Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate, or more than 70% of the population—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
That flattering glow has faded away. Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis, and the language of sociologists and pathologists predominates. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 was published in 2012, and Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis came out last year. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they made the case that social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply. Then came the stories about a surge in opiate addiction among white Americans, alongside shocking reports of rising mortality rates (including by suicide) among middle-aged whites. And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential campaign. The question was suddenly no longer why Democrats struggled to appeal to regular Americans. It was why so many regular Americans were drawn to a man like Donald Trump.
A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe.
Equally jarring has been the shift in tone. A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right. Writing for National Review in March, the conservative provocateur Kevin Williamson shoveled scorn on the low-income white Republican voters who, as he saw it, were most responsible for the rise of Trump:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs … 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.
Analysis on the left has been less gratuitously nasty but similarly harsh in its insinuation. Several prominent liberals have theorized that what’s driving rising mortality and drug and alcohol abuse among white Americans is, quite simply, despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order. “So what is happening?” asked Josh Marshall on his “Talking Points Memo” blog in December. “Let’s put this clearly,” he said in wrapping up his analysis of the dismal health data. “The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being a white American.”
They are also unsatisfying as explanations for what is happening out there. Williamson, for one, mischaracterizes the typical Trump voter. As exit polls show, the candidate’s base is not the truly bereft white underclass Williamson derides. Those Americans are, by and large, not voting at all, as I’m often reminded when reporting in places like Appalachia, where turnout rates are the lowest in the country. People voting for Trump are mostly a notch higher on the economic ladder—in a position to feel exactly the resentment that Williamson himself feels toward the shiftless needy. As for liberals’ diagnosis that a major public-health crisis is rooted in racial envy, it fails to square with, among other things, the fact that blacks and Hispanics have hardly been flourishing themselves. Yes, there’s an African American president, but by many metrics the Great Recession was even worse for minorities than for whites.
Two new books—one a provocative, deeply researched history and the other an affecting memoir—are well timed to help make better sense of the plight of struggling whites in the United States. Both accounts converge on an important insight: The gloomy state of affairs in the lower reaches of white America should not have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has—and mobilizing solutions for the crisis will depend partly on closing the gaps that allowed for such obliviousness.
For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society. In the late 16th century, the geographer Richard Hakluyt argued that America could serve as a giant workhouse where the “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” The exportable poor, he wrote, were the “offals of our people.” In 1619, King James I was so fed up with vagrant boys milling around his Newmarket palace that he asked the Virginia Company to ship them overseas. Three years later, John Donne—yes, that John Donne—wrote about the colony of Virginia as if it were England’s spleen and liver, Isenberg writes, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Thus it was, she goes on, that the early settlers included so many “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” including one Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.
Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land. In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any, and by 1770, less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land. In 1729 in North Carolina, a colony with 36,000 people, there were only 3,281 listed grants, and 309 grantees owned nearly half the land. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude,” Isenberg writes. “It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.” This was not just a Southern dynamic. The American usage of squatter traces to New England, where many of the nonelect—later called “swamp Yankees”—carved out homes on others’ land only to be chased off and have their houses burned.
The Founding Fathers were, as Isenberg sees it, complicit in perpetuating these stark class divides. George Washington believed that only the “lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers in the Continental Army. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals,” he wrote. “Why not that of man?” John Adams believed the “passion for distinction” was a powerful human force: “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.”
By the time the nation gained independence, the white underclass—its future dependents—was fully entrenched. This underclass could be found just about everywhere in the new country, but it was perhaps most conspicuous in North Carolina, where many whites who had been denied land in Virginia trickled into the area south of the Great Dismal Swamp, establishing what Isenberg calls “the first white trash colony.” William Byrd II, the Virginia planter, described these swamp denizens as suffering from “distempers of laziness” and “slothful in everything but getting children.” North Carolina’s governor described his people as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species.”
Isenberg, for all her efforts to clarify the role of class in the national culture, succumbs to a different kind of distortion herself. She is frustratingly hazy about regional distinctions within the white lower class, a blurriness that also skews some of the contemporary liberal theorizing about white despondency. As her account progresses, she focuses increasingly on the South, without squarely addressing that choice and its implications. To zero in on the white underclass in or near slaveholding areas is, understandably, to dwell on the fraught dynamic between poor whites and enslaved African Americans and its role in the national debate leading up to the Civil War. On the one hand, opponents of slavery argued that the association of labor with servitude dulled the work ethic of poor whites. On the other, defenders of slavery claimed that being spared the lowliest toil kept poor Southern whites a step above their Northern counterparts.
By the time her account reaches the late 20th century, though, the social and economic texture thins. Instead, Isenberg resorts to cataloguing representations of poor whites in pop culture (Deliverance, Hee Haw, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and celebrity politics (Tammy Faye Bakker, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin), and offers some fairly trite commentary on the current political scene. Isenberg’s history is a bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass, but you will have to look elsewhere for insights into why the condition of this class has taken a turn for the worse—and what its members think of themselves, and of the elites who have trashed them for so long.
But Vance, a self-described conservative who has contributed to National Review, is not offering another lurid saga of hillbilly exploits. He is trying to figure out how things went wrong for his people. “I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class,” he writes. “And we hill people aren’t doing very well.”In Vance’s story, the troubles are embodied above all in one person: his mother. After graduating high school as the salutatorian, Bev became a teenage mother, as Mamaw had also been, and embarked on a string of marriages—five, at last count. She was bright—“the smartest person I knew”—and drilled the importance of reading and education into her son. She checked out library books on football strategy to get him to think more deeply about the game he loved, and revamped his third-grade science project the night before it was due, just like any suburban helicopter mom.But her marriages were riven by fighting. She drank heavily, and became addicted to the painkillers she could pilfer in her job as a nurse, and later to heroin.
Vance and his older sister were raised amid an extreme form of the instability and dysfunction that Charles Murray and Robert Putnam lament: He grew up with three stepfathers, and during one two-year stretch he lived in four houses. At one low point, when he was 12, his mother was taken away in handcuffs after he fled to a stranger’s house to escape a beating from her. At another point, she asked him to pee into a cup so she could use his urine to pass a drug test. “Chaos begets chaos,” he writes. “Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”
With the same appealing guilelessness that he brings to the story of his youthful ordeals, Vance describes the culture shock he experiences in New Haven. He doesn’t know what to make of the endless “cocktail receptions and banquets” that combine networking and matchmaking. At the fancy restaurant where he’s attending a law firm’s recruitment dinner, he spits out sparkling water, having never drunk such a thing. He calls his girlfriend from the restroom to ask her, ‘What do I do with all these damned forks?’ ”His estrangement often reflects poorly on the echelon he’s joined, whose members, he says with understatement, could do a better job of “opening their hearts and minds to” newcomers. He is taken aback when law-school friends leave a mess at a chicken joint, and stays behind with another student from a low-income background, Jamil, to clean it up. “People,” he writes, “would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.” To his astonishment, he is regarded as an exotic figure by his professors and classmates, simply by virtue of having come from a small town in the middle of the country, gone to a mediocre public high school, and been born to parents who didn’t attend college.
He adapts to his new world well enough to land at a Washington, D.C., law firm and later in a court clerkship, and is today prospering as a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco. But the outsider feeling lingers—hearing someone use a big word like confabulate in conversation makes his blood rise. “Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn,” he admits. And questions nag at him: “Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America’s elite institutions?” He is acutely aware of how easily he could have been trapped, had it not been for the caring intervention he received at key moments from people like Mamaw and his sister. “Thinking about … how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch.” He asks:
How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?
They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash … Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.
As Vance notes, resentment of this sort—which surfaces again and again in his book—helps explain why voters in the world he came from have largely abandoned the Democrats, the party of the social safety net.
Vance does not pivot from such observations to a full-blown indictment of social-welfare programs. He isn’t ready to join the Republican chorus that blames the government (and specifically the black president who now heads it) for all ills. But he zealously subscribes to its corollary: The government, in his view, can’t possibly cure those ills. In a summary that borders on the polemical, he exhorts the “broad community of hillbillies” to “wake the hell up” and seize control of its fate.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … Mamaw refused to purchase bicycles for her grandchildren because they kept disappearing—even when locked up—from her front porch. She feared answering her door toward the end of her life because an able-bodied woman who lived next door would not stop bothering her for cash—money, we later learned, for drugs. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
Vance’s intentions here are sincere and understandable. He’s tired of folks back home talking big about hard work when they are collecting checks just like the people they denigrate—tired of “the lies we tell ourselves.” He’s fed up with the quick resort to political blame, like the acquaintance in Middletown who told him that he had quit work because he was sick of waking up early but then declared on Facebook that it was the “Obama economy” that had set him back. “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class,” writes Vance, “I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’ ”
So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.