Agency

J.D. Vance has written a fascinating book on the anger of white male blue collar workers in rural communities. Hillbilly Elegy names a variety of factors that have contributed to this anger, an anger that Donald Trump has harnessed to become the Republican nominee for President. Global capitalism has moved manufacturing and industrial jobs out of the country to low-wage economies. The jobs created by free-trade agreements can be summed up as low-wage service work and high-wage, highly skilled work. Both of these opportunities tend to be found in urban places leaving rural communities to depend on the tourism industry. Not all rural communities are blessed with the kind of landscape that makes for an attractive tourist destination.

Vance details all of this and specifically calls out governments and big business for their insensitivity to these unemployed workers. Republican politicians play to the cultural inclinations of this demographic but support economic policies like trade agreements and smaller government that leave unemployed workers with little to hope for. Democratic politicians do support a larger role for the government in terms of retraining and supporting industry that keeps jobs in rural communities. But the Democratic Party has become an urban party, its appeal and rhetoric is aimed specifically at diverse cultural populations, highly educated and liberally inclined workers. Rural blue collar whites feel the distain and condescension of Democrats. At a fundraiser in 2008 then Presidential candidate Barack Obama told a San Francisco fundraiser that these voters are now clinging to “their religion and their guns.”

But in addition to this diagnosis Vance also says that this community, which he knows all too well, has become a victim of “learned helplessness”. Vance grew up in a community that was predominately white, blue collar and rural. Somehow he made it into the military and from there to law school and from there to being a best-selling author. Vance says that many grow up in these communities believing there is no hope, only a “rescuer” can save them, government, large businesses that invest in the community, someone like Donald Trump.

Obviously this is not the first time someone who has “made it” looks back at others from whence they came and says, “You gave up too easily.” Needless to say there is a lot of push back from people who say it is easy for Vance to make this assessment, that chance and certain timely breaks likely had a lot to do with Vance’s success. As a white middle class male I know I was born on third base so when I touch home plate I don’t assume I hit a home run. Many of my fellow white middle class males do think themselves home run hitters and like to look at others and say, “You just need to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” As I say every time I hear angry talk radio, “easy for you to say.”

Still, as someone who advocates and works with people who live on the margins of society I worry about the effect of a narrative that seems to suggest there is no hope, that there is no agency, that there is nothing we can do for ourselves to make our lives better. I do think that agency is essential for human fulfillment and even for those who are born into a situation far, far, far more challenging than I could ever imagine. Setting goals, moving forward, finding dignity through one’s efforts, experiencing new plateaus, these are the gifts of human agency and we do a disservice to those we love and root for if we take that opportunity away through our rhetoric. Let’s not be part of a “learned helplessness”, let’s advocate, let’s be humble about our own advantages, but let’s encourage everyone to reach for their own goals and fulfillment.