That Ambitious ‘Hillbilly’

When Hillbilly Elegy was first published, critics were generally positive. I wasn’t.

Granted, I read only excerpts, which probably made my negative reaction unfair, but the impression I got was of a self-congratulatory “escapee” who’d decided that he’d “made it” largely by reason of his personal virtues, albeit with the help of some immediate family members.

As a few negative reviewers at the time noted,  Vance gave no credit to any of the government programs and/or services– public schools, the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that facilitated his move out of poverty and into the upper class, and he expressly blamed laziness for the failures of those left behind.  

It was clear that–in his mind– working-class folks were to blame for their own struggles.  

Vance’s focus on personal responsibility was just what opponents of a strong social safety net were looking for, and they hyped the book (and later, the movie.) See–you too can overcome adversity and whatever barriers you face if you just get off your rear end and work hard…

Now, Vance is running for the Senate as a Republican from Ohio. He has already modified his earlier criticism of the former guy, and scrubbed evidence of that criticism from social media, and he has doubled down on his support of what he calls “family values.” Most recently, he criticized prominent Democratic politicians–including Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Pete Buttigieg– for their childlessness, calling them the “childless left.

He also praised the policies of Viktor Orban, the leader of Hungary, whose government is subsidizing couples who have children, and asked, “Why can’t we do that here?”

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was there, pointed out it was odd that Vance didn’t mention Joe Biden’s newly instituted child tax credit, which will make an enormous difference to many poorer families with children.
It was also interesting that he praised Hungary rather than other European nations with strong pronatalist policies. France, in particular, offers large financial incentives to families with children and has one of the highest fertility rates in the advanced world. So why did Vance single out for praise a repressive, autocratic government with a strong white nationalist bent?

It gets worse. As reported by CityBeat, Vance proposes giving parents additional votes on behalf of their children. He also claims that people without children shouldn’t serve in legislative positions, since–in his weird worldview–they won’t be good at legislating. Especially if they’re Democrats.

“The ‘childless left have no physical commitment to the future of this country,” The Guardian reports Vance as saying during his July 23 address. “Why is this just a normal fact of … life for the leaders of our country to be people who don’t have a personal and direct stake in it via their own offspring?”

It’s hard to assess how much of this is just pandering to the increasingly insane GOP base and how much is authentic Vance, who has clearly imbibed both rightwing beliefs about what Paul Krugman has dubbed “Zombie Family Values” and embraced the GOP’s willingness to substitute child-friendly rhetoric for  even minimal support of policies that would actually help families with children.

Vance reminds me of an extremely libertarian acquaintance of mine who attributes his own success entirely to his own ambition and hard work. He’s a 6’3″ healthy, athletic, straight White male whose parents both graduated from prestigious universities and were able to provide him with a similar, debt-free education. He’s convinced that anyone in America can prosper as he has, without “sucking at the public tit.” He finds the notion that some folks  face barriers that weren’t there for him–and that government might have a role to play in removing those barriers and leveling the playing field a bit–  simply incomprehensible.

“Look at me–I did it all by myself…” was understandable when my three-year-old managed to use a spoon without spilling his soup.

 It’s not an attractive– nor intellectually defensible– attitude in an adult.


  1. Fortunately; Vance is one of those in the 2022 election we here in Indiana do not have fear being added to the ongoing overburden of Republicans. The blog did however inspire a suggestion for possible future issues here.

    Brief bios and political histories of upcoming Democratic candidates at the federal level of House and Senate as we struggle to maintain and increase our “majority” in Congress. Tomorrow is August 1st and what used to be the beginning of the season of candidates for the upcoming Primaries announcing their bids for office and those seeking reelection. We get constant reminders of Republicans leaving openings for more Qanon candidates to retake Congress and of the vast amounts of donated millions from Trump supporters.

    No one succeeds by themselves; least of all any politician. Republicans, such as Vance, have relied on those overflowing coffers. One of the bosses during my years with Indianapolis Republican City Government had two favorite quotes; “There is no free lunch.” and “Be nice to the little people on the way up because you are going to pass them on the way down.”

  2. Having shed himself of his dysfunctional Hillbilly family, Vance has gravitated to and now embraces the equally dysfunctional family of the GOP… where he is most comfortable I gather. Sad.

  3. I look at many of our new cultural tracts and don’t see many desirable qualities. The East has been paying parents to produce more kids because they are losing population. China and Japan, and two large states have seen population declines.

    Many don’t want to bring children into our current culture because they don’t see it as. Desirable. Period. For decades, these same states taxed parents to keep down low births. Now they need workers. We’ve not really created an oasis where children will thrive. I also wonder about the dual need to invest in infrastructure while also wanting to blow it up in a war.

    We really need a planning center at the global level.

  4. Bravo on the summary of Vance. I read the book and saw the rah.. rah… story, and it left me disquieted. Your explanation of the logical extension his flawed thinking completely makes sense. I was bamboozled when a Harvard educated person seemed to jump off the deep end with the new GOP party.

  5. I find it interesting that good old J.D. wants those lazy folks to vote for him. I know he was referring mostly to those in the old family home in Kentucky when he made those statements, but the entire southeastern part of Ohio is a mirror image of what you find in those same hills in Kentucky. It’s equally red as well.

  6. Well, Republicans want more children around for one reason and one reason only: MORE PAYING CUSTOMERS FOR THE DONORS THAT FEED THEIR FETID CESSPOOL CANDIDATES.

    I went to college in “Hillbilly” country of SE Ohio. The locals were mostly farmers and shop keepers in the Athens surrounds. No slackers there. And they had one of the best universities in the state at their fingertips. But did they adequately fund their few public schools? Nope. That’s another indicator of what rural folk think about taxes and education. In that sense, Vance has a point.

    In sum, J.D. Vance is just another Republican lame-brain with absolutely no understanding of what this nation is, its Constitution or where it’s heading. If anything, Ohio breeds the worst sort of Republicans, John Kasich notwithstanding. See: Jordan, James, idiot.

  7. The “family” policies he advocates sound all to familiar. Sounds like he’s one step away from adding policies to ensure that the “childless left” stays childless.

  8. Vance has bought into the myth that we are self-reliant and can accomplish anything regardless of our circumstances with no help. What a delusion that is! I’m sure he does not make his own clothes or grow his own food. Evidently, he did not learn much in college that would free him from these strange ideas. And he obviously lacks the gratitude and the humility required of a servant leader like Pete Buttigieg.

    Not all of the left is “childless”. That’s another extreme right delusion.

    I guess he does not understand that the world’s overpopulation can easily lead to the demise of the human race because it contributes to global warming.

    He is nothing like my maternal grandfather who was orphaned at age 3 and had a 3rd grade education. My grandfather with the assistance of another man was able to get a loan for his farm in Indiana. He became a successful farmer who fed hobos and helped feed his neighbors during the Great Depression. He also gave coal away for free to those in need.

    I so hope Vance never gets elected to Congress, but he may be just as manipulative as the former president.

  9. This crappy book gave real life to my daughters advise that I should dump crappy books as soon as their crappiness is declared. (I have trouble with this because I have “just around the bend” syndrome.) But Vance soon revealed himself a self-satisfied, not very insightful, jerk. Perfect candidate for the new GOP.

  10. I don’t know why anyone would take Vance seriously. His political rhetoric and views on Trump have changed 180 degrees since he decided he might run for the Senate. He is not saying the same things he said 5 years ago or in the book he wrote.

    I don’t understand people like Vance. Although helped by government, Vance has accomplished a lot in his life. He is well-educated, smart and successful. Why throw away those to grovel at the feet of a reality show star, failed President to possibly secure his blessing the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate? Is that worth giving up your integrity?

    Rudy Giuliani, Bill Barr and George P. Bush put political ambition ahead of their reputations…and paid a price. I expect Vance will as well.

  11. I read the entire book (for a book club) and could not stand it. As much as I like, Glenn Close, I wasn’t even tempted to see the movie.

  12. Vance has fallen victim to a logical quandary called the “Fallacy of Composition.” He has mistaken his youthful successes – and he did overcome some rotten odds – for all of life and the basis for a value system that only made sense to Ayn Rand. If his current core beliefs are correct, then he needs to fix the world by eliminating the vast number of us who relied on the work and support of people, systems, institutions and help in a vast number of barely noticeable forms that made us what we are. Somehow we made propitious choices at critical moments when growing up, but it could have easily gone the other way, as we all witnessed in friends we valued who went astray. Inordinate self-reliance/centeredness as a philosophy is a fatuous misunderstanding that leads its followers to misinterpret much of life, and to become Republicans in a time when the party has become a cult of insufferable, unpatriotic asses.

  13. The man sounds like a mindless lover of the black/white view of the world, one in which the word “nuance,” and “subtlety” do not exist.

  14. Almost every night at 10:00 I listen, on NPR, to stories of people from all over the world who, facing far greater odds than Vance could dream of, built their character and personalities in ways that form meaningful lives that often include vast contributions to the well-being of others, despite untold hardships. Some spent major portions of their childhood in prisoner of war camps yet emerged as whole and self-directed individuals.

    It’s these people who give dignity to the human species, not the egocentrics.

  15. I’m reminded of Craig T Nelson’s famous “no one helped me when I was on food stamps” argument.

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