Hillbilly Elegy has been touted as a the guide to understanding Donald J. Trump’s overwhelming support among working class European-Americans.
It also has important lessons for students of development. Take this excerpt, for example:
Despite its reputation, Appalachia – especially northern Alabama and Georgia to South Ohio – has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.
This pattern of deception has to do with cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure.
The juxtaposition is jarring: Religious institutions remain a positive force in people’s lives, but in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes, church attendance has fallen off. Dad’s church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them community of support… For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions.
This is not a political book. Instead, it is simply a powerful narration of a story that is often ignored: that America has millions of poor European-Americans, a good number of whom feel economically and culturally isolated from the public sphere. Vance suggests that this feeling of isolation may have been rendered more acute by the ongoing erosion of the idea that European descent ought to be an automatic ticket to material stability and high social status.
I read this book hoping to get an insight into Hillbilly politics, but the key lesson that I came out with is that people organize out of poverty.
Atomization is disorienting. Stable homes, communities, and well-ordered societies make a huge difference for material outcomes from generation to generation.
History teaches us that the only means of inter-generational persistence of material advancement is through stable and resilient organizations — family units, churches, investment clubs, firms, capable and responsive governments, etc.
I highly recommend the book, whether you are interested in American politics or not.