Decline and Fall
A window to poor white American despair and the rise of the Trump phenomenon
SO MUCH OF THE TECHNOLOGY WE TAKE FOR GRANTED TODAY WAS DEVELOPED BY YANKEE INDUSTRY. WHAT HAS CHANGED THEN?
“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio,” said Wilbur Wright. As I read J.D. Vance’s fascinating, if troubling, memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, this quote came back to me. Hillbilly Elegy is a book apparently everyone in America is talking about. It is supposed to explain the Trump phenomenon to its out-of-touch elite.
Vance started his life in Middleton, Ohio. Wright grew up just 25 miles north in Dayton. But in the century that separates these two gentlemen, Ohio society seems to have changed unmistakably for the worse.
That there is a problem in many white working class communities is clear. Angus Deaton showed earlier this year that life expectancy among working class whites has, for the first time in history, decreased due to a surge in suicides. Charles Murray brought out that only 48 per cent of working class men are married. Robert Putnam calculated that 65 per cent of children whose mothers never made it past high school spent part of their childhood in a single parent home, up from 20 per cent in 1953.
I was familiar with these numbers. Yet Vance’s description of his mother begging him, just 13 then, for a urine sample in order to clear her mandatory drug test shocked me. That is the great virtue of the book. It tells the story behind the numbers. To those of us privileged enough to not have known such familial dysfunction, the book is a window into the lives of people who were hitherto just a statistic. For America’s coastal elite, it is a guide to understand the lives of the people they fly over, with whom they share a country.
The strength of Hillbilly Elegy is the coherence with which Vance marshals what must be painful memories. Its weakness is its analysis of the causes of the social breakdown among low-income whites. Vance, a third generation immigrant from Kentucky, attributes it to something he calls ‘Hillbilly culture’. He never defines it. But I understand it to be the culture of southern sharecroppers. That is fine, but it doesn’t explain why the Yankee descendants of large parts of the old Midwest and New England are afflicted by a similar dystopia. The Yankees were strange people. They chanced upon a rich land, but didn’t squander the bounty. So much of the technology the world takes for granted today was developed by Yankee industry and ingenuity. ‘Protestant work ethic’ doesn’t cut it as an explanation. For they didn’t just outperform their Catholic neighbours in South America, they also lapped their protestant cousins in Canada, Australia and the American South.
The Wright Brothers personify that culture. The sons of an itinerant minister with no college education and with only modest savings managed, through their genius, industry and perseverance, to give wing to mankind’s oldest fantasy—flight. As one reads Hillbilly Elegy, one wonders what happened to that cultural confidence, that optimism, that self-reliance? The idea that it collapsed in the face of globalisation seems woefully inadequate. The descendants of hardy frontiersmen came apart because the Chinese learnt how to make socks. Really?
Nor is it true. Manufacturing employment is indeed down from 24 per cent of the labour force in 1964 to 9 per cent today. But as Professors Michelle Connolly, John Gilbert and Edward Tower point out, this is entirely due to improved productivity. The steel industry—Middletown’s biggest employer—offers a prime example. The introduction of the mini mill increased competition, led to a dramatic improvement in productivity and loss of employment. Just as the introduction of commercial airlines led to the destruction of railway jobs 70 years ago. The question then is why did Ohio’s society embrace technological disruption back then and struggle with it so today? What has changed? As an Indian, I ask, why were the Yankees, in Tocqueville’s words, so restless and my ancestors so easily satisfied, and why are their descendants so easily satisfied and I so restless? These questions are of urgent importance for America and for the world. For no democracy can survive a permanently seething underclass. Vance has, in the wake of the 2016 election, helped frame the question. Good books should always leave you wondering. Hillbilly Elegy most certainly does that. Read it.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance Harper Pages: 272 Price: Rs 1,199