This has been an election year filled with sloppy sociology. Democrats, as usual, mistakenly see voters primarily as members of vast, amorphous “identity” groups rather than as individuals. Now the Republicans have joined in. “An odd symmetry has emerged between the political parties,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution told me recently. “Many Democrats have viewed racial and ethnic minorities as victims in the grip of larger forces, and now Republicans are doing the same with the white working class.”
Remarkably, the operating mythology of both groups–encouraged by ideologues on the right and politically correct ninnies on the left–is that they are oppressed by each other. The current term of art among black intellectuals is white privilege and the current concern is police brutality. Among Latinos, the concern is bigotry and violence inflicted by gringo yahoos. Meanwhile, working-class whites are convinced that immigrants are taking their jobs and that blacks have long been coddled by public assistance. In a recent National Review piece, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, cites research that shows “the average white person now feels that anti-white bias is a bigger problem than other forms of racial discrimination.”
Hillbilly Elegy has been the book of the summer among the political cognoscenti of both parties. It is Vance’s memoir of his escape from the Appalachian culture of pride and poverty–a culture that seems to be disintegrating, much the way the black working class fell apart starting in the 1960s, but without the history of racial oppression. The white out-of-wedlock birthrate, which is about 30%, is now higher than the black rate was (about 25%) when Daniel Patrick Moynihan correctly identified family disintegration as a significant problem in 1965. The current black rate has been stuck at about 70%.
There is significant irony here: the culture described in Hillbilly Elegy is so similar to that of the black underclass that it demolishes the perennial racist argument that these sorts of behaviors–sexual profligacy, drug dependency, violence, indigence and a free-range sense of helplessness that leads to irresponsibility–are unique to African Americans. Something else, something far more complicated is going on, a cultural dilemma that has erupted with the “liberation” of American society over the past 50 years. It is a phenomenon that transcends the prevailing liberal (and Trumpian) theory that the white-black underclass was caused by the departure of manufacturing jobs. That may have been true 40 years ago, when the jobs began to leave. But it is less true now, as habits of indolence–the inability to show up to work on time, the refusal to follow orders on the job, the preference to hang out at a home often subsidized by the federal government–have taken hold. Vance worked for a summer in a floor-tile warehouse near his hometown in Ohio. It was relatively easy work, paying $13 per hour, a good salary in Appalachia. But “the managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee.” In hillbilly country, as in urban America, a great many people simply lack the discipline to work.
It is eerie and depressing to read Vance’s account of his mother–a drug addict in and out of rehab, with a series of husbands and boyfriends rotating in and out of the house. He describes a close relative as “a classic welfare queen.” He writes about 9-month-old babies being fed Pepsi in their bottles, and the abuse of food stamps he saw as a cashier at the local grocery store. All of these things were clichés deployed by Ronald Reagan, and dismissed by liberals, when he railed against poverty and welfare in 1980. But the conservative belief that the underclass was caused by federal antipoverty programs is clearly insufficient too. Vance makes it clear that the problem is profoundly cultural, a consequence of wanton commercialism, the loosening of moral standards and a lack of rigorous training for young men. Vance was saved by the Marine Corps and the support of a single loving adult, his grandmother.
Hillbilly Elegy makes the current political dialogue seem fatuous. Both parties are incapable of discussing the real sources of our national dyspepsia, or how to deal with them. Forces like the global economy, racism and federal programs that cultivated dependency have all been part of the problem. But what we have now is something different: a bottom-up crisis of individual responsibility, largely beyond the reach of public policy. Indeed, some of the “solutions” proposed by each of the parties are likely to make things worse.
This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.