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.