Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy’ Lessons

Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy
Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy

Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy With the release of the movie this week on Netflix, we’re rereading Prospect board member Stan Greenberg’s reflections on J.D. Vance’s 2016 best-seller. This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been on The New York Times’ best-seller list for nearly two years, and deservedly, given how improbable the author’s odyssey has been. Vance grew up with a drug-addicted mom involved with an untold number of men, in a world of broken marriages, teen pregnancies, alcoholism, violence, mistrust, anger, and fatalism. He owes his life and survival to loving grandparents who taught him to value hard work and education. After he graduated high school, he went into the Marine Corps, then to Ohio State, to Yale for his law degree, and on to Silicon Valley before moving back to Columbus, Ohio, where he wrote this memoir at age 31. The book is powerfully written and poignant—and for a year, I decided to give J.D. Vance a pass. It is important his story be told and respected.

The problem is that Vance is wrong about the lessons we should take from his memoir. Liberals, too, are wrong to think they can do penance and better understand the Trump voter if they read the book. And conservatives are most certainly wrong to believe that this powerful personal story confirms their belief that poverty is invariably the result of bad personal choices and immune to any governmental solutions.

More from Stanley B. Greenberg

The book’s cascading errors begin with its failure to appreciate how exceptional Appalachian white history and culture actually are, and how dangerous it is to equate Vance’s hillbillies with today’s white working class. Yet that is the equation Vance makes at the very beginning of his memoir: “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Vance’s equation reinforces conservatives’ and President Donald Trump’s mistaken conviction that coal mining and West Virginia are the epicenter of America’s working-class life.

The pace of cascading errors grows with the classless and benign history Vance presents, one that erases from the Appalachian landscape the powerful business actors who seized the timber and mineral rights, fought the coal-mining unions, and created an economy of poverty. Outside companies had long since claimed the rights to the timber, the land, and the coal beneath it, rendering the region’s population—all their resources owned by outsiders—dependent on coal companies and shuttled into company towns.

The decline of the coal economy began well before Vance was born. Employment in the coal mines stalled during the Depression and crashed during the 1950s—six decades before the current debate.

VANCE’S STORY BEGINS in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where between 1940 and 1960, one-third of the population left along the Hillbilly Corridor, which took people to Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati, but also to small riverbank industrial cities, like Middletown and Hamilton, that abut the Great Miami River. Wherever they went, the migrants formed Little Kentuckys in the cities and towns of the industrial Midwest—including Middletown, where Vance’s family relocated.

But neither Vance’s family nor all the Little Kentuckys typify the Midwestern working class that is the object of so much concern today. They never did. America’s industrial infrastructure was built by and employed mostly Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, along with Protestant immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, Jews from Russia’s Pale of Settlement, and Chinese and Japanese workers, until the United States enacted Chinese exclusion laws. A more sweeping nativist law effectively ended immigration in 1924. During World War II and the postwar boom, America’s industrial leaders found other sources of new workers, recruiting Southern blacks, Mexicans, and Appalachian whites on a massive scale from the poorest rural areas of North America.

Vance’s story pretty much ignores the working-class battle to get its share of the pie, and the racial turmoil, riots, and struggle for civil rights that would shape the politics of America’s cities. It bypasses how millions of white workers would enter America’s middle class in the three decades after World War II, as the government invested in their education and subsidized their homeownership. It misses how these workers’ legs were then kicked out from under them by foreign competition, technology, globalization, and trade agreements like NAFTA that undercut American jobs. Indeed, Vance sympathizes with company executives who fought off unions, writing, “I might have done the same.”

Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy

The book’s cascading errors begin with its failure to appreciate how exceptional Appalachian white history and culture actually are.

Remarkably, his account makes no mention of the staggering loss of wealth, homeownership, and wages among working people in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—which has been America’s dominant reality during Vance’s entire adult life. That is why his story gives you no insight into what is happening with the struggling white and nonwhite workers who populate the cities, suburbs, and smaller towns of the Rust Belt.

And they are struggling.

But how much of this exceptional American problem is due, as Vance would have it, to the attitudes and culture of the working class itself? And how much is due to the loss of decently paid, secure jobs and the failure of public policy to meet the needs of the modern working family? Working-class families are breaking down, the opioid epidemic is unchecked, the very lifespans of working-class whites are shrinking.

VANCE SHINES HIS SPOTLIGHT squarely on the destructive culture in families like his—families that are “a hub of misery.” Vance’s grandparents had married as teenagers and settled quickly in Middletown because his grandfather got a good job at Armco Steel. That enabled him to own a fairly big house, in a part of the town with neighbors almost exclusively from back home. The hillbillies were looked down on by those neighbors, who were not comfortable with slaughtering chickens, or toting guns quite so openly, or the outbursts of drunken violence.

Vance’s grandparents felt guilty about leaving their Kentucky home and routinely visited their extended families on weekends and holidays. Vance and his grandparents were always more comfortable there than in Ohio.

That’s one important difference between the Midwest Appalachian transplants and the other streams of migrants who came north to the cities during World Wars I and II. The blacks who moved to Chicago to flee a segregated South certainly didn’t pine for or return to Mississippi. While extended family ties remained strong for African Americans, the culture of the Black Belt did not have the same kind of ongoing influence on Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland blacks that the culture of rural Kentucky had on the white Appalachian migrants.

That was the culture in which Vance was raised. His addict mother had a revolving door of men in her life. She had violent fights with the kids, was taken away handcuffed by the police, and nearly got herself killed in an auto accident. Increasingly, Vance stayed with his grandparents. They demanded he get good grades, help Grandma with her chores, and get a job, and he dutifully worked in a store and warehouse. They believed in hard work and the American dream and made sure the kids had a stable place to live. Vance believes that a loving home accounts for everything good that follows.

For Vance, the world he was born into—and from which his grandparents saved him—is “pessimistic” and “socially isolated.” He watched his neighbors abuse food stamps, disability benefits, and Section 8 housing, and he saw few of his friends from the warehouse willing to take more work even when the shifts were offered. “I have known many welfare queens,” he writes, “some were my neighbors, and all were white.”

“What goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south,” he continues, is “about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it. … Experience can be a difficult teacher, and it taught me that this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.”

Maybe Vance’s hillbillies would not be helped by new and better job opportunities, higher wages, less outsourcing, investment in building infrastructure, expanded child tax credits and income supports, housing vouchers, nutrition programs, unpolluted rivers and air, consumer protections, affordable child care, paid family leave after bearing a child, and universal health insurance. Before we assent to Vance’s indictment, we’d do well to try out such policies.

Nonetheless, nearly all the reviews of this powerful book (with the exception of Robert Kuttner’s in the Prospect) were sure it provided some insights for elites who needed a “genteel way” into these working-class communities where Trump had run up the score. Larry Summers tweeted, “Anyone who wants to understand Trump’s rise or American inequality should read it.” In The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman gave Vance credit for putting the spotlight on family disintegration, addiction, and domestic violence in white working-class communities and showing us how complex is the problem of poverty.

Not surprisingly, conservative reviewers loved the book. It bolstered their conviction that almost no public policy can change life’s trajectory. Writing in The Federalist, Mark Hemingway applauded Vance’s refusal “to moralize or pretend there are pat solutions to the problems he and so many other people in his circumstances have faced.”

Conservatives applauded Vance’s assertion that “problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most people understand them) really exist.” Conservatives couldn’t have agreed more.

ROTHMAN’S NEW YORKER REVIEW pointed out that Americans have had this discussion before, debating whether poverty is rooted in culture and norms or a function of economic and social conditions that government can address. In 1965, the Moynihan Report on urban black families set off a debate over whether poverty is determined mainly by culture or by economics, a choice most scholars ultimately rejected, concluding that both factors had “entwined and equal power.”

As events would have it, I became a graduate student and professor in the midst of that debate and examined this very question. I conducted surveys and in-depth interviews in five poor neighborhoods, including a poor Appalachian community called Belmont in Hamilton, Ohio, just a few miles down the Great Miami River from Middletown, at about the time one Middletown resident, Vance’s mother, was entering her teenage years. I also conducted similar research in three very different poor—and black—neighborhoods in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, and in a Mexican American neighborhood in San Jose.

What I discovered was that Belmont was the only community I studied where a culture of poverty played a major role in explaining attitudes and civic behavior. There is an ascendant “fatalism, personal impotence, limited time perspective, disorganization and apathy that combine to suppress any collective political urge,” I wrote in Politics and Poverty, a book I based on my dissertation.

Vance’s description of hillbilly culture was painfully accurate, but it didn’t extend to the other poor communities I studied. It was very different from the dominant culture and attitudes in the poor black neighborhoods of Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and poor Mexican American neighborhoods of San Jose. And importantly, it would be very different from the thinking and politics in the non-Appalachian, Rust Belt white working-class communities that I would study a decade later.

How did it happen that I researched and observed these neighborhoods between 1970 and 1973, when I did the fieldwork that led to my first book? I grew up acutely conscious of race and the battle for civil rights. When my family moved to Washington, D.C., for my father to take a job, we lived in an all-black neighborhood, then a mostly Jewish neighborhood before D.C. schools were required to integrate. My junior class trip took us by bus across the South to New Orleans, where we witnessed separate water fountains and argued with our tour guide. The summer before going away to college, I worked at a factory with white workers from West Virginia, while blacks were segregated in the shipping department. At night I volunteered at the NAACP office on U Street and watched Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial from the organizing tent.

That I ended up as a pollster was hardly foretold. For my senior project as a government major at Miami University in 1967, I conducted a mail survey with undergraduates, and based on that, I was hired the following summer before starting graduate school by MIT Professor Ithiel de Sola Pool to analyze a survey on student housing, using new technology that allowed you to produce cross tabulations on your desktop. Based on that, and even more improbably, I was hired by a private research firm in Cambridge to lead a project that engaged with the poor themselves in a national evaluation of the War on Poverty for the Office of Economic Opportunity. It included an innovative leadership survey in 100 poor neighborhoods and a survey of the poor themselves in five of them. That ended up as my Harvard Ph.D. thesis and first book.

Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy

For Vance, the world he was born into—and from which his grandparents saved him—is “pessimistic” and “socially isolated.”

I conducted this research in a period after the urban riots had convulsed most American cities, and I was looking to see whether a more radical, anti-systemic black politics was now dominant, rather than the “culture of poverty” implied in the work of Edward Banfield, Herbert Gans, and James Q. Wilson, all of whom I studied with at Harvard. In fact, I was rooting for a more developed class consciousness, given the half-century of rural impoverishment, mass migration to cities, and industrialization that shaped these communities.

All these hypotheses perished before the diversity of political consciousness in these neighborhoods. My hope for a developed class consciousness fared worst of all, as black auto workers thanked Ford for their pay, which was equal to that paid white workers, and Kentuckians thanked Champion Paper for their parks. But the very different consciousness and mostly empowering politics in the black and Mexican American neighborhoods left the culture of poverty theory in disrepute as well. However, that culture was a very large part of the story in Belmont, near where Vance grew up. He just did not realize how exceptional it was.

By locating in Belmont, the Kentucky migrants had moved into the neighborhood with some of the lowest-priced housing in Hamilton, where chicken coops were converted into one-room houses. The better houses had enough land for a corn patch. Starting in World War II, the Kentuckians had come for jobs at Champion Paper, Fisher Body, and Beckett Paper. Migration had stopped by 1970, as manufacturing employment began to decline.

Throughout Belmont, one could hear barely a murmur of politics. Only 12 percent indicated membership in any organization. The Hamilton Journal-News found only one instance where the community had joined together toward a common cause. The only visible organization was “O’Tuck”—Kentuckians in Ohio providing entertainment and relief for flood and mine victims back home—but few residents of Belmont got involved. One of the leaders of O’Tuck said, “What they have is in hand. They don’t try to build up anything.”

The mayor was from Kentucky and operated a store in Belmont, though he lived on Hamilton’s richer west side. He may have had a house, but his “home” was in Harlan County. Once he made his fortune, he went back home.

On trusting people in the neighborhood, the Belmont residents scored the lowest by far of those in the five communities I surveyed. On the question of whether “the wise person lives for today and lets tomorrow take care of itself,” they scored at least 20 points higher than any other neighborhood. That is why the mayor took for granted how much they suspected him of corruption, and how apathetic they were about it.

In San Jose’s Mexican American community, residents were among the most organizationally engaged: 6 percent belonged to three organizations, a level six times that in Belmont. These included mutual benefit societies, electoral organizations, political pressure and civil rights groups, and government-funded advisory groups. One in five belonged to fractious organizations, with very different views of how to relate to the Anglo-American mainstream.

The poor neighborhood of Detroit’s East Side was a more stable community, due partly to Ford’s ongoing presence and its history of recruiting blacks and giving them equal pay to whites. Its organizations and elected leaders were suspicious of the intentions of whites, suspicious of city government and the unions, and looked out for the community’s interests. The East Side was the womb for black political careers, a neighborhood in which three-quarters of the adult population was registered, 45 percent of whom voted in congressional elections and 50 percent in local ones. No other community I studied came close to this level of political participation. The funeral homes, Baptist churches, and indigenous and independent black organizations advocated for black interests, even within the United Auto Workers.

That was very different from the Summerhill area of Atlanta, where black organizations and people lent support to the progressive business alliance that helped prod Atlanta to offer a more accommodating response to civil rights than other Southern cities. There were few institutions and no YMCA or political clubs in the neighborhood. Their voter turnout was modest, but residents scored very high on receptivity to politics and their sense of personal efficacy.

North Central Philadelphia was characterized by its “frenetic politics,” as I wrote at the time. Fully 22 percent in that poor neighborhood belonged to an organization, the highest in the communities studied. It had vital tenant- and welfare-rights organizations, big churches and church-sponsored social-welfare programs, a large NAACP chapter, and a Model City program. It had strong citywide party electoral organizations that delivered patronage for votes. This poor community had high electoral turnout and scored highest on my receptivity to politics scale.

And what of the non-Appalachian white working class? All the cities of the industrial Midwest had been shaped by the influx of Irish, German, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants. They lived in largely homogenous neighborhoods, usually working their way from the poorest and most crowded inner cities to the inner suburbs. The triumph of the unions in manufacturing after World War II allowed many to climb into the middle class.

In Detroit—America’s fourth-largest city in the first half of the 20th century—Catholic immigrants from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Italy, as well as the Slavic states, worked in the auto plants. They were passionately pro-union and after violent strikes, the United Automobile Workers won recognition by the big three auto companies by 1941. In the years between 1970 and 1985, these workers moved heavily to white suburbs, most especially Macomb County, which became home to the “Reagan Democrats.”

Poor people from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia had begun moving to Midwestern cities like Detroit during the hiring frenzy of World War II and kept coming until the early 1960s. Some moved into urban neighborhoods like Briggs and Corktown, which had been home to prior waves of immigrants, while others moved to nearby rural communities like Taylor and Hazel Park, which soon came to be called “Taylortucky” and “Hazeltucky.”

There’s abundant contemporaneous evidence that the culture of these Appalachian white communities was not only distinctive but viewed as distinctive by other ethnic and working-class Americans at the time. Their very migration had distinctive roots. Henry Ford had bought coal mines in Appalachia and recruited the Appalachian whites to come to Detroit because they were “safe”—that is, much less likely to join a union. Just as Vance’s grandfather appreciated Armco Steel, his employer, so in Detroit many Appalachian whites memorialized Henry Ford. And since many viewed their work in Detroit as seasonal or temporary, they were content to accept lower wages and competed with UAW supporters for jobs in Ford’s factories before the UAW unionized the company in 1941. Even thereafter, they resisted putting down roots and continued sending money back to their families in Kentucky. Commentators wrote about the Detroit Southerners (like the Hamilton Southerners) having their trucks jam-packed to head back to Kentucky when their shift ended.

In 1934, a Wayne State University survey asked Detroit residents, “What people in Detroit are undesirable?” The respondents ranked “poor Southern whites, hillbillies, etc.” as the second-most undesirable, behind “criminals,” who topped the list. Given Detroit’s fractious black-white history, it’s notable that “Negroes” ranked fourth. Everywhere they resided, the Southerners were marginalized, with others labeling them as “crackers,” “white trash,” “red neck,” and “hillbillies,” terms that created very real “cultural boundaries.”

Unlearning the Hill Billy Elegy

Not surprisingly, conservative reviewers loved the book. It bolstered their conviction that almost no public policy can change life’s trajectory.

In Briggs and Corktown, neighborhoods within a mile of downtown Detroit, many rented rooms in Victorian-era homes that had been converted into rooming houses; others lived in overcrowded basements and garages. About the same time that I was conducting interviews in Hamilton, similar interviews with Detroit residents revealed an Appalachian white community in the 1960s that was clannish and religious. Landlords reported the tenants always having plumbing problems. Residents were seen as “rude” and “violent” and, like blacks, were discriminated against in getting rentals or even being allowed inside bars.

A quarter-century later, when John Hartigan interviewed the Southern residents of the Briggs neighborhood in 1992 and 1993, he found “only a meager sense of solidarity” in this white haven. The “hillbillies” were renters in a city where most strived to be homeowners. They struggled to find work and half lived in poverty. “The white underclass in Briggs,” Hartigan wrote, “lives side-by-side with somewhat more financially secure, working-class neighbors.”

While Vance and his reviewers readily equate “hillbillies” with the white working class, Detroit makes clear that that equation could not be more off-base. I conducted my research with the white working-class “Reagan Democrats” in the Detroit suburb of Macomb County, in the mid-1980s—when Vance was born. The white working class I researched and wrote about believed in hard work being rewarded, taking personal and family responsibility, owning a home with a yard, and being engaged in church, civic groups, and unions. It welcomed government that balanced corporate power with initiatives that gave working people greater security, opportunity, and mobility. The workers there benefited when government was supportive of unions and created a system of social insurance that allowed them to retire with security. The next generation climbed up the social and economic ladder when all had access to education.

But some of their certitudes had begun to collapse.

In July 1967, Detroit’s inner city erupted into five days of rioting and looting that took 43 lives and required the National Guard and U.S. paratroopers to reassert order. Detroit was the most segregated metropolitan area in the country, and in 1971, a federal judge ordered the use of school busing to integrate the suburbs. Macomb was the center of the anti-busing protests and organization. George Wallace got 67 percent of the Democratic primary vote in Macomb in 1972 and Reagan won 66 percent of the Macomb vote in 1984 against Walter Mondale, the candidate of organized labor.

The world of the unionized Detroit auto workers had begun to crumble. Unemployment rose above 15 percent in Macomb County in March 1981, as the local industry contracted in the face of foreign competition and relocation to the non-union South. Companies demanded givebacks of wages and benefits from the workers in their negotiations with the UAW. As the workers in Macomb saw it, Democrats seemed to care more about blacks in Detroit and protesters on campus, more about equal rights and abortions, than about their ability to pay their mortgages, or for their kids’ future.

Robert F. Kennedy, whom I worked for in 1968, advanced a formula to win both black and ethnic Catholic voters, but the formula died with him—until Bill Clinton, whom I also worked for, resurrected it in his 1992 campaign.

Clinton was embraced early by black voters in Detroit and elsewhere in the primary, and nearly won Macomb’s white voters in the general. He attacked the 1980s as a “gilded age of greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, excess, and neglect,” and said, “I want the jetsetters and featherbedders of corporate America to know that if you sell your companies and your workers and your country down the river, you’ll get called on the carpet.” All the while, “millions of decent, ordinary people who worked hard, played by the rules and took responsibility for their own actions were falling behind.”

Clinton declared those at the top must pay their fair share of taxes, but also that hardworking Americans were right to be upset about welfare. When Clinton announced his candidacy for president, he promised “to end welfare as we know it.” That meant new work requirements, but also major government initiatives to make work pay, including big investments in education, a higher minimum wage, a greatly expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, and health insurance for all. Clinton’s offer was both “responsibility and opportunity,” and that is what both white and black working people wanted and voted for in 1992.

Both groups were dealing with the accelerating retrenchment of manufacturing jobs from 1970 to the 1990s. The crisis only deepened after Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and established permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, both supported by Clinton. The United States had lost 1.5 million manufacturing jobs during the decade of the 1980s, when many of these voters turned to Reagan, but in the quarter-century since NAFTA took effect, a further 4.5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, including 182,288 in Michigan.

When Macomb County voters were deciding whether to support Barack Obama in the summer of 2008, he never brought up Detroit or black people, and he wasn’t running on “black issues,” as Jesse Jackson had in 1984. My surveys showed that only one-third of Macomb residents thought Obama would put the interests of blacks ahead of other Americans, and only a small minority believed affirmative action and “blacks not taking responsibility” posed a threat to the middle class. By contrast, they were nearly venomous in their critique of corporate CEOs, politicians, and elites of both parties who promoted global trade at the expense of American jobs. By a large majority, they said that “outsourcing of jobs to other countries” and “NAFTA and international trade agreements” were the biggest economic problems. They embraced the message that the middle class today is “threatened by global trade, CEOs who care more about their companies than their own country, and politicians who support free trade agreements backed by corporate special interests.”

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS OF 2008 and the Great Recession took a huge and enduring toll on working people, black and white, but so did policies that benefited the elites and did little or nothing for working Americans. Bonuses for bailed-out bankers (none of whom went to jail) continued to be paid, while home foreclosures continued unabated. Middle-income Hispanic and black households lost more than 40 percent of their wealth. The new jobs after the crash paid 17 percent less than the ones that had been lost, and median income did not return to its pre-crash level for an entire decade.

Today, we worry about the deaths of despair, the suicide rate, the breakdown of marriage, and the spread of drugs throughout much of white working-class America. Middle-size cities and small towns have lost big companies, stores, and new investment. Many white residents in those terrains expressed their anger at the political and economic elites by voting for Donald Trump.

Working-class families and communities are indeed in trouble, but a lot of factors contributed to it. The culprit was not bad choices.

When conservatives and Republican leaders think about these abandoned and beleaguered white workers, they see people who have grown dependent on government, for whom the War on Poverty, unemployment and disability benefits, food stamps, housing vouchers, and Medicaid have all failed to address their problems. Paul Ryan has termed these policies a hammock that allows people to comfortably drop out of the labor market. Vance’s book suggests a dysfunctional culture has left these people and communities disabled and our medicine cabinet of governmental remedies empty.

The problem with those judgments is that you have to erase a lot of history and a lot of experience with policy outcomes to get there. Working-class families and communities are indeed in trouble, but a lot of factors contributed to it. The culprit was not bad choices. It was not lack of personal responsibility or a government that was clueless about how to get to a better economy and society. We are not powerless to address these ills.

With the full Republican takeover of the U.S. government in 2016, however, the GOP got the opportunity to address the problems facing the white working class that had played such a big role in Donald Trump’s victory. In response, Republicans devoted 2018 to building in “work requirements” before the “able-bodied” could receive welfare benefits, food stamps, or be covered by Medicaid. They paid no attention to the evidence that prior imposition of work requirements had no long-term effect on the poverty rate or on people staying in the labor force. They ignored the fact that half of SNAP recipients worked when they got food stamps and three-quarters worked in the year afterward.

They ignored that most of the beneficiaries are children.

And the reason conservatives have embraced “work requirements” is to keep lower-income and working-class Americans from becoming indolent—an idiocy, with the cruelest of consequences, they’d learned or relearned from Vance.

Is that really all they have to offer working people? What an insult.

The Republicans lost dramatically in the anti-Trump wave election of 2018, but most of all, they lost across the industrial Midwest and Rust Belt, stretching from Pennsylvania to Michigan and Wisconsin to Kansas. Compared with the 2016 vote, Republicans faced some of their biggest losses among white working-class men and women. Working people showed they had wearied of Republicans’ anti-government slogans—and that they didn’t believe that food stamps and Medicaid led to people swinging idly in hammocks.

Voters have stripped Republicans of their congressional majority, Paul Ryan has retired to his hammock, and Republicans would do well to unlearn the lessons of Hillbilly Elegy.


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