Lanny Davis: What the Democrats can learn from J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

I decided to read J.D. Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” a few days after the November presidential election. 

I was still in a state of shock and grief over Hillary Clinton’s loss.  Clinton received almost 3 million votes more than Donald Trump.  She would be president had there been a switch from Trump to Clinton of approximately one-half of one percent of the vote in the three previously “blue” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.   

{mosads}So I thought “Hillbilly Elegy” would help me find answers as to why white working class voters abandoned Clinton for the billionaire Trump by such large margins even though Trump’s positions and conduct  – such as opposition to a higher minimum wage, support for tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy, and having his branded products made in China for lower wages — were incontrovertibly contrary to the economic interests of these same working families who voted for him. 

The brilliance of J.D. Vance’s honest memoir is that he offers no easy answers.  To the contrary.  For example, far from denouncing trade and supporting Trump’s protectionist trade policies, he writes: “Manufacturing in America was a tough business in the post-globalization world.  If companies [facing foreign competition] … were going to survive, they would have to retool.”

He acknowledges that some white working class family members, friends and neighbors resented special assistance to people of color, such as civil rights legislation.  But then he adds: “To many analysts, terms like ‘welfare queen’ conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole.  Readers of this book will realize that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument:  I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white.” 

This page-turner describes Vance’s incredible journey from the poverty and despair of his hillbilly home town of Jackson, Ky., with a dysfunctional mother suffering from substance abuse; living in multiple homes, with different fathers and having various last names through elementary and high school; to joining the Marine Corps, serving in Iraq, graduating Ohio State University, then Yale Law School, and now a member of a prestigious investment firm in San Francisco. 

How did he do this? 

Vance primarily credits the family stability provided by his beloved grandparents, whom he called “Mamaw” and “Papaw.”  In short, he asks his fellow hillbillies to take personal responsibility.  “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

Introduced by a mutual friend, I spoke with J.D. Vance this past weekend before writing this column.  I wanted to ask him directly whether he thought it was possible for Democrats to maintain their progressive positions on issues that go back to FDR and still appeal to the more conservative cultural and religious values of hillbilly and white working class families in rural America. 

He hesitated. “It’s not that simple.  Of course, issues matter but it’s more than about issues,” he answered.  “Maybe there needs to be more respect, more tolerance, more genuine displays of concern and tolerance, especially respecting religious values.  More moderation, less dogmatism.”

In other words, we liberal Democrats who want to win back the white working class and rural voters need to listen more, respect differences more, and judge less. We need to be more open and more tolerant of differences, even on issues we care about deeply.  We need to focus on loss of jobs and dignity due to offshoring. And we need to find ways to help companies pay for investments in re-tooling and re-training for workers left behind to give them new skills in new technologies.

In short, we need to speak from the heart –– just as J.D. did in telling his story of the pain and pride of being from hillbilly country.


Davis is co-founder of both the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg & Galper PLLC and Trident DMG, a strategic media firm specializing in crisis management. He served as special counsel to former President Clinton from 1996 to 1998 and is a regular columnist for The Hill newspaper. 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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