Please read this interview with former Marine and Yale Law graduate J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”. I’ve heard bits of these things said by others, but nothing I’ve read thus far puts it together as well as this interview does.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.
The elite’s condescension comes from both cultural disconnect and the fact that it is “safe” to look down on poor whites without violating elite white social norms against racism and xenophobia.
A lot of it is pure disconnect–many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies. (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.) “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said. Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity. But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school. If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale. When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive. He may have even changed his mind.
Vance, a political conservative, was also asked for advice for liberals. One bit stood out to me, and is something that I personally want to work on:
Liberals have to get more comfortable with dealing with the poor as they actually are. I admire their refusal to look down on the least among us, but at some level, that can become an excuse to never really look at the problem at all.
It’s hard to look at a culture of which I am not part and say “you know what, this part of the culture is fucked up and is holding you back” and not feel like a total asshole. And sometimes people who talk like that are total assholes, and are coming from a place of condescension. But not always, and ignoring the real problems faced by people makes it impossible to address those problems.
Again, read the whole thing. I’ve already bought the book, and it’s next in my queue.