Authoritarian Allure: Reading #3 — Group Portrait of Deep Red America 


J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis  (2016)

Chapter 11 — pp.191-194


[1] The symptoms are all around us. Significant percentages of white conservative voters— about one-third— believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. In one poll, 32 percent of conservatives said that they believed Obama was foreign-born and another 19 percent said they were unsure— which means that a majority of white conservatives aren’t certain that Obama is even an American. I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.


[2] Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor— which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent— clean, perfect, neutral— is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right— adversity familiar to many of us— but that was long before any of us knew him.


[3] President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it— not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.


[4] Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation. Admittedly, there is an industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner of idiocy, from Obama’s alleged religious leanings to his ancestry. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama’s citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organizations have to say about the issue; they simply don’t believe them. Only 6 percent of American voters believe that the media is “very trustworthy.” To many of us, the free press— that bulwark of American democracy— is simply full of shit.


[5] With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world. Barack Obama is a foreign alien actively trying to destroy our country. Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society. Here’s a small sample of emails or messages I’ve seen from friends or family:

•  From right-wing radio talker Alex Jones on the ten-year anniversary of 9/ 11, a documentary about the “unanswered question” of the terrorist attacks, suggesting that the U.S. government played a role in the massacre of its own people.  

•  From an email chain, a story that the Obamacare legislation requires microchip implantation in new health care patients. This story carries extra bite because of the religious implications: Many believe that the End Times “mark of the beast” foretold in biblical prophecy will be an electronic device. Multiple friends warned others about this threat via social media

•  From the popular website WorldNetDaily, an editorial suggesting that the Newtown gun massacre was engineered by the federal government to turn public opinion on gun control measures.

•  From multiple Internet sources, suggestions that Obama will soon implement martial law in order to secure power for a third presidential term.


[6] The list goes on. It’s impossible to know how many people believe one or many of these stories. But if a third of our community questions the president’s origin— despite all evidence to the contrary— it’s a good bet that the other conspiracies have broader currency than we’d like. This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.


[7] We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?


[8] Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.


[9] Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations— premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.


[10] My dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law, he asked whether, on my applications, I had “pretended to be black or liberal.” This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen. We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.


[11] The Pew Economic Mobility Project studied how Americans evaluated their chances at economic betterment, and what they found was shocking. There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation. Even more surprising, 42 percent of working-class whites— by far the highest number in the survey— report that their lives are less economically successful than those of their parents’. In 2010, that just wasn’t my mind-set. I was happy about where I was and overwhelmingly hopeful about the future. For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider in Middletown. And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.


Don’t Believe the New Myths about America’s White Working Class

Joe Klein

Time Magazine | September 1, 2016


[1] This has been an election year filled with sloppy sociology. Democrats, as usual, mistakenly see voters primarily as members of vast, amorphous “identity” groups rather than as individuals. Now the Republicans have joined in. “An odd symmetry has emerged between the political parties,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution told me recently. “Many Democrats have viewed racial and ethnic minorities as victims in the grip of larger forces, and now Republicans are doing the same with the white working class.”


[2] Remarkably, the operating mythology of both groups– encouraged by ideologues on the right and politically correct ninnies on the left– is that they are oppressed by each other. The current term of art among black intellectuals is white privilege and the current concern is police brutality. Among Latinos, the concern is bigotry and violence inflicted by gringo yahoos. Meanwhile, working-class whites are convinced that immigrants are taking their jobs and that blacks have long been coddled by public assistance. In a recent National Review piece, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, cites research that shows “the average white person now feels that anti-white bias is a bigger problem than other forms of racial discrimination.”


[3] Hillbilly Elegy has been the book of the summer among the political cognoscenti of both parties. It is Vance’s memoir of his escape from the Appalachian culture of pride and poverty– a culture that seems to be disintegrating, much the way the black working class fell apart starting in the 1960s, but without the history of racial oppression. The white out-of-wedlock birthrate, which is about 30%, is now higher than the black rate was (about 25%) when Daniel Patrick Moynihan correctly identified family disintegration as a significant problem in 1965. The current black rate has been stuck at about 70%.


[4] There is significant irony here: the culture described in Hillbilly Elegy is so similar to that of the black underclass that it demolishes the perennial racist argument that these sorts of behaviors– sexual profligacy, drug dependency, violence, indigence and a free-range sense of helplessness that leads to irresponsibility– are unique to African Americans. Something else, something far more complicated is going on, a cultural dilemma that has erupted with the “liberation” of American society over the past 50 years. It is a phenomenon that transcends the prevailing liberal (and Trumpian) theory that the white-black underclass was caused by the departure of manufacturing jobs. That may have been true 40 years ago, when the jobs began to leave. But it is less true now, as habits of indolence– the inability to show up to work on time, the refusal to follow orders on the job, the preference to hang out at a home often subsidized by the federal government– have taken hold. Vance worked for a summer in a floor-tile warehouse near his hometown in Ohio. It was relatively easy work, paying $13 per hour, a good salary in Appalachia. But “the managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee.” In hillbilly country, as in urban America, a great many people simply lack the discipline to work.


[5] It is eerie and depressing to read Vance’s account of his mother– a drug addict in and out of rehab, with a series of husbands and boyfriends rotating in and out of the house. He describes a close relative as “a classic welfare queen.” He writes about 9-month-old babies being fed Pepsi in their bottles, and the abuse of food stamps he saw as a cashier at the local grocery store. All of these things were clichés deployed by Ronald Reagan, and dismissed by liberals, when he railed against poverty and welfare in 1980. But the conservative belief that the underclass was caused by federal antipoverty programs is clearly insufficient too. Vance makes it clear that the problem is profoundly cultural, a consequence of wanton commercialism, the loosening of moral standards and a lack of rigorous training for young men. Vance was saved by the Marine Corps and the support of a single loving adult, his grandmother.


[6] Hillbilly Elegy makes the current political dialogue seem fatuous. Both parties are incapable of discussing the real sources of our national dyspepsia, or how to deal with them. Forces like the global economy, racism and federal programs that cultivated dependency have all been part of the problem. But what we have now is something different: a bottom-up crisis of individual responsibility, largely beyond the reach of public policy. Indeed, some of the “solutions” proposed by each of the parties are likely to make things worse.


Dead, White, and Blue: The Great Die-Off of America's Blue Collar Whites

Barbara Ehrenreich | December 1, 2015


[1] The white working class, which usually inspires liberal concern only for its paradoxical, Republican-leaning voting habits, has recently become newsworthy for something else: according to economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the winner of the latest Nobel Prize in economics, its members in the 45- to 54-year-old age group are dying at an immoderate rate. While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking. As a result, in just the last four years, the gap between poor white men and wealthier ones has widened by up to four years. The New York Times summed up the Deaton and Case study with this headline: “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap.”


[2] This was not supposed to happen. For almost a century, the comforting American narrative was that better nutrition and medical care would guarantee longer lives for all. So the great blue-collar die-off has come out of the blue and is, as the Wall Street Journal says, “startling.” It was especially not supposed to happen to whites who, in relation to people of color, have long had the advantage of higher earnings, better access to health care, safer neighborhoods, and of course freedom from the daily insults and harms inflicted on the darker-skinned. There has also been a major racial gap in longevity— 5.3 years between white and black men and 3.8 years between white and black women— though, hardly noticed, it has been narrowing for the last two decades. Only whites, however, are now dying off in unexpectedly large numbers in middle age, their excess deaths accounted for by suicide, alcoholism, and drug (usually opiate) addiction.


[3] There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to be gun-owners, and white men favor gunshots as a means of suicide. For another, doctors, undoubtedly acting in part on stereotypes of non-whites as drug addicts, are more likely to prescribe powerful opiate painkillers to whites than to people of color. (I’ve been offered enough oxycodone prescriptions over the years to stock a small illegal business.) Manual labor— from waitressing to construction work— tends to wear the body down quickly, from knees to back and rotator cuffs, and when Tylenol fails, the doctor may opt for an opiate just to get you through the day.


The Wages of Despair

[4] But something more profound is going on here, too. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman puts it, the “diseases” leading to excess white working class deaths are those of “despair,” and some of the obvious causes are economic. In the last few decades, things have not been going well for working class people of any color.


[5] I grew up in an America where a man with a strong back— and better yet, a strong union— could reasonably expect to support a family on his own without a college degree. In 2015, those jobs are long gone, leaving only the kind of work once relegated to women and people of color available in areas like retail, landscaping, and delivery-truck driving. This means that those in the bottom 20% of white income distribution face material circumstances like those long familiar to poor blacks, including erratic employment and crowded, hazardous living spaces. White privilege was never, however, simply a matter of economic advantage. As the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1935, “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.”


[6] Some of the elements of this invisible wage sound almost quaint today, like Du Bois’s assertion that white working class people were “admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.” Today, there are few public spaces that are not open, at least legally speaking, to blacks, while the “best” schools are reserved for the affluent— mostly white and Asian American along with a sprinkling of other people of color to provide the fairy dust of “diversity.” While whites have lost ground economically, blacks have made gains, at least in the de jure sense. As a result, the “psychological wage” awarded to white people has been shrinking.


[7] For most of American history, government could be counted on to maintain white power and privilege by enforcing slavery and later segregation. When the federal government finally weighed in on the side of desegregation, working class whites were left to defend their own diminishing privilege by moving rightward toward the likes of Alabama Governor (and later presidential candidate) George Wallace and his many white pseudo-populist successors down to Donald Trump. At the same time, the day-to-day task of upholding white power devolved from the federal government to the state and then local level, specifically to local police forces, which, as we know, have taken it up with such enthusiasm as to become both a national and international scandal. The Guardian, for instance, now keeps a running tally of the number of Americans (mostly black) killed by cops (as of this moment, 1,209 for 2015), while black protest, in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and a wave of on-campus demonstrations, has largely recaptured the moral high ground formerly occupied by the civil rights movement.


[8] The culture, too, has been inching bit by bit toward racial equality, if not, in some limited areas, black ascendency. If the stock image of the early twentieth century “Negro” was the minstrel, the role of rural simpleton in popular culture has been taken over in this century by the characters in Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. At least in the entertainment world, working class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West. It’s not easy to maintain the usual sense of white superiority when parts of the media are squeezing laughs from the contrast between savvy blacks and rural white bumpkins, as in the Tina Fey comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. White, presumably upper-middle class people generally conceive of these characters and plot lines, which, to a child of white working class parents like myself, sting with condescension.


[9] Of course, there was also the election of the first black president. White, native-born Americans began to talk of “taking our country back.” The more affluent ones formed the Tea Party; less affluent ones often contented themselves with affixing Confederate flag decals to their trucks.


On the American Downward Slope

[10] All of this means that the maintenance of white privilege, especially among the least privileged whites, has become more difficult and so, for some, more urgent than ever. Poor whites always had the comfort of knowing that someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their own situation was deteriorating.


[11] If the government, especially at the federal level, is no longer as reliable an enforcer of white privilege, then it’s grassroots initiatives by individuals and small groups that are helping to fill the gap— perpetrating the micro-aggressions that roil college campuses, the racial slurs yelled from pickup trucks, or, at a deadly extreme, the shooting up of a black church renowned for its efforts in the Civil Rights era. Dylann Roof, the Charleston killer who did just that, was a jobless high school dropout and reportedly a heavy user of alcohol and opiates. Even without a death sentence hanging over him, Roof was surely headed toward an early demise.


[12] Acts of racial aggression may provide their white perpetrators with a fleeting sense of triumph, but they also take a special kind of effort. It takes effort, for instance, to target a black runner and swerve over to insult her from your truck; it takes such effort— and a strong stomach— to paint a racial slur in excrement on a dormitory bathroom wall. College students may do such things in part out of a sense of economic vulnerability, the knowledge that as soon as school is over their college-debt payments will come due. No matter the effort expended, however, it is especially hard to maintain a feeling of racial superiority while struggling to hold onto one’s own place near the bottom of an undependable economy.


[13] While there is no medical evidence that racism is toxic to those who express it— after all, generations of wealthy slave owners survived quite nicely— the combination of downward mobility and racial resentment may be a potent invitation to the kind of despair that leads to suicide in one form or another, whether by gunshots or drugs. You can’t break a glass ceiling if you’re standing on ice.


[14] It’s easy for the liberal intelligentsia to feel righteous in their disgust for lower-class white racism, but the college-educated elite that produces the intelligentsia is in trouble, too, with diminishing prospects and an ever-slipperier slope for the young. Whole professions have fallen on hard times, from college teaching to journalism and the law. One of the worst mistakes this relative elite could make is to try to pump up its own pride by hating on those— of any color or ethnicity— who are falling even faster.


Blinded by Nostalgia

Yuval Levin

First Things | October 23, 2014


[1] The twenty-first century has been a time of transition in American life. In our economy, our culture, our politics, and throughout our society, longstanding norms seem to be breaking down. Times of uneasy transition are often characterized by a politics of nostalgia for the peak of the passing order, and ours most definitely is. Some on the left and right alike understandably miss the growth and opportunity of American life in the decades after the Second World War— a dynamism seemingly lost in the 1970s but regained in the ’80s and ’90s, if in a more frantic and less broad and stable way. Every monthly unemployment report and quarterly growth projection is now trailed by anguished concern about when we will finally snap back to those patterns.


[2] Some miss the relative social consensus and broadly shared values of those postwar years. The most important conservative book of the Obama era— Charles Murray’s Coming Apart— pines for that consensus and its breadth. For all its many virtues, Murray’s book takes America in 1963 as its standard and painstakingly quantifies our falling away from it along some key social indicators.


[3] Some miss the way we used to think about the future in that half-century after the war. On the right, this often takes the form of Reagan nostalgia. Ronald Reagan believed the promise of postwar America could be realized without the expansion of the welfare state it had engendered, and his economic reforms brought back the roaring growth that had characterized that period and so helped extend the golden age awhile. On the left, this nostalgia takes the form of yearning for renewed faith in precisely the welfare-state liberalism Reagan opposed. The most important progressive book of the Obama era— Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America— argues for a recovery of the belief in that promise, even in the face of the undeniable costs it would entail and political difficulties it would confront. It seeks to salvage an old vision of the future.


[4] Some, meanwhile, miss the seemingly harmonious politics of that era, in contrast to today’s polarization and supposed paralysis. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama looked longingly to a “time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.” Many older Washingtonians think this way of what has happened to our politics.


[5] Much of this is false nostalgia, of course. This vision of the postwar era is not quite wrong, but it is grossly incomplete. The trends and attitudes it hearkens to really existed, but the story it tells leaves little room for the epic battles over communism, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, détente, Reaganomics, and countless other fronts; little room for the burning cities, the political assassinations, the campus radicalism, or the social breakdown of that time; and little room for the costly errors and colossal failures of the politics of quiet conversations. But true or false, the sum of these related nostalgias of the left and right is almost the full sum of our politics today, and that is a serious problem. It causes us to think of the future in terms of what we stand to lose rather than where we are headed, and has left Americans unusually pessimistic and uneasy.


[6] America’s postwar strength was a function of unrepeatable circumstances. Our global competitors had burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours had only grown stronger in the war years. And a generation of Americans was shaped by the Great Depression and the war to be unusually unified and unusually trusting in large institutions. That combination was hardly the American norm; it was an extremely unusual mix that we cannot recreate and should not want to. Yet that WWII generation and its children, the baby boomers, came to expect American life to work that way. The biggest problem with our politics of nostalgia is its disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future. While we mourn the passing postwar order, we are missing some key things about the order now rising to replace it.


[7] The foremost trend our nostalgia keeps us from seeing is the vast decentralization of American life, which has characterized the early years of this century and looks only to grow. The postwar order was dominated by large institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life— or at least every area except government— we are witnessing the replacement of large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks. Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively-driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating.


[8] The near-total (and bipartisan) failure of our politics to confront these changes explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it. Successful lives in the postwar era involved effectively navigating our large institutions and making the most of the benefits they offered. Success in the coming era will increasingly involve effectively navigating a profusion of smaller networks, and a government that wants to help people flourish will need to retool— focusing more on enabling bottom-up, incremental improvements and less on managing top-down, centralized systems. Both empowering individuals and offering them security will look rather different in this era.


[9] This could be a boon for conservatives in some respects, as some of them already incline to a decentralized approach to policy, and a challenge for liberals who will need to think anew about how government might help the country thrive in this era. But neither liberals nor conservatives seem ready to face these changes. So the left always behaves as though it’s 1965 and the right as though it’s 1980. On the cultural front, the tendency of decentralization to undermine all authoritative institutions will present more of a challenge for the right. Social conservatives are so far experiencing this transition as a loss of their dominant position in the culture. But they should see that this generally means not that their opponents are coming to dominate but that no one is. They should judge their prospects less in terms of their hold on our big institutions and more in terms of their success in forming a thriving and appealing subculture, or network of subcultures. Christianity has a great deal of experience in that difficult art, of course, but it is largely out of practice in our society.


[10] Much the same is true for America more generally. Many economic, cultural, and political debates of the coming years will revolve around the promise and the dangers of decentralization. Americans have a lot of experience dealing with that promise and those dangers, but it is not the experience of the exceptional decades of the postwar era. To regain our footing in the twenty-first century, we need to get over our blinding nostalgia for that unusual time.