J. D. Vance describes himself as a “cultural emigrant” from the “hillbilly” culture of his youth to the upper-middle-class world of educated professionals. That puts him in a somewhat detached position, from which he can see his former world as not just a collection of individual characters, but as a common culture with typical beliefs, values and patterns of behavior.
One major theme of the book is that “social class in America isn’t just about money.” It’s also about lifestyle, and upward mobility is unlikely without changes in lifestyle. The attitudes and behaviors people acquire in their early socialization can get in their own way.
William H. Whyte classically defined the “Protestant ethic” as an ethic of hard work, thrift and self-reliance. Vance sees too much of the opposite: laziness, overspending and blaming others for one’s problems. To be fair, he doesn’t actually use the world “lazy,” but he does say, “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift.” Without denying the reality of these problems, I will note that Whyte, writing in the 1950s, was questioning how much of a work ethic American society really wanted anymore. Prosperous, corporate American seemed to be placing increasing value on leisure, spending, and reliance on big organizations. Sometimes I wonder how long many higher-class people would last in some of the grueling jobs that poor people have to do. But I digress.
Vance’s number one complaint is that too many “hillbillies” lack a strong sense of personal agency, a belief that their choices matter and that they can take control of their own lives. That puts them in a strange relationship with their own government. On the one hand, “a large minority are content to live off the dole.” On the other hand, many like to blame the government for their problems. And those who are trying to uphold the traditional work ethic, at least in theory, may blame government for spending too much on public assistance. Vance suggests that this is a bigger reason why so many low-income whites have abandoned the Democratic Party than the Party’s support for the Civil Rights Movement. I’m not so sure that those two issues can be separated, since white resentment of government spending is probably strengthened by the perception that people of color are getting more help than white people are. In any case, Appalachian whites have shifted their allegiance to the party of limited government even as their economic vulnerability and potential dependency have been increasing.
Vance describes his people as uniquely pessimistic and cynical, much more so than Latinos or blacks. They are patriotic in a vague sort of way, but do not currently have any heroes as they once had Franklin Roosevelt. Largely detached from the wider society, they can be intensely loyal to kin and react violently to perceived threats from outsiders. They pride themselves on their toughness, which they rely on to compensate for other weaknesses. As a child, Vance had a lot of opportunities to learn about drinking, yelling and fighting, but not much else about being a man.
Reacting strongly against the idea of blaming others for one’s problems, Vance concludes that “these problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”
I have a concern about this perspective that I will elaborate in my next post. I think that Vance’s discussion of “hillbilly” culture is strong on personal observation but weak on analysis. He is, after all, a young lawyer, not a sociologist, anthropologist or economist. He makes the world he describes sound too much like a standalone culture, as if we had just discovered it in some remote jungle. It is, rather, an American subculture shaped and reshaped by the institutions of American society. Those institutions include churches and schools, and yes, government and corporations. American institutions, from coal companies to Bible Belt churches, have been a demonstrable part of the problem, and institutional change as well as personal change will have to be part of the solution.