Beyond “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy”, JD Vance’s memoir of a dysfunctional Appalachian family, on the New York Times Best Seller list for 44 weeks and counting, offered a trendy explanation for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election. If only Democrats had paid more attention to white working class voters devastated by economic change, the outcome might have been different.

Vance is a gifted writer with a great personal story who introduces us to some fascinating characters in his book.  He is certainly correct that Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely ignored the voters who Vance described, but he fails to offer a thoughtful discussion of what it would have taken to persuade his hillbillies to resist the siren song of Trump.

To be sure, Vance is not the first person to explore the reasons for why working class voters have been abandoning the Democratic Party.  Thomas Frank, in 2004, posited in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that residents of the state, rather than voting their economic self-interest, were being distracted by Republicans appealing to them on social issues like abortion and opposition to gay rights.  The tanking of the Kansas economy under ultra-conservative Governor Sam Brownback may have finally showed those voters the error of their ways, but that’s not a sure thing yet.

Hillary Clinton, as you may remember, offered a different explanation, that many of Trump’s backers were “deplorables”, motivated by racism, anti-immigrant hostility as well as opposition to a progressive social agenda.  Her turn of phrase did not play well politically and blocked, at least at the moment, any serious assessment of voter motivations.

This is a debate that’s likely to continue until at least 2020.  The ability and willingness of Democrats to seek out and build a coalition that includes at least some people not living in bubbles or on the two coasts may be the key to whether they can prevail over Donald Trump (or Mike Pence?) in the next Presidential election.

A recently published book by Amy Goldstein, a reporter for the Washington Post, digs much more deeply than Vance did into the challenges faced by an American working class that is seeing its jobs disappear.  In “Janesville”, she examines the impact on Paul Ryan’s hometown in Wisconsin of the closing of a GM plant in 2008.

Many of the people described by Vance are their own worst enemies, frequently making decisions that lead to turmoil in their lives.  By contrast, Goldstein examines, in a series of case studies, people who seem to do everything right but still never recover their lost economic status.

Some go back to the local community college to retrain for a new career.  Others commute to GM plants in other states, seeing their families only on weekends, in the hope that the Janesville plant will reopen or that a new job with comparable wages will come along.  Some families work multiple jobs, including teenage kids, to try to cobble together enough income to approach their GM-era quality of life.

The results were decidedly mixed.  Job retraining programs, Goldstein discovered, had no significant impact on finding new, decent-paying employment.  Janesville competed for new manufacturing plants without success.  And, as the community struggled with the new economic reality, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was slashing government budgets and attacking the State’s public unions.

Meanwhile, Janesville’s Member of Congress, Paul Ryan, was veering to the right, proposing budgets that would have an even more devastating impact on any kind of government safety net or support for the economically displaced.  Walker and Ryan kept getting reelected although they did not win the support of the majority of Janesville voters.

Goldstein’s book offers a much more complex and nuanced view of America’s working class and the troubles they are facing. She notes that Janesville is increasingly becoming two communities, one of people succeeding in the new economy and another of those being left behind.  Moreover, the first group is showing very little sympathy for the second.

For several years, people laid-off from the GM facility engaged in wishful thinking about when it would be reopened.  That sounds an awful lot like those who believe Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs.  The impulse to hope that yesterday can be restored is a powerful one.

Another reality suggested by her study is that a shrinking economic pie does not bring out the best in people.  Janesville in the past prided itself on its strong sense of community and its generosity to those in need.  Besides having less wealth to share, it became apparent that there was a tendency to blame those in economic need for their own problems.

Curiously, even among those who had benefitted from government programs such as aid to attend community college, there was a discernible anti-government attitude.  After years of hearing a drumbeat of attacks–starting from Ronald Reagan–many in this country are reflexively inclined to believe that “government is the problem.”

Crafting an agenda that responds to the plight of America’s working class–without resorting to false promises–is a daunting challenge.  Vance is correct that listening is an important first step, but it’s not enough.  Honestly facing the fact that most of manufacturing jobs of the past aren’t coming back is probably essential, but it’s likely to be a hard sell for potential voters.

“Janesville” underscores the truth that there isn’t a single, bumper-sticker answer.  Trump’s failure to produce coal or manufacturing jobs–much like Brownback’s destruction of the economy of Kansas–may eventually sink in with wishful thinkers.  But creating viable alternatives will be a hard slow process.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic Party has to present an economic message that focuses on where and what the jobs of the future will be, on the role of government in providing a safety net and on the reality that funneling even more of the nation’s resources to the wealthiest Americans will not “trickle down” to anyone else.  And then Democrats have to find a candidate who can effectively deliver that message.