Capital Offenses:Hillbilly Elegy and anti-worker mythologies

I’m an educator. And one thing I always do on the first day of my United States history surveys is show the students a list of the fifty poorest counties in the country by poverty rate. This list includes places like Buffalo County, South Dakota; Holmes County, Mississippi; and Owsley County, Kentucky. It’s the America of ancient cotton fields and derelict coal mines and tribal casinos. I then ask students what these places seem to have in common, and someone almost always nails it: they’re virtually all counties in Appalachia, Indian Country, or slavery’s former Black Belt—all remnants of the social ecology of extractive capitalism, genocide and forced removal, and the production of cash crops. In short, the origins of today’s material conditions lie squarely in the nineteenth century.

In fact, six of the eleven most impoverished counties in the United States lie in or overlap with Sioux reservations in North and South Dakota, the poorest being Crow Creek. On Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, the male life expectancy is forty-eight years.1 In addition to being strikingly poor, the Black Belt, which stretches from southeastern Tidewater Virginia through the North Carolina Piedmont and the heart of the Deep South and into the Mississippi Delta, remains the most materially unequal, socially fixed, and immobile region of the country, as the legacy of slavery continues to perpetuate the wealth gap between propertied classes and the descendants of slaves and propertyless whites.2 In Appalachia, meanwhile, Owsley County, Kentucky, which is over 98 percent white, exemplifies the historical privation of the commonwealth’s Eastern Coalfield.3 Known widely as a “pauper county” in the late nineteenth century, Owsley is now the second poorest county in the United States, with a median household income of just over $19,000.4 “The end result,” according to historian John R. Burch, “is that Owsley County begins the twenty-first century in a fashion amazingly similar to where it had been a century before.”5

But perhaps the continuity of scarcity is not as surprising as Burch lets on. Sociohistorical structures—the panoptic, time-spanning social, material, and climatological phenomena that impact our worlds in ways that we as individuals do not necessarily observe or even comprehend—govern everything from the social and personal wealth we inherit to the health outcomes of individuals, communities, regions, and nations. Studies by economic historians Stanley Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff expose that contemporary social wealth is rooted in soil and centuries-old systems of production, with agricultural predisposition driving trends of settler colonialism and slavery, and those social and labor organizations impacting the long-term equitability of tax codes, the curbing or fostering of public investment in infrastructure and education, the shaping of the contours of popular government, and the overall distribution of social wealth.6 New research has also shed light on the increasingly myriad ways poverty and racism impact brain development and mental health.7 Furthermore, studies of the relationship between disease and ancestral poverty suggest that our health inclinations and life expectancies today are determined in part by the caloric intake and types of foods and nutrients to which our forebears had access—their insecurity is ours, and it is epochs in the making.8

The residue of the past is especially pronounced in the nation’s poorest regions. Writing on the central role of slavery in the development of American capitalism, industry, and finance, historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman view that racial-labor system as “the foundational American institution, organizing the nation’s politics, legal structures, and cultural practices with remarkable power to determine the life chances of those moving through society as black or white.”9 As we see in the Black Belt today, slavery’s legacy continues to limit the mobility of Black and white members of the working class. In accelerating the extermination or forced displacement of Indigenous peoples and in aggregating wealth and concentrating poor whites into enclaves of non-arable land, slavery shaped the fates of Buffalo and Owsley counties, too. To the residents of Indian Country or parts of Appalachia, something similar to Beckert and Rockman’s claim can be said of removal and reservations or environmental and labor exploitation in the pursuit of extractive commodities.

In other words, present-day arrangements of wealth, opportunity, and well-being are the byproducts of centuries, shaped by deep-rooted systems of production and their social debris. As I suggest to my students, intergenerational wealth and the ability of those who benefit from it to impose hegemony, dictate custom, shape policy, and accrue social privilege is not only perhaps the single most important factor in explaining how we got to where we are as Americans, but that it’s impossible to understand that process unless we step back—sometimes far back—in time. “Don’t tell me historical structures don’t matter,” the history teacher in me counsels them. “Don’t tell me the nineteenth century doesn’t matter.”

It’s a basic lesson in history and sociology that author J. D. Vance would do well to learn. His recent book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis tells the author’s own bootstrappy account of growing up in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio. Through bittersweet reminiscence and heart-wrenching anecdote, Vance’s bestseller, which has been praised in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, ultimately diagnoses culture and pathology—the same culture and pathology that liberals often rightly eschew when applied to poor communities of color—as the principal explanatory forces for the poverty and drug abuse he witnessed as a youth. The author, a conservative and a venture capitalist, skirts historical and sociological explanations for the drug-addledness and material destitution of his home region, arguing that neither public policy nor corporate exploitation are to blame. Vance’s conclusions mirror culture-of-poverty theorists such as Thomas R. Ford and Richard Ball, many of whom, often presupposing the superior values of the white middle class, searched for causes of Appalachian wealth scarcity amid Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In doing so, he grossly mischaracterizes cycles of poverty—the entrenched and self-perpetuating lack of access to resources, employment, education, and health care—and downplays the vicious effects of economic insecurity altogether. While Vance would likely accept Richard D. Hawkins Jr.’s notion of a “hillbilly psychology” centered on unique familial relations and understandings of violence, he would surely not ascribe material causation to such culture.

Vance instead attributes his subjects’ condition to a mono-causal “bad behavior”—an explanation that shares a common genealogy with the racism and classism of social Darwinism and nineteenth-century civilization theory. He paints a portrait of laziness, welfare fraud, and a “hillbilly” culture in decline, as though there was ever a time in which the metropolitan gaze didn’t homogenize or demonize Appalachia, or blame its residents for their own social ills.10 The “hillbilly” moniker itself dates to at least the Gilded Age, and historians, including Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, have long addressed class and the cultural construction of poor whites as biological “others.” At last, Hillbilly Elegy regurgitates the age-old suggestion that poverty stems from individual failing and that anyone can transcend unproductive culture if only they possess a sufficient “work ethic” and steer toward a white middle-class definition of “morality.”

Repeating some of these same tenets in a recently published New York Times essay entitled “What the People of Appalachia Want,” Vance challenges the notion that poor Americans “just need a good educational or work opportunity to achieve some measure of success.” “Maybe they need something different,” he argues, “emotional skills that their traumatic family life deprived them of; a social community or civic organization that behavior or circumstance destroyed.”11 Not only is their scarcity self-induced but also, to Vance, the problems of Appalachia’s poor are personalized and somewhat mystic, laying beyond the analytical, the material, and the historic. With a rejection of empiricism and a conviction of spectacular ego, Vance’s own success is evidence enough to him that any “hillbilly”—or anyone else, presumably—can alter their culture and transcend their lowly station.

Yet as poverty studies make clear, the reality behind Vance’s Horatio Alger veneer is considerably more complicated. Unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, violence, substandard housing, and a lack of access to health care, much of which Vance chronicles, are predominantly symptoms—not causes—of poverty. Especially in scenarios of deprivation, socioeconomic mobility has far more to do with fluke and incremental advantage than with will or merit. The United Nations monitor on human rights has recently traveled across the United States, examining homelessness on the West Coast, racial disparities in the Deep South, and deindustrialization in Appalachia. Inspectors have confirmed a “dark side of the American dream” in which there are forty-one million people, nine million of whom have a zero cash income, living in poverty in the wealthiest nation in world.12

Underscoring the structural nature of poverty, left commentators have responded to Vance in force. Journalist Sarah Jones has rightly called Vance a “white trash-splainer,” deriding his book as “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.”13Hillbilly Elegy is misnamed,” historian Bob Hutton adds. “Elegies are poems dedicated to the dead. The American hillbilly isn’t dead; he’s just poor. The book should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly—he wants to make him a good worker.”14

But the flaws in Vance’s thesis, fundamental as they are, matter most significantly insofar as they embody deeper political narratives that are intended to obscure more sinister social truths. More pointedly still, the defects of Hillbilly Elegy fit into a common anti-working class script—one continuously recycled by both conservatives and liberals, most recently to rationalize the election of Donald Trump. They are also part and parcel of a broader collective psychology regarding merit, opportunity, and who deserves what and why that speaks to the very logic and ethos of capitalism.

Defective narratives of cultural defectiveness

Vance’s victim-blaming spans regional, racial, and partisan ranks. For elites, pinpointing defective culture as an explanation for poverty deflects investigation and rationalizes political complacency, enabling capitalists and policymakers to scrutinize individuals rather than institutions. This trend is most evident in the Republican Party, within which the trope of the undeserving poor is practically a mantra. Nowhere has disdain for the have-nots surfaced more forcefully than in recent debates surrounding the GOP “tax bill.” Regarding the estate tax repeal, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley compared productive investors against blue collars who, in his mind, tend to waste their money on “booze or women or movies.” This is a frank admission of class warfare—one of the ultrarich against the rest of us. Often combined with white nationalism to forge a warmed-over social Darwinism, this Republican worldview perceives the class system not as a complex and highly contingent outgrowth of history, geography, and circumstance, but, in a Randian sense, as a direct reflection of productivity, in which the choices and values of the contributing rich trump those of the undeserving poor.

Meanwhile, the liberal message of the deserving poor contains a more paternal veneer and at least the promise of greater opportunity for “earned” advancement. Epitomized by the Moynihan Report, midcentury politicians adopted explanations for poverty as a phenomenon rooted largely in pathology, behavior, and psychology. Liberal social scientists offered solutions, backed by liberals and conservatives alike, that were tantamount to fine-tuning: “equal opportunity” and means-testing rather than mass redistribution. In more recent decades, New Democratic enthusiasm for welfare reform, financial deregulation, trade deals, prison building, mandatory sentencing, charter schools, and measured and contingent support for minimum wage increases betray its professional class prerogatives. Policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit given to the working poor that functions as poverty policing, embody, even at the basic level of human hunger and survival, the party’s internalization of the capitalist values of incentivizing and personal accountability.

Focus on individual answerability overlaps with the long bipartisan consensus of criminalizing the poor. As Isenberg writes, “A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.”15 This punitory history is not merely an outgrowth of conservatism, nor is it a relic of the distant past. Myriad scholars have detailed the increasing entanglement of the welfare and carceral states seen in the Clinton era and the logic of this “workfare”—that is, to “mold” a pliant precariat through the threat of surveillance, sanctions, incarceration, and other disciplinary measures. A critical point here is that US social policy has never been designed to end or even necessarily mitigate poverty. To quote Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram, “When adults, mostly single mothers, apply for public aid today, they enter an arena that is organized to serve employers: Its purpose is to groom clients for employment, offer them up for hire, and press them into available jobs. . . . Work activities in the TANF program function today as just one element of a broader regime of classes, incentives, penalties, and supports designed to create more attractive and compliant workers.”16

This emphasis on valuating the individual as a productive unit is, of course, baked into the very principium of capitalism. It also partly explains the recent Democratic Party’s forgoing of the majoritarian politics of socialism or even the progressive economics of social democracy—the kind of politics that unites non-elites across races and regions through universal policies. Instead, New Democrats moved toward neoliberalism and increasingly favored solutions of testing and adjustment within a market-based framework, prompting political theorists such as Noam Chomsky to assert that the Democratic Party has, for decades, all but abandoned the working class.17 Writing in the midst of the Third Way transformation, Michael Lind argued that “neoliberal Democrats” had far more in common with “elite economic conservatives” (if not with the “populist far right”) than they did with economically left members of their own party.18 Indeed, such a technocratic, value-based worldview consists of calculating means, assessing ability, demonstrating skills, verifying proficiency, evaluating utility, and distinguishing between the untalented poor who had their opportunity, and the talented poor who tragically didn’t.

Minority representation alone has been insufficient in combating this meritocratic dogma. Although the Black freedom struggle of the second half of the twentieth century pushed mainstream American politics to the left (and will be essential in pushing it to the left in the future), we now see all the more clearly the supreme limits of liberalism. In the Black community, for instance, leftists have long criticized the Congressional Black Caucus for its support of the War on Drugs and the carceral state, its ties to corporate money, and its lukewarm responses to anti-Black police violence. For decades, Black political representation has increased alongside racial disparities in income, jobs, housing, education, and health care. According to historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the new Black political elite have too often become “arbiters of political power who willingly operate in a political terrain designed to exploit and oppress African Americans and other working-class people.”19 Indeed, the present news cycle reveals cities under largely Black political leadership that like Baltimore have seen mass protest in response to racist policing, or like Atlanta stand as one of the most materially unequal in the nation. Owing largely to the housing market collapse and economic recession, racial disparities in wealth in fact increased under the first Black president.20 Alas, as Huey Newton correctly identified, “The rules of Black capitalism and the limits of Black capitalism are set by the white power structure.”21 The racial dilemma, like the gender dilemma, is not merely a lack of representation—the absence of minority faces in high places. Nor is the dilemma a simple absence of minority elites. The dilemma is the very existence of such elites. In other words, the problem is capitalism and the myths, such as Vance’s, that sustain it.

Hard reality in terms of socioeconomic and health data makes it ever more difficult for the affluent to maintain the fiction of meritocracy and self-responsibility. For starters, the United States has fallen behind Western Europe and most of the rest of the developed world when it comes to economic mobility. Researchers David Grusky and Pablo Mitnik of the Center on Poverty and Inequality, who use IRS data sets to explore how parents’ income impacts the earning potential of the next generation, reveal that parental wealth—not education or hard work—is by far the best indicator for how much money a child will make as an adult. And this trend becomes more true the higher one moves up the earnings scale. Moreover, a given child’s prospects of making more money than their parents has fallen from 90% to 50% over the past half century.22 This all makes the merit myth exceedingly difficult to sustain. But the key to this wholesale vacating of the “American Dream”—an idea, like nationalism itself, that elites have always wielded as a hegemonic tool—lies in something even more socially fixed and historically determined than income.

Indeed, if a parents’ income is so crucial to transgenerational economic fluidity, what then is the likeliest indicator of all-important parental income? After all, generationally-added income is easily offset by asymmetrical student loan debt, retirement savings, homeownership rates, asset building subsidies, and, above all, inheritance. As poverty data across time reveals, class is underwritten most by a lack of intergenerational wealth. Income is far less important than what kind of income you have and, most importantly, and as Vance’s work should have exemplified, how accumulated wealth across generations confers advantage to certain people, groups, and communities. As such, financial wealth—stocks, bonds, real estate, business capital—aggregated amid conditions past and present in which folks in Owsley, Buffalo, and Holmes counties, for example, were systematically locked out of economic growth accounts for the wealth gap between more affluent zip codes and Vance’s much-maligned Appalachian communities. This distinction between annual income and inheritable wealth explains the gap between disparities in income and the disparities in wealth, home value, and assets.23 It is also the primary means by which the average white family, earning 35% more than the average Black family, nevertheless possesses twenty-two times more wealth and assets (and widening).24 “40 Acres and a Mule” alone would be worth tens of trillions of dollars today.25

These present-day regional, racial, and gendered disparities in wealth and advantage are, of course, built into the capitalist system. This is a system in which white supremacy was legally encoded and culturally endorsed as a means of managing labor, and in which gendered and unpaid or highly exploitable care and domestic work became necessary in order to free up low- paid wage workers outside the home. Today’s elites continue to promote racism and xenophobia as reasons for white economic insecurity. (After all, it can’t be because something is intrinsically wrong with capitalism or its “natural” markets.) Donald Trump rode this tactic all the way to the White House, using faux populism and white grievance politics to mask an agenda that serves the 1 percent. These disparities are also literally hundreds of years in the making, the last three plus decades of which—through Reaganomics, Bushonomics, Clintonomics, mass incarceration, financial globalism, and economic crashes—have likely been just as disproportionately devastating to communities of color as any other era after slavery.

And these economic shocks are generating quite a body count. Of course wealth and income, which correlate with race and gender, have always been the primary determinants of who gets sick and why, and of who dies young. However, new health epidemics have recently shed light on how this reality impacts Vance’s white populations in glaring ways. In a predatory practice that mirrors the mortgage crisis, the Big Pharma lobby has pumped millions of dollars into the mass dissemination of OxyContin and Vicodin, with addiction rates at epidemic levels in places like Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York, Northeast Ohio, and Western Pennsylvania—throughout the Rust Belt and in areas most ravaged by the loss of industrial jobs and the Great Recession.26 In West Virginia, where drug overdose fatalities have risen at three times the national average, public programs designed to subsidize burial costs for poor families are literally running out of money, as deindustrialization, job loss, despair, and opioid addiction have become linked in a mutually reinforcing cycle.27

But the opioid crisis is just one manifestation of how health epidemics are both linked to austerity policies and typically caused by poverty and shocks in the economy, not the other way around. The 2015 study by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” reveals that, for the first time in US history, life expectancies are declining for entire demographic groups of white Americans. Death rates have surged particularly among middle-aged non-Hispanic white Americans with a high school education or less, who nevertheless earn 35 percent more than their African American counterparts. The researchers argue that the proliferation of “deaths of despair”—spikes in drug and alcohol use and suicide, combined with the traditional middle-aged killers of cancer and heart disease—are directly related to decreased economic and material welfare, part of a slow but steady unraveling of well-being that began in the 1970s and has continued through the aftermath of the Great Recession.28

What Case and Deaton identify is not only a lack of material goods, but also a decline in hope—and an uptick in depression, anxiety, and nihilism. To some extent, rampant illness and addiction are physical manifestation of what the authors term a “spiritual” agony caused by “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.” If, as Case and Deaton observe, scarcity led to this “mortality and morbidity,” then a fuller redistribution of goods and the availability of dignified, good-paying work can work to undo it. In spite of Vance’s conclusions about flawed culture as the driver of destitution, in deindustrialized America and elsewhere, the material pinch far precedes the spiritual pain.

The self-reinforcing trend of economic and material decline feeding either political disengagement or the outright rejection of established institutions and political norms has, unsurprisingly, come to bear on balloting politics. And the lack of working-class electoral power has also shaped how the white middle class has responded to the ascendency of a demagogue who promised white Americans that he would turn back the clock to a time of greater (white) material prosperity.

The working class elects no one

Cultural deficiency offers the comfortable classes a pliable, recyclable story line. It comes as no surprise then that Vance-style anti-poor and anti-working class narratives have lately emerged as explanations for the election of Donald Trump. Liberals, either seeking to ignore the internal causes of Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign or refusing to examine the role that their own class—the middle class—played in Trump’s ascendency, have indicted the so-called “white working class” as responsible for the calamity of November 8, 2016. The morning after the election the New York Times declared Trump’s victory “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters”—some of the very kind for which Vance pretends to speak.29 Even the liberal populist analyst Thomas Frank alleged that working-class folks made up “the bulk of Trump’s fan base.”30 

This blue-collar punching spanned the political spectrum. Assuming that Trump’s base of support resides primarily among white workers, Kevin Williamson of the National Review attacked them as little more than drug-addled saps: “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities,” Williamson continued, “is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.”31 Among liberals, Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos was emphatically gleeful that Trump-voting coal miners might lose their health insurance.32 Jonathan Chait and others have agreed, remarking callously that Trump’s voters were simply “idiots” who fully deserved to bear the brunt of the new president’s cruel economic agenda.33 Basing their expectations about Trump voters on classist stereotypes, countless liberals applaud Chait’s dead-end cynicism.

But are Williamson, Chait, and other pundits operating under a false assumption about Trump supporters and the white working class? Indeed, what do the political commentariat even mean when they reference the “white working class”?

“Class” has several different and overlapping denotations related to occupation, education, and income. Class can mean bare financial security: access to a credit card and a bank account; having a 401k; the absence of certain types of debt; or not receiving food assistance or Medicaid benefits. To some, it at least tends to correlate with educational attainment. Class can also signify a set of tastes, attitudes, and customs associated with wealth, access, and economic privilege or the lack thereof: what you eat, where you shop, and how you get around (or don’t). As humanities professor and organizer Jack Metzgar contends, those arguing about Trump and white workers suffer from a “confusion of categories, often made worse by lingering white-trash class prejudice.” “Different authors are looking at different parts of an elephant,” he insists, “while thinking they’re seeing the whole thing.” This dubiety is made worse because concepts such as “base,” “supporters,” and “voters,” often used interchangeably, in fact mean different things.34

But, once again, class isn’t merely or even mostly about income or education; it’s not mostly about cultural values and tastes associated with wealth, either. Class is about your relationship to the means of production, and that relationship tends to correlate with what income type you have and how amassed transgenerational wealth confers advantage. The extent of Trump’s white working-class support is dependent on how pollsters define “class,” and Metzgar argues that this is, to some degree, a legitimate intellectual mix-up. The distinction between the working class and the bourgeoisie gets especially lost amid the way pundits often define “class” not as wealth but as whether or not one has a college degree. For instance, two-thirds of adult suburbanites—hardly how pundits imagine Trump’s “white working-class base”—have no college degree.35 As a result, higher earning yet non-college degree holding older white people, who constitute Trump’s largest bloc of voting support—and look a lot like the GOP voters as a whole—get lumped in with actual white workers. Salaried managers and their hourly stockers are homogenized. Business owners are conflated with their hard hat and name tag-wearing employees.

And if the punditry has conflated “non-Hispanic non-college degree whites” with the “working class” or “low income,” what role did the actual working class—non-supervisory wage earners—really play in electing Trump? Well, far less than the media would have us believe. Although he ran a faux populist campaign on behalf of the “forgotten men and women,” Trump’s base was always a combination of big conservative donors and the white voters who strongly resembled the overall Republican base, with perhaps a special appeal among the petite bourgeoisie. Non-college degree holding people of all races do not typically vote, and they are generally to the left of those who do vote when it comes to issues of political economy. Meanwhile, white, blue-collar production workers comprise only about one-third of the white electorate without a college degree. Many of the rest—Trump’s true base—are not working class. They are in fact a middle class of older and more affluent business owners, managers, supervisors, policemen, and insurance and real estate brokers who are without college degrees and are far more likely to vote and decidedly more politically conservative than non-degreed workers.36

Furthermore, poor whites, like poor people across races and regions, do not typically vote. Only 20 percent of “financially insecure” Americans are “likely voters,” compared to 63 percent of the most financially secure.37 And white voters from households making less than $50,000, who are far less likely to vote than their more affluent neighbors, did not back Trump in especially lopsided numbers. When income and education are combined, the myth of Trump’s white working-class base is further exposed, as white non-Hispanic voters without a college degree who make below the median household income comprised just a quarter of Trump voters.38

In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, decreased voter turnout among both white and Black workers posed a much greater problem for Democrats in 2016 than did formerly Democratic white workers who swung toward Trump. As Konstantin Kilibarda, Daria Roithmayr, Nate Cohn, and other voting analysts have noted, Republicans did not win over white workers in the Rust Belt nearly so much as Democrats lost them.39 In other words, despite Trump’s disingenuous appeals to blue-collar nostalgia, and despite Republican gains among white workers in several key Rust Belt counties, the vast majority working-class whites did not believe Trump enough to actually vote for him. To be clear: Trump voters were overwhelmingly middle-class white people.

Yet the reason the middle class was quick to blame the working class for Trump’s ascendency is because such narratives both absolve the “better classes” and validate existing stereotypes about working-class incapacity, culpability, valuelessness, unsuitability, stupidity—yes, stupidity—and the idea that the economically insecure deserve whatever fate befalls them. What is less forgivable than uncertainty over terms is what Metzgar describes as a “growing willingness of political writers to use an educated/uneducated class binary among whites to distinguish between Trump voters in suburbs whose basic sense of decency can be appealed to and the Trump base which is seen as a hopelessly ignorant stew of economic nationalists who pine not just for lost jobs and economic prospects, but also for the good old days of patriarchy and white supremacy.” While Metzgar acknowledges that the latter group clearly exists, he eschews the educated/uneducated binary, as “some of the weirdest attachments to the man with orange hair seem to reside in white business owners, not workers.”40

Not surprisingly, the implications of this logic transcend mere rhetorical classism and bleed into the realm of formal political power. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between the neoliberal mission and the disintegration of equality as it relates to not only resources, but also democracy and political participation. The United States currently occupies the lowest rung in voter turnout among OECD nations, and income level is perhaps the most reliable predictor of whether or not someone votes. Indeed, the vast majority of non-voters belong to the working class, a reality that spans races and regions.41 Procedural roadblocks, including ID laws, as well as the logistical and transportation problems inherent in high hour/low wage work, account for part of that eschewal, to be sure.

But it also stands to reason that a major cause of working-class abstention is much-warranted voter apathy. After decades of stagnant wages, eroding worker’s rights, skyrocketing education costs, the outsourcing of good-paying jobs through trade deals, and soaring inequality—trends that often traverse partisan lines—workers have little cause to believe that either major party truly represents their interests. By attributing Trump’s victory to “working-class whites” who “vote against their interests,” conservatives and liberals alike overlook both the marginality of economically insecure voters and the considerable degree of working-class apathy toward or alienation from the electoral process. When, for decades, neither party offers meaningful solutions to economic decline, voters either stay home or, being more susceptible than ever to racism and xenophobia, they choose the racist demagogue who promises them the world. This was evident at the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis where workers cheered Trump’s pledge to save jobs (albeit through $7 million in tax breaks to Carrier’s parent company), and where president of United Steelworkers Local 1999 Chuck Jones claimed that the racially diverse workforce wanted some sort of political change in 2016. “It could’ve been Captain Kangaroo,” Jones lamented.42 Speaking to the declining coal industry around Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Metzgar admits that the region’s swing toward Trump had a “what-the-hell quality to it,” yet he avows that such an inclination was “neither pathological nor irrational.” In the words of one Johnstown resident, a former steelworker and two-time Obama voter, “I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in.”43

When there are two mostly ineffective—and highly capitalized—parties, voters will always choose the party that at least validates their cultural beliefs and exploits (now-heightened) racial and social fears. Democrats rationalize the loss of industrial jobs in places like Johnstown through an esoteric language of inevitable global shifts in markets; Republicans blame government regulation, union corruption, and immigrants. Among Democrats, imagining Trump’s base as one of “racist white workers” feeds the mainstream line that the party should not tack left to get votes, but should in fact try to woo back wealthier, better educated, and “moderate” Trump voters through the Clintonian “triangulation” of appealing to their conservatism. On the whole, both camps view “free enterprise” as a fundamentally natural and freedom-maximizing (rather than constructed and dehumanizing) system. Of course the real source of industrial job loss has been a broad anti-worker, pro-boss political agenda that privileges capital over labor—an agenda now epitomized by a “tax bill” that is little more than a wealth transfer to the richest people on Earth. But one partisan narrative—the one that scapegoats other, browner, “job stealers,” while simultaneously pandering to other cultural preferences—is often simply more convincing to despairing white workers. But as Kirk Noden has stated regarding the social and political fallout of laborers in Youngstown, Ohio, deindustrialization has been a collective traumatic experience. We shouldn’t be surprised when its victims exhibit PTSD.44

In other words, although the working class is decidedly not Trump’s base, and the working class is not responsible for his White House occupancy, it is entirely predictable that desperate or hopeless workers might either tune out of the voting process or gravitate toward the racism and false promises of a reactionary pilferer.

Anti-workerism and bipartisan hierarchy

The merit myth sustains capitalism’s class pyramid. In order to confront the neoliberal project, we must first recognize both elite liberal appeals to diversity and elite conservative appeals to racism as the political tools that they are.45 The liberal fixations on means-testing, merit, and equalizing opportunity—rather than equalizing outcomes—speak to how hierarchy and oppression are inherent within even the softest forms of capitalism, and thus embedded within the very logic and popular self-understanding of liberalism.

Whereas liberalism looks to target and adjust for specific types of oppression in the workplace, socialism begins with the premise that all workers are oppressed. Whereas liberalism seeks mostly to diversify the management ladder and the corporate board, socialism seeks to destroy them. Whereas liberalism’s “equality of opportunity” forfeits equality, socialism actively seeks equality regardless of whether or not one “deserves.” Whereas liberalism actively promotes a (theoretically diverse) social stratum based on merit, socialism views all social taxonomy as unjust and as matters of degree. Whereas liberalism promotes one’s ability to work through the socioeconomic ranks, socialism questions the very existence of such material hierarchy.

At a fundamental level, both Vance’s conservatism and the liberalism of those who often praise his memoir insist that, against all evidence, mobility in a capitalist system can in fact be merit-based under a given program or with a little policy tinkering. But we know that’s not the case. Mountains of historical and contemporary evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, regarding socioeconomic mobility and disparities by race, gender, and region tells us it’s not. Merely reciting the “merit myth”—one of capitalism’s hegemonic bulwarks—only serves to reinforce racial, gender, class, and spatial inequality. Indeed, workers and other marginalized groups—including Vance’s “clan” of eastern Kentuckians—lack the same intergenerational wealth as elites because, historically, and over decades and centuries in some cases, they have been cut off from economic growth either through custom (racism, sexism, segregation, prejudice), or market design (wage labor, sharecropping, extractive industries, unpaid care work), or law and official policy (slavery, Indian removal, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, Right to Work). Capitalism, in both form and function, divides workers, concentrates the wealth produced by labor, and perpetuates hegemonic narratives that shift concerns regarding inequality from the systemic and the historic to the individual and the immediate.

To that end, Appalachians aren’t poorer than other Americans because they’re lazy or uneducated; they’re poorer because of a history of nonarable land, extractive capitalism, exploitable labor, and environmental destruction. Black Americans aren’t poorer because of a lack of self-responsibility or a profusion of saggy pants; they’re poorer because of four hundred years of enslavement, Jim Crow, and systemic racism. Native Americans aren’t poorer because of drug use or alcoholism; they’re poorer because of a past that includes policies of extermination, subjugation, removal, and apartheid. And women aren’t poorer because they prefer low paid or domestic work; they’re poorer because of a pervasive patriarchy that is undergirded by capitalism and exacerbated by economic inequality. There is no “regressive culture.” They’ve simply been robbed.

Vance’s conclusions about the nexus of poverty and regressive culture speak to how our national politics came to be, as well as to where it’s likely headed. The Republican Party is, of course, the patent enemy of the working class. Their ideology offers working folks nothing beyond comforting affirmations of culture or racial consciousness.

But anti-worker narratives have also consistently formed a core of Third Way liberalism, with its resultant deregulation, privatization, austerity, corporate trade, bank bailouts, decreased living standards, lost jobs, lost homes, lost pensions, and lost identities. The New Democratic “valedictocracy” of professional class emphases on merit, learning, expertise, innovation, and technocratic unity—a free market workhouse, albeit a diverse one—rationalizes inequality and has long underwritten the party’s rightward shift on issues of political economy. Such anti-worker biases are presently a guiding force for those Democrats prepared to concede the sum total of “flyover country” in pursuit of a “demographics and data”–based coastal strategy and a theoretical blue state ring from Maine to Florida and from Texas to Washington State. Prior to the 2016 election, Chuck Schumer, Ed Rendell, and other leading Democrats were explicit about the party’s willingness to abandon outreach to working-class voters in favor of making inroads among wealthier, better educated, and more economically conservative suburbanites—a flawed strategy that ultimately “failed to generate excitement from working-class voters of all races.”46 Employing stereotypes, half-truths, and false data about the so-called irredeemable racism of the “white working class,” many Democrats now stand willing to write them off entirely.

But the would-be gains of white workers—universal health care, free college, a living wage, the mass expansion of the public sector, the universalization of resources and industries, and democratic controls on big finance and the free flow of capital—are the gains of women and racial and ethnic minorities, too. Indeed, abandoning the politics of the white working class means abandoning the politics of the working class altogether. For both liberal elites and the J. D. Vances of the broad political center, that’s the very point.

  1. David J. Wishart, Great Plains Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), xv.
  2. Stephen Mihm, “Where Slavery Thrived, Inequality Rules Today,” Boston Globe, August 24, 2014,
  3. Strictly speaking, Owsley County was never a coal hub, but it is close enough to the coal fields for commuting distance, which compounds its poverty. All of the very poorest counties in eastern Kentucky have been on the outskirts of the coal fields (the contrast between Booneville and Hazard is profound).
  4. Patrick Strickland, “Inside Owsley: America’s Poorest White County,” Al-Jazeera, November 8, 2016,
  5. John R. Burch, Owsley County, Kentucky, and the Perpetuation of Poverty (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 146.
  6. Kenneth L. Sokoloff and Stanley L. Engerman, “History Lessons: Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 14, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 217-232,
  7. Alma Carten, “How Slavery’s Legacy Effects the Mental Health of Black Americans,” The New Republic, July 27, 2015,; Mike Mariani, “How Income Inequality is Messing with Kids’ Brains,” Mother Jones, July 3, 2017,
  8. Muriel B. Gubert, Ana Maria Segall-Corrêa, et. al., “Household Food Insecurity in Black-Slaves Descendant Communities in Brazil: Has the Legacy of Slavery Truly Ended?,” Public Health Nutrition 20, no. 8 (December 2016): 1513-1522,
  9. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 1.
  10. Or overlook wealth disparities within Appalachia, especially between communities that have historically been sites of extractive capitalism or have been connected or disconnected from vital infrastructure, institutions, and services. See Ronald Eller, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 215.
  11. J. D. Vance, “What the People of Appalachia Want,” New York Times, December 6, 2017,
  12. Ed Pilkington, “A Journey through a Land of Extreme Poverty: Welcome to America,” The Guardian, December 15, 2017,
  13. Sarah Jones, “J. D. Vance: The False Prophet of Blue America,” The New Republic, November 17, 2016,
  14. Bob Hutton, “Hillbilly Elitism,” Jacobin, October 1, 2016,
  15. Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016), xv-xvi.
  16. Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford Schram, Policing the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 46.
  17. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 416.
  18. Michael Lind, Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (New York: Free Press, 1996), 42.
  19. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 75-103.
  20. Gene Demby, “Blacks, Latinos Lose Major Ground in Home Ownership,” Huffington Post, March 13, 2012,
  21. Quoted in Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 88.
  22. The Equality of Opportunity Project, “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940,” December 2016,
  23. Appalachian Regional Commission, “Household Wealth and Financial Security in Appalachia,” February 2013,
  24. Urban Institute, “Nine Charts about Wealth Inequality in America,” October 5, 2017,
  25. Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn and Jeff Neumann, “40 Acres and a Mule Would Be at Least $6.4 Trillion Today—What the US Really Owes Black America,” Yes Magazine, May 14, 2015,
  26. Profiting from the Working Class: How the Opioid Epidemic Echoes the Mortgage Crisis,” Working Class Studies, June 5, 2017,
  27. Christopher Ingraham, “Drugs Are Killing So Many People in West Virginia That the State Can’t Keep Up With the Funerals,” Washington Post, March 7, 2017,
  28. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, September 17, 2015,
  29. Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro, “Donald Trump Is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment,” New York Times, November 9, 2016,
  30. Thomas Frank, “Millions of Ordinary Americans Support Donald Trump. Here’s Why,” The Guardian, March 7, 2016,
  31. Kevin D. Williamson, “The Father-Fuhrer,” National Review, March 28, 2016,
  32. Markos Moulitsas, “Be Happy for Coal Miners Losing their Health Insurance. They’re Getting Exactly What They Voted For,” Daily Kos, December 12, 2016,
  33. Jonathan Chait, “Here’s the Real Reason Everybody Thought Trump Would Lose,” New York Magazine, May 11, 2016,
  34. Jack Metzgar, “Social Class and Trump Voters,” Labor and Working-Class History Association, November 28, 2017,
  35. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, “Future Fortunes: Trends in Educational Attainment in US Legacy Regions,” March/April 2015,
  36. Kim Moody, “Who Put Trump in the White House?,” Solidarity, January 2017,
  37. Pew Research Center, “The Politics of Financial Insecurity,” January 8, 2015,
  38. Metzgar, “Social Class and Trump Voters.”
  39. Sharon Smith, “States of Inequality: Political Polarization and the US Working Class,” International Socialist Review 107 (Winter 2017-2018),
  40. Metzgar, “Social Class and Trump Voters.”
  41. Pew Research Center, “The Politics of Financial Insecurity.”
  42. Sarah Jaffe, “Back at the Carrier Plant, Workers Are Still Fighting on Their Own,” The Nation, April 20, 2017, Despite Trump’s pledge to save jobs and his assurance that “Carrier will never leave,” the plant outsourced 553 union jobs to Monterrey, Mexico, in 2017.
  43. Metzgar, “Social Class and Trump Voters.”
  44. Kirk Noden, “Why Do White Working-Class People Vote Against Their Interests? They Don’t.” The Nation, November 17, 2016,
  45. On diversity optics as cover for ideology, see Nancy Fraser, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,” Dissent, January 2, 2017,; and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity,” New Left Review, July/August 2008,
  46. Sarah Jaffe, “Beyond Their Caricature of the Working Class,” Socialist Worker, July 19, 2017,; Matt Karp, “Fairfax County, USA,” Jacobin, November 28, 2016,

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking