Following the annual Celebration of Leadership Assembly, the Academy Life Editorial Board met with J.D. Vance to discuss his experiences outlined in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” A condensed version of the interview lightly edited for clarity and grammar appears below. Photo by Inji Kang’19.
Click HERE to view Vance’s “TED Talk.”
On “survivor’s guilt”:
I definitely sometimes feel a certain responsibility to help people who come from circumstances like I did, and I feel a little bit forlorn sometimes that things didn’t work out for everybody from back home.
I was lucky in that my grandparents recognized that there were a lot of opportunities outside of the place that I grew up, and if I wanted to really have the full spate of opportunities, I had to at least think about what might exist outside of my community.
But I’ve always wanted to go back to Ohio. I wanted to try and have some connection to eastern Kentucky. For me, that sense of place is always really important, and how I grew up.
Click HERE to read Vance’s New York Times opinion piece “Why I’m Moving Home.”
On “anti-establishmentarian” sentiment:
There’s long been a sense from folks back home that the bank bailouts were the classic example of the wealthy and the powerful taking advantage of the system. If you were an investment banker living in New York, you got a bailout. But if you were from Middletown, Ohio, neither you, your business, nor the company you worked for got a bailout. Even though it’s been almost ten years since that particular issue, it still has a significant anti-establishmentarian drive and flavor.
Anger also exists at the big pharmaceutical companies who profited from selling prescription pain pills. Folks think that in making that money, they actually started the opioid crisis and were the catalyst for a lot of folks getting addicted. There’s a lawsuit that a couple of state attorneys general have joined, they’re actually suing the big five pharma companies under the same theory that Big Tobacco was sued back in the 1990s: whether it’s tobacco or prescription painkillers, the sellers knew that it was more dangerous than they let on. They sold it, they made a big profit, and middle America suffered in the process. That’s another issue where there’s a sense that the wealthy and well-connected are taking advantage of those who aren’t as powerful—they’re getting rich even though I’m suffering, and in some cases, they’re getting rich off of my suffering—and there’s another really strong anti-establishmentarian feel that’s becoming more bipartisan. Bernie Sanders supporters and a lot of Donald Trump supporters sometimes use the same vocabulary to talk about these problems, which I think is interesting politically and culturally. It suggests that a lot of this resentment is becoming more and more mainstream.
On the resented:
I think that it’s impossible to point to one group and say that the resentments are directed at them alone. The phrase you heard most in the 2016 election was “The Elites.” It’s one of those labels that apply in different contexts. It applies to the lobbyists in Washington D.C., the members of Congress, the wealthy financier in New York City, or the news anchor on MSNBC or CNN, or whatever the case may be. But broadly speaking, there’s a sense that those who have the right connections and the right educational credentials have access to things that others don’t. Do I think that’s overblown? Yes. But do I think it’s real? Absolutely.
I saw this at Yale. What made me feel like such a cultural outsider was seeing how comfortable people were at being connected to power. There’s an expectation that you will be able to get the things that you want, and I think that expectation is common across these different sectors of what people call “The Elites.” In a lot of cases, somebody from Middletown, Ohio, doesn’t know anybody who’s working in media or finance or business or politics. They worry that those people are controlling the levers of power in a way that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable to them. As long as people feel that, I think you’re going to continue to have this populist resentment that exists in our politics.
The people “who are not like me” and “who don’t care about me” are controlling decisions for me.
On the building of resentment:
Let me give you a pessimistic thought from my friend Yuval Levin, who wrote the book “Fractured Republic” about a year and a half ago.The transition from a primarily agricultural to a primarily industrial economy greatly impacted Europe at the beginning of the 20th century: two world wars, massive displacement, fascist and communist revolutions in many countries. Really, the only countries whose form of government survived in all of Western society without significant revolutionary action were the UK and the US.
Today, it’s the transition from the industrial economy to the information economy. I think it’s a similar level of economic transformation, and our track record as a species shows that periods of transformation lead to incredibly disruptive moments in our political and cultural history.
The pessimist in me says that it’ll build until our political and cultural leaders recognize that something significant is happening. Maybe the adjustment comes through democratic action. Maybe we go through something like what Europe went through in the early 20th century. You’re going to grow up and start to control things in a world that is remarkably unstable. Whether we see changes like those in the 20th century U.S., like the New Deal, or we see changes like what happened in Italy, Germany and France is basically up to how well we manage this period of transformation.
On helping without “encroachment” or “patronization”:
People who want to help these areas have to recognize at a certain level that you have to operate where these people live and work. The sense that outsiders come in, they try to help for a little while, and then they disappear, is real and raw in Appalachian history. Think about the classic media story that came out of the 2016 election, where a reporter from the New Yorker drops into West Virginia for a week, tells a story, and then disappears and is never heard from again.
That sense that Appalachians are viewed as these kinds of zoo animals for other people to observe, experiment, and try to help is very real, and I think it comes from a historical place that’s pretty valid.
If people want to engage some of these issues, they’ve got to be willing to spend real, quality, long-term effort on and with these communities. What you’ll find is that people are willing to accept help and engage with people who are trying to be supportive, but they don’t want it to come from somebody who’s going to disappear the next week, and they don’t want it from somebody who’s going to be condescending to them and the way that they think about the world.
On Hillbilly Elegy:
When I first started writing the book, I didn’t expect that many people to read it, but I wanted to sketch a picture of a community that I thought was struggling. I wanted people who pick up the book to understand how people thought and felt about what was happening in their worlds.
I really wanted somebody to pick up Hillbilly Elegy and say, “I get a group of people that I maybe didn’t get before.”
I am a nationalist in the sense of the word that I think that whatever our background, whether we’re a first-generation American who’s been here for three minutes or a tenth-generation American whose family has been here a long time, that this is our country, and even though somebody may not look like us or share the exact same historical perspective, we owe a certain amount to the people that we share this country with.
Even though you might not know any hillbillies in your personal life, I think that you have a certain responsibility to them, and frankly, they have a certain responsibility to you. I hope that you are motivated to think about these people not as outsiders and foreigners and strangers, but as people who you owe something to.
On future plans:
For the immediate future, no political run in the works, and it’ll probably be a decent mix of the nonprofit and my day job as an investor. I’m interested in this idea of proving that you can invest and create good businesses and create good jobs in places that aren’t Silicon Valley. So I’ll continue to work on that, and the nonprofit will continue to occupy a fair amount of my time, too, so it’s busy, but it’s a good kind of busy.
Click HERE to read more about Vance’s nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal.