Ep. 120 - J.D. Vance

Update: 2017-02-09


J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, talks with David Axelrod about what it was that attracted working class voters to President Trump, why he’s so concerned by the clustering of homogenous communities in America, and what he thinks could be done to help address the social and economic difficulties in rural and urban areas of the country.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the The The The and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the uh there there was a timely book it's hill Billy elegy by J D Vance who grew up around Appalachian and working class Ohio and lived many of the challenges that are common to folks in that region JD recently shared his stories and is very very insightful observations at the Institute of Politics in right here the uh the J D Vance welcome you know they say everything in life is timing you wrote a book a memoir of your your life growing up in around Appalachian and it was unclear incredible journey now every elite in the country looks at you sort of Margaret Mead or they're sure to lead them through this world that they don't understand that Donald Trump obviously did and we'll talk about him of that but the book itself apart from the timing is a beautiful book and its incredible story and so I want to start there and just ask you a little bit about how you grew up in how you got from there to here as a Yale educated lawyer and now sure before the elites sure well the story in my starts and Eastern Kentucky the nineteen forties with my grandparents get married and move to the north rust Belt Ohio we now call the rust Belt but then was land of opportunity and they just wanted a better life for themselves they were very porn Eastern Kentucky and so they would raise a family on a single wage they'd Ohio An Ohio things were pretty chaotic mean they definitely brought with them a lot of the habits that it acquired from being incredibly poor growing up in the mountains as they didn't fit in quite as well their family life was pretty sure those habits well you know they grew up in just they were used to struggle and they were used to not necessarily living their life in a way that was that was surrounded by material comfort and so they didn't necessarily know how to adjust that well to having money they didn't fit in especially well in their communities and their family life was pretty chaotic and pretty dramatic mean even back in the thirties and forties when things went pretty well for them and their family still work there was a lot of violence lot of alcoholism my grandma's grandfather had famously killed local political rival in the county and so there was just a fair amount of emotional baggage they brought with them in just the fact that they were sixteen and thirteen year old who'd moved north to escape their family because the family wasn't too happy about the fact that my grandma was pregnant at thirteen thirteen And yet the baby fourteen didn't survive but to show how different the time was and what happened in Ohio how did that had that unravel well the it unraveled slowly so they had three kids in the first kit I think was was raised in a relatively stable environment things were still pretty chaotic but he looks back on a pretty finely by the time her two younger kids came along things were really rough my grandfather was drinking a lot my grandmother really was unable to to to take care of the home in the way she was used to and so my mom and my aunt really groping and a very chaotic very traumatic home and the lesson in some of that life I think is that you don't necessarily forget everything that you learned when you were growing up just because you maybe have a little bit of material comfort and so what happened is that the same time that my mom and my aunt were starting to go through adulthood and just like my grandparents had not forgotten every lesson of the way to grow up the industrial economy in Ohio really started to go south and jobs are to become harder to come by Cesar layer all of these emotional and cultural issues onto economy that was really working you had a pretty combustible mix what was your grandfather doing well he was working at a steel mill Arco steel which is still in operation that employs many many fewer people than it used to but he was a welder and spent his entire career there he retire there yet stocking arm Coney retired and was really proud of it but he was one of the few Eve is about time he retired it was already clear that the kids who are coming out of high school were going to be able to rely on that sort of way just a few at a curiosity to know you're a student of these things where those jobs go did they go overseas or did they just did automation take a lot of those cha well it's a combination hand it's it's it's interesting the sequencing here really matters right so it seems that from the eighties to about the late nineties actually were a fair number of job losses because of trading of the estimates to two point five million jobs were lost to China because of trade primarily in light manufacturing sector but but but now a lot of those jobs are going overseas because of technology automation so its actually see it strikes me is different with different job loss problem now than we did back in the nineties but even then technology was a big part of IT automation was a big part of it's just that rate was also part of the story and you know I've had this discussion because you mean the obviously Donald Trump got elected on large in large part I think one of the great motivators was his his argument that trade laws had caused all these jobs in America men taking advantage of and he was going to and he was Co and he's acting on that now we can see him resolving trade treaties trying to re negotiate trade treaties the question is is he fighting yesterday's war here well I think he is and I think he's he's sort of true about this or is right about this problem halfway and wrong about halfway there definitely was a pretty significant disruption caused by trade I think you can make a pretty good argument that it was not necessarily bad trade deals as much as just the natural flow of the economy you know it's not that we have this terrible trade with China it's just a lot of things that people use to buy from the US they could buy from China because it was cheaper so that cuts our exports cut seventy jobs that are driven by those exports but but as as we've discussed the bigger issue especially now again was certainly a big issue back in the nineties the eighties but it's the issue now is that all of the job losses as you look out in the future are coming from technology automation basically robots are going to replace people and that raises a really difficult question right because you can't turn the clock back on technology and automation maybe you could a little bit on trade if we were in the eighties but we've already lost that battle in some ways the jobs are already gone and we got to be thinking about how to figure out maybe prevent or at least prepare for the next generation of labor market shift yeah my feeling was that this is probably the greatest economic challenge that we face in terms of social cohesion Lee and the fact that it got virtually no discussion during the presidential campaign was really really a deficit that you know we're going to suffer for we need some sort of strategy you are conservative and may have a different view although I think there's one thing that comes through in your book and when you talk about your grandfather is that work is not just about a paycheck or it shouldn't be I mean it's about dignity it's about self worth and does so yeah government could give everyone a check right but that's not necessarily going to satisfy their soul absolutely it may pay the bills but it could have a corrosive impact if there's no if they don't have productive work as well right that's my big quarry and I can't remember if we've discussed this before but the biggest job the biggest single category job of people do right now as drivers right truck drivers or drivers and so forth three million people depend on driving for their yes some for their their self worth or their dignity at work but also obviously their income and those jobs are going to go away in pretty rapid order over the next couple of discussions driver less car exactly yeah and so you have to sort of ask this question of when these three million jobs go away what do those three million people do and that's to me is fundamentally a question about workforce training in how we really prepare people for the next generation work because it's never been the case in the history of the American economy that these labor market disruptions just put a ton of people out of work and definitely it's always that people sort of skill up to the next thing the disruption can be hard it's not necessarily easy to go from a farm hand to working in an industrial factory in the nineteen ten the nineteen twenties but that's generally been the story is that this disruption has been a little bit tough but it's ultimately produce more wealth and more jobs but there have to be jobs that have to be things for people to do there have to be jobs there also have to be people who are properly trained to do those jobs right mean I think that we use to think a lot of ways in the forties and fifties that people graduate from high school they would have the skills necessary to go to work in a car manufacturer no longer true usually my school you don't have the skills to go and work at one of these jobs they're going come online in the wake of three million truck driver jobs going away means the way that I think about is that many people the program do the dispatching there a lot of things that will replace the jobs that go away when driver less car I'm also going to require more skill requirement is exactly and that requires I think a fundamental rethinking of the way we approach training yeah I mean it's it but it's easier as a political American tell us no political strategists is easier to to organize the resentment against the Chinese were for Mexico then it is to organize people around the threat that robots face Robots are a less appealing villain you know when you're organizing which I think explains why we had the campaign that we had let me return to your story though because one of the most compelling characters in this book and my most poignant relationships is that that relationship between you and your mom who you say people sort of learn I don't use the word path allergies because it's demeaning or taken as demeaning but they learn they learn from what they know and so your mom repeated some of the patterns that she saw and things kind of spun out of control yet that's exactly right you know she had my sister when she was eighteen she had me when she was twenty three she was really smart person but actually had to graduate Saudis for oil or salutatorian of her that yes I mean had yet to graduate from high score early actually because my sister was was coming was was coming and it's really striking in that so many of the things that mom most resented about her childhood just ended up playing in the childhood that me and once he had and it speaks something that I think is one of the real motivators for me to write the book which is that it's not easy to flip off all of the switches that were turned on when you work it right these things that we see it's very intuitive things that we see the attitudes that we see habits that we develop they necessarily leave an impact and that doesn't mean that there are a sort of death sentence that you can't ever escape them but you have to I think appreciate the fact that when kids grow up a certain weight necessarily leaves its trace on how they approach their own adult life how they approach their own families in their own children and I wrote a book a memoir myself and the thing that I discovered in writing it was that it was an exercise in discovery that I learned alot about myself I learned alot about my family about the things that influenced my life that I just hadn't thought about him as deeply before that and clearly this is the case with you you you had some real anger toward your mom and she was the she was negligent in some ways when you know she's going through difficult times would you come to learn about her and how might we know now she she had a drug problem she was a nurse she had a drug problem and that she fought off and on and what how general generalize is that experience because we know there's this opiate opioid crisis that's kind of cutting through rural America small town America right now well on the drug addiction point in a lot of ways mom was sort of on the Vanguard of this crisis that has become incredibly epic right so is now the leading cause of accidental death the United States are passing gun violence is overdoses from drugs and it's especially cute Ohio which actually leads the nation and the number of drug overdose deaths last year so it's a very significant problem and then the story the way that Mom encountered in some ways I remember and this is the sort of like you said the process of self discovery that the thing that really caused her to start taking drugs the first time was the death of my grandfather her dad my PAP all and you start to feel a little bit of pain and maybe take some drugs because it makes thing makes things better and all the sudden you're in this addictive cycle where the best way to get high the cheapest way to get highs very often illegal substance it's very very dangerous and so that's really where mamas has found herself in for so much of my life I was very resentful towards ride built or office with a villain but the more that she wasn't just existing in a vacuum she wasn't this person who was born out of nowhere and did all these things to me and Lindsay that were bad she was in fact a person who had carried around the scars of the demons from her own past in her own childhood and the most difficult part of writing a book was starting to see the ways in which the way I'd grown up and I had this were a few basic attitude of I've gone to law school I've made it I've achieved the American dream and I didn't quite realize that the way that I groped actually really impacted me to and recognizing that recognizing that some of the traits that I saw on mom that I hated also existed in me made me realize that maybe as being a little bit too hard on or so writing the book really gave me some perspective and some compassion for but in a sense when your child and you are a lot and they came in and out of your life you didn't really have a relationship with your dad and you had a lot of sort of substitutes that cycled in and of your life you gotta develop a kind a hard bar in order survive yet trying to make excuses and but but but here's my question what is what did that mean for you and you know obviously your grandparents filled a role that you desperately needed but what did the absence of a consistent sort of father figure in the home due to to you well one it was just unstable right because they're constantly people coming in our lives sometimes we were moving with those people sometimes they were moving with us I just remember feeling like my childhood was very chaotic that you know our address was always changing sometimes be hard for me to remember my address because there were so many recent ones and that's the that's the biggest takeaway that's the thing I remember most is this feeling of true chaos and not being especially grounded in the the obvious takeaway something that's definitely true is that having a male when you grow up and working class environment like this is really important right in if you want to be a successful person if you want to be you want to know how you should be treating your family how you should be treating your children it really helps to have a guy around to look up to and except for PAP all I really didn't have that I think without PAP paw would've been much worse circumstance so that absence of a father figure sort of sets you up for failure when you later on become husband and father of course you see this in the data the kids grow up who you know especially young boys who grow up in single mother households aren't quite as good at Modern Family Life is those who grow up in two parent family you are you a chance at the end of President Obama's term to sit down with him and in a group of conservatives in the discussion did you get a chance to talk to him about this because obviously he went through that as well his father disappear when he was two and he spoke a lot about this about what what the absence of the of that presence in the home of means to to kids we didn't get quite personal maybe just because there were a few other folks there but he definitely one thing he said that I really appreciated is he sort of made and off the cuff comparison between Michelle and between my wife Lucia and just the sort of emotional gap that that person feels is really important really powerful someone admires the first lady I knew she admires or two that was really cool but know we talk so much about that that sort of emotional void of not having a father around leaves but I think we both know it very personally and I suspect that it would be an uneasy conversation is one of these interests me about your book was you drew the you you drew the parallel between the sort of kind of a disorderly maybe just opaque nature of life in some of the rural and small town communities sure where you live and what's going on in inner cities in fact sure you're here it is to politics today and have a conversation with Alex Scott Lewis who wrote a book called There Are No Children Here write up about the housing projects in Chicago and there are some striking similarities between the stories are there really are and things that occurs to me is that it forces you to grow up pretty quickly right mention there are children here but there's a sense in which when you don't have that person around you start trying to act like an adult maybe sooner than you should really start trying to fill that role in your own household may be sooner than you should and because you don't know really because you don't have the example what that means you do in a clunky way and maybe you act overly tough and you're a little bit super defensive about your honor your family's honor one of the comparisons that I think is really apt is that the only community where I really feel like maybe has the same sense of honor and devotion to family the sense that if somebody insults your mom your gram all you really have to to to be willing to get a fight with them that compares to the appellation of unity is the black community that's the that's the only place we've really seen that same sense of family devotion loyalty really present itself yeah the church is also a big institution in the African American community in plays and these rural communities as well in small town communities will take a short break and we'll be right back with J D Vance rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty talk about how you survive this and your decision to enter the military and what role that played in a new evolution sure well I survived it because over the course of early childhood pre adolescence ma'am on Apple started play increasingly larger role in my life and by the time I was twelve or thirteen I was spinning as much time in mammals house as anyone else's and by the time I was fourteen fifteen I was living with her full time so there was a sense in which mammal provided me the stability and the safe home the kids I think really do need to thrive and survive and that was a big part of its oyster do it are in school then I join the Marine Corps right out of high school this was April two thousand and three I believe when I sign enlistment papers or right after we invaded Iraq and so I spent four years in the Marine Corps Of course Floyd like most of my peers that I'm dead but also learn some really important social skills in the Marine Corps things that folks don't appreciate like how to balance a checkbook or how to shop around for car loan these things that people don't appreciate the military serves a role in educating people about those things so did that and left the Marine Corps went to Ohio State's been a couple years there and got got my master's degree and then went from there to Yale Law School when it sort of crazy just how frenetic my life has been since I left the Marine Corps I felt like there's been this incredible trajectory which of course the book is just a part of it but I sort of look around and think to myself Holy shit how to get here Holy crap how to get here because I'm going to read well it's okay I could do or on TV when you went to the Marine Corps home you are confronted with not just a different set of rules and and discipline and so on but a very diverse group of people of how how how did you react to that I mean you know the people from the inner city from rural communities from all over this country different faiths different experiences had you meld well that was one of my favorite parts of the Marine Corps that I felt really connected to people from different backgrounds in a way that I had growing up partially just because I didn't spend that much time around people from really different backgrounds in the Marine Corps folks always said there aren't there is no black and white there's dark green light green are all equally worthless and that was that was interesting way of framing it but it's fascinating especially when viewed in the context of a lot of conversations we have about color blindness in America and whether that's a desirable thing to talk about in light of continued racial disparities but I do think there's some real value as a sort of cultural ethnic and cultural value to swerve tell everybody it doesn't matter what color you are you guys are all in the same team of course what's so cool about the Marine Corps but was also miserable about the Marine Corps especially in boot camp is that you have for these drill instructors who are set up a psychological obstacles overcome and their equally mean to everyone and it does have a way of binding everyone together right the shoes really loves company yet a common enemy you know one of the things that I often think about is how the distance we now have from World War Two when everybody was in some way in listed everybody was involved including women who worked in factories the Rosie the rivers and there was a sense of common purpose which was to defeat fascism and save the world from it and so you had and we've had people here talk about this you had people even in public life who fought bitterly over issues but also had fought side by side in in the war and the further we get away from that experience it seems to me the more for fraction aided we get there isn't the sense that we're all the same team yeah that's totally true and that really worries me and the military in some ways is just at this point a symptom or representation of the fact that we're increasingly fractured right and so the military is often set up for people talk about it as if it's just a bunch of poor kids and that's of course not true it's a pretty solid mixture there actually are much fewer people on the extremes right there very few super wealthy and very few super poor people in the military but otherwise he's sort of have folks who cluster around the middle of the income distribution and they also are relatively geographically clustered right so it's something like think um sorry there's geographically closer to write two kids in the Northeast are much much less likely to enlist than kids in the south kids in the rust Belt kids in the West and so in some ways adds to the sense of alienation because you have these people who are fighting in a time of war their families their communities are very involved psychologically in what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and you do have increasingly a population of people who don't really know anyone who served or who are connected to in a very personal way and that worries me right it's only our military was ever set up to be sort of warrior class where the communities that supported these folks were very connected and the communities that weren't that close to it are just so culturally foreign to a lot of folks the military that they don't really appreciate you know they are the troops they e appreciate the troops and they're very kind a lot of ways but you can't really appreciate what's going on unless you know somebody at striking to me having grown up as a kid during the Vietnam era and the way returning service people were treated then which was miserably right as kind of a symbol of a war that many thought was unjust but was unjust was that these they serve their country and they were mistreated when I came home now you know you go to a public event you go to a sporting event you know a service person wounded Warriors introduced and then there's this ovation but you're right it's sort of a ten you added People don't really identify identify with the experience what a national service or some kind of program that requires people to work side by so you kind of a view of libertarian I think tens of you know how am I ascribe any new stuff that well I'd say that my my conservatism is much more can Unitarian right so I think government has ruled plan these issues and I really worry about these layers of civic society and I think the military is one of them and so I had this problem really worries me right this idea that we're sort of clustering and are separate bubbles and there's like a warrior class and their families and there's another class that said supports but doesn't really know the troops yeah so should there be to require national service because that's one way to get everybody and yeah yeah I've I've thought a fair amount about this and still have a strong opinion on it but I'm inclined to say that we should be thinking of a way to get people involved in some sort of shared national effort maybe don't make it mandatory may be discreet the incentive structure so that a lot of people want to do it but it really does worry me that if you're an American teenager right now what is being an American really mean to you and I worry that if you grow up in Chicago where you're open Columbus what being American means is so different than what being American means you grow up in California are eager open York City and I think that part of that is because we're so disconnected from a real shared national effort
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Ep. 120 - J.D. Vance

The Axe Files with David Axelrod