really is that good, folks. All this success could not have happened to a nicer man. Credit for this spark goes to reader Surly Temple, who gave me my copy of Hillbilly Elegy.

UPDATE: A reader writes to point out:

The Washington Post review you quote states, Perhaps Vance’s key to success is a simple one: that he just powered through his difficulties instead of giving up or blaming someone else.” I think that misses the point of the book. J.D. fully acknowledges the importance of his Mamaw, Marine Corps drill instructors, and wife in changing his outcomes.

My takeaway from the book is that we can help these communities and people, but not from a distance. It takes unconditional, sacrificial love.

He’s right about that, and I shouldn’t have posted that WaPo review without commenting. JDV openly credits his Mamaw and the Marine Corps with making him the man he is today. He does not claim he got there entirely on his own, by bootstrapping it.



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