Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Hillbilly Explains Why America is So Divided

If you want to know why Donald Trump has won the Republican Party nomination for president and is once again leading Hillary Clinton in the polls, you need only read the book I have just read - Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance. This autobiography of a young man growing up in rural Kentucky and small town Ohio describes a life that many would assume is the preserve of poor blacks in urban ghettos. The fact that the author is a highly articulate, white Yale graduate is the twist in the tale. Vance's upbringing in a violent, unemployed, drug-riddled and fragmented family is an increasingly common story of people in the 'rust belt' of America - places where all the big manufacturers (such as the Armco steel works of Vance's home town) have closed down or moved their factories offshore, taking all the well-paid blue collar jobs with them.

Vance talks with some bitterness about the elites in the cities on the Eastern seaboard and in California, who hold the working-class inhabitants of the 'flyover' states in contempt. He found himself the token hillbilly at Yale, where he was a source of greater fascination to the well-heeled faculty and students than any of the more-recognised minority groups at the university, and he describes a huge gulf in understanding between the lifestyle in which most of his classmates were raised and the circumstances of his own childhood. Vance transcended his upbringing because of a grandmother who provided him with a sanctuary amongst the violence and despair and who instilled in him a work ethic that many of his peers lacked. He discovered that Yale Law School, to which he won a scholarship, is a one-way ticket into the elite and he describes with fascination how he began to benefit from the connections and favouritism that ensure those who graduate from Yale have easy entry into their choice of high-paying and influential jobs.

The great divide in modern American society - and in all Western countries - it isn't so much about race or ethnic origin, despite what the political left-wing would have us believe. It is about a new form of class based on education, connections and political pull, and those who aren't part of the new upper class are increasing disenfranchised politically and detached socially from those who are. There was a time when an American working man could make an income that was sufficient for him to buy his own home and support a family in comfort. That is no longer the case, and the worst thing about it is that the elite know this and don't care - their sympathies aren't with the real working class but with those from preferred minorities whom they can enlist as victims in their political and social cause célèbres. This is why Donald Trump appeals to so many white, working class males - he is the only one on the political landscape who appears to give a damn about them.

American politics today is all about exploiting these divisions. Obama has spent eight years stoking the fires of racial, social and economic division and Hilary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon with her new-found enthusiasm for left-wing causes. Trump is stoking the fires from the other end of the train. They both present their constituents' fortunes as a zero-sum game, setting Americans against each other in a fight for a "fair share" of the pie. Their supporters on both sides are too foolish to understand that they are being cynically exploited or that under both Clinton's and Trump's policies, everyone will lose. The biggest fools are the members of the elite who appear blind to the fact that they cannot continue to enjoy their cosy positions forever while tens of millions of Americans in the MidWest and South cannot make ends meet.

Vance has given a remarkable, first-hand insight into both sides of the divide that threatens to become an irreparable rent in American society. He does not set out to propose solutions and while his story reminds us that individuals can always transcend circumstances, he offers us no assurance that societies can do the same.


paul scott said...

Very interesting. They also talk about the blue state model , which I think has a similar meaning, to Rust belt. You might have seen about it it over at Muriel Newman`s blog, but I am wary of CATO people. But if you want to go further the Alt-Right have their teeth into this in a big way. Also the emergence of heroin use up there.
A group blog called "Weimerica" dealt with that rust belt, and other " Stuff that white people like ? . Their function as they see it is to communicate outside the "Overton Window"
A disturbing thing about the alt-right people is that weird anti semitism in many cases. But some of their writers are obviously extremely intelligent. Like your author Vance, the Weimerica boys seem well educated also.

paul scott said...

The penalty for possession of " drug making paraphernalia " can be severe.
You have a bigger problem on your hands selling pipes and hydroponic equipment than you do selling dope. It carries the same category as selling amphetamine or acid gear.
I have a friend down in Invercargill, who would fit into your hillbilly, or poor white trash group. He sold hydroponic gear, pipes and so on.
The law in I think `Operation Lime' spent enormous amounts of time and money over these ""gardening shops "". Same thing, He was convicted and discharged, then the law found a conservative judge who ordered assets seized. They made figures out of the air for his drug returns. It all helped pull apart a stable marriage and family.
It would be hard to describe the social intelligence level of the Police down there.
Invercargill is the equivalent of over the Appalachians into coal burning Kentucky.