10 April 2018

A Hillbilly Visits Raleigh: JD Vance

J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Distress" came to Raleigh in early April to be part of the first installment in a speakers series sponsored by the Carolina Partnership for Reform. If you haven't read Vance's book, you should. Short and eminently readable, in Hillbilly Elegy Vance takes his life as a son of a dysfunctional family of northern Kentucky Scots-Irish transplants to southern Ohio as a microcosm of what ails a substantial swathe of white, underclass America. More personal although less sweeping in historical scope than Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash" (my thoughts here and here), Elegy scratches the itch of those who want to understand the source of Donald Trumps populist appeal.

Since achieving a certain level of popular acclaim, Vance has gone on to start Our Ohio Renewal, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the ideas and addressing the problems identified in" Hillbilly Elegy. Vance took his opportunity in Raleigh to list three problems he's identified: opiod abuse, the need for streamlined legal recognition of kinship guardians, and realistic job training. Even more fundamental, however, Vance acknowledges that implementation of good interstitial fixes won't solve the underlying problem of the decay of the family and related social structures. Yet, notwithstanding the extent of the breakdown of intermediate social institutions in contemporary America, Vance has not given up hope or retreated from public advocacy. His fundamental hope seems to be tied to his Christian religious commitment although he made few overt connections in his public remarks.

Vance is a small-"c", non-ideological conservative who reminds me of Carl Trueman (here and here), Philip Blond, and Roger Scruton (here). As Vance remarked, the American people do not really want a socially and fiscally conservative government. By and large Americans are socially conservative and free-spenders when it comes to government. (Of course, on what our government should freely spend varies across the political spectrum.) 

Nonetheless, dealing with the reality of America's social crises is more important than fixating on the American political scene according to Vance. "It's the culture, stupid," isn't what Vance said but I believe it captures his approach. Even moreso, the culture starts close to home and isn't fixed by staying in self-contained echo chambers that reinforce the depravity of the Other.

Salena Zito joined J.D. Vance as a speaker at the program. Zito is a political columnist and former reporter whose claim to fame is her early recognition of the groundswell of populist support for Donald Trump. In my opinion, she was a bit too sanguine in her take on the long-term viability of populism in America. I could be wrong but I think the eventual failure of the populist hopes from a Trump presidency will restore political power to the mainstreams of the political parties.

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