Woven through Hillbilly Elegy, which was published in 2016, is an orthodox conservatism that places the blame for the endemic social problems from which its author escaped at his community’s own doorstep: its habit of worklessness and shirking of responsibility, among other cultural defects. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese,” writes Vance. “These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”
But now that he’s running for the U.S. Senate…
Then he gets to the part of the message with bite: “Our idiot leaders decided to do that to us. And I hate to use that term but sometimes it’s important to be direct about what’s going on… Our leaders have played a very dangerous and, I think, very ugly game with the American people. They’ve decided that they’re going to divide us against each other and distract us with constant appeals to race, to sex, to gender, to everything other than what I really think matters in this country.”
So which is right? The answer is both.
I’ve hammered on the deficiencies of the Scots-Irish for a long time, before Hillbilly Elegy came out. Vance is right on these cultural deficiencies. He should know: he had to overcome them to get anywhere in life. Getting an entire culture to get past 350+ years of deep dysfunction isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to start somewhere.
But he’s also right about the oligarchic nature of American elites and their idea of staying in power. (Just check out our Gini coefficient…) So how to square the two? A simple approach would be to take a class-based approach. But this was shut off by Scots-Irish like Forrest McDonald, who recognised the following:
Beyond that, an economic view won’t sit well with those who are left behind. One of the major lacunae of the Beard saga is the South after the Civil War, which just about falls off of the radar screen. Southerners had to face the hard question, “How did we get left behind?” Instead of focusing on the weaknesses of their own cultures–planter and Scots-Irish together–they changed the subject to things such as states rights, or their problems with the black people, or whatever. Needless to say those who were on the wrong end of their way liked it even less, which is why we had the civil rights movement sixty years ago and Black Lives Matter today.
They even managed to get the Scots-Irish written out as a separate ethnic group! The left has turned this on its head and the result is that we fight over identity issues when we should be debating economic ones. (Had fellow Scots-Irish Elizabeth Warren gotten past that, the result in 2020 could have been much different.)
Personally I’ve been unenthusiastic about Vance’s candidacy. I’ve had enough of the mind games and intellectual slights of hand that the Scots-Irish excel in. The vanguard of conservatism needs to find a new home, and until that happens we’ll stumble from one fiasco to another.