The best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, released in June to mostly positive reviews, was praised for treating lower-income white communities with sympathy—something reviewers believed had been in short supply in our literature. The conservative writer Rod Dreher said that the book “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.” (Though it’s hard to see how poor black people were ever well-represented, or how working-class whites have ever been neglected as a group.)
The book bills itself as a “memoir of a family and a culture in crisis.” Poor and working-class white Americans have been the subject of many alarming reports over the past few years, from the rise of the heroin epidemic across rural, white America to the numerous studies detailing early deaths from suicides and drug overdoses in middle age; the least educated whites are dying at younger ages than the same group of people did a generation ago. (Although African Americans as a whole still have higher mortality rates.) It’s the white working class, especially men, who drove the candidacy and election of the Republican nominee, President-elect Donald Trump. So elites have turned their focus on what they assess to be a bewildering population, regarded alternately with empathy and scorn, that they were previously happy to ignore.