This seems to be my year for crossing paths with right-wing notables.
J.D. Vance is 33. His ideologically ambiguous book, Hillbilly Elegy, reflecting on his hardscrabble life in Appalachia, has been atop the bestseller list for more than a year. My wager is that Vance will be among those who pick up the pieces after Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Roy Moore, and Steve Bannon do each other in.
Last year, I wrote a very critical review of Vance’s book. Much of the book, despite some poignant stories, wasn’t an elegy at all, but an exercise in moral superiority. In places, it was downright condescending.
Sidestepping the economic devastation of Appalachia, Vance seemed determined to place most of the blame on poor choices and bad behavior by individuals, rather like the right’s favorite pseudo-social scientist, Charles Murray. In the end, Vance was insisting poverty is mostly about values and character. He wrote:
We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs. … We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being.
Yet, at the same time, the book reflected a profound and moving personal journey on the part of a man who had surmounted an awful childhood and was trying to make sense of his own life, and that of his kin. For much of it, Vance seemed to be trying to figure out what he really thought, as he went along.
Last week, Vance and I found ourselves at a conference on the future of democracy, at Oberlin. I had presented, on Thursday, with New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. Vance arrived, as a celebrity speaker, on Friday.
The Vance I saw was rather different from the author of Hillbilly Elegy. Much of what he had to say was about the epidemic of opioid abuse, and toxic stress in childhood. He spoke eloquently of the devastating human cost of the loss of jobs that had once offered self-respect and paid a living wage. He told the story of an eight-year-old, addicted to drugs by his addict parents, a person who obviously could not be held accountable for making poor choices.
At one point, I was startled when he mentioned my favorite line from my book review. “Robert Kuttner,” he said a little sheepishly, “called me ‘Charles Murray with a shit-eating grin.’” And indeed I did. What a pleasure that Vance read it, and maybe felt a little stung. This was almost as good as my encounter with Steve Bannon.
But J.D. Vance is far from Bannon. Indeed, he could well the anti-Bannon. He may appeal to same white working class demographic that Bannon does, but Vance is a serious and sober person, and his views have evolved since he wrote that book.
At the conference, he sounded almost like a Democrat. Vance is also the opposite of Bannon in that he displays modesty and intellectual curiosity, while Bannon displays a know-nothing swagger and cheap jingoism.
What makes Vance a conservative Republican is his embrace of traditional values, and his current gig as kind of investment banker looking to revive communities. He believes the salvation of places like Eastern Kentucky and Southern Ohio is in entrepreneurship.
When question time came, I thanked Vance for quoting my review and suggested that his views seemed to have shifted. He admitted that they had perhaps evolved somewhat, but he insisted that a lot of the compassion for the downtrodden was in his book if you read it right.
This posture is a very difficult straddle for a Republican. The right has tried to display concern for the poor ever since Jack Kemp’s compassionate conservatism and George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” Most of it is nonsense, because the details of Republican programs do nothing for the poor, and entrepreneurship alone doesn’t solve the problem.
But Vance does this better than any conservative I’ve seen lately, partly because of own story and his sincerity. Democrats should watch out for this guy. He’s been there, having survived an awful childhood, and he expresses a concern for communities like his. He is pleasant, self-effacing, and above all likeable. There is still too much Charles Murray in his diagnosis of poverty, but a lot less than in the book.
Vance now lives in Columbus, Ohio. His wife, Usha, who clerks for Chief Justice John Roberts, commutes to Washington. They are the parents of an infant son.
Ohio happens to have two very important statewide races this year. Governor John Kasich is term-limited. Richard Cordray, former Ohio attorney general, quit his post as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, one of the progressive wing of the party’s leading lights, is up for re-election.
Earlier this year, Vance, urged by Republican politicians, took a close look at these races, speaking at GOP events and commissioning polls, especially for the Senate seat. Then, press reports in September quoted an adviser as saying that Vance decided not to enter politics in 2018.
That’s probably astute. It’s likely to be a heavily Democratic year, and Vance, at 33, can bide his time. Just the fact that he has a political adviser is a harbinger of things to come. Given his own odyssey, being a new father is obviously important to him, and the rigors of a campaign would blow that to hell, especially with a wife who commutes to a high-pressure job in Washington.
But keep an eye on this guy. If he doesn’t seek major office in, say in 2022, I will eat my shirt. And if Democrats can’t come up with a compelling narrative about the causes and cures for the wreckage of ordinary lives in places like southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, Vance and people like him will inherit the coming wreckage of the Republican Party—and the right will continue to govern.