JD Vance, author of the bestselling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, wants to be a senator. He’s fresh off a trip to visit Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago and he’s solicited the support of the tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel has contributed $10m to a new Pac – Protect Ohio Values – created to support a possible Vance bid for the Senate seat of the retiring Republican Rob Portman next November.
While elite donations roll in, Vance is playing up his rightwing-populist credentials to the Republican base, praising Tucker Carlson as “the only powerful figure who consistently challenges elite dogma” and complaining about corporations who have opposed state voter suppression efforts. But Vance has a secret he doesn’t want voters to find out about: in form, and substance, he’s a 1990s Clintonite.
Behind a mantra of “opportunity, responsibility, and community” and through institutions like the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton pushed back against liberal orthodoxy within his party. When running for president in 1992, in the same breath he called for an end to “welfare as we know it” and described his hardscrabble upbringing in the little country town of Hope, Arkansas. He admonished “deadbeat fathers” and reminded people that “governments don’t raise children; parents do”, while lamenting the fact that battles for social justice were being lost at home. In other words, he had his cake and ate it too – appealing to popular disgust with inequality, while supporting the economic policies that fueled that inequality, and blaming America’s problems on “welfare cheats” and corporate greed in equal measure.
Clinton and the Clintonites – the so-called New Democrats – rejected both Reaganism and welfare-state liberalism. They offered a balanced-budget populism, hoping that free trade and deregulation would boost growth and spur job creation. But unlike Reagan, Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy and increased the earned income credit as a mild redistributive measure. As Clinton put it: “Trickle-down economics has sure failed.” Rather than restore government programs, however, he said that the government was “in the way” and had to be radically streamlined. Those within the Clinton administration who hoped to invest in public infrastructure and expand social goods, like the labor secretary Robert Reich, were ignored. The president told voters he could feel their pain, but in practice he preferred the market (and people’s bootstraps) to deliver relief.
Today, some of those searching for a new Third Way between a leftward-moving Democratic party and traditional business conservatism have found a home in the post-Trump Republican party. Hillbilly Elegy effectively took Reagan and Clinton-era rhetoric about the culture of poverty and applied it more generally – not just to black Americans, but to poor whites, as well. In the book, Vance describes how his grandparents escaped Appalachian poverty by moving to Middletown, Ohio, during the postwar boom. They and others found good manufacturing jobs and adopted an ethos of hard work and community. But by the time Vance was around, the jobs were gone, poverty was soaring, and drug abuse was rampant.
In “a town where 30% of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week”, Vance complained, he could not find “a single person aware of his own laziness”. Yet instead of seeing the Middletown’s malaise as rooted primarily in economic collapse and the failures of free-market policies, Vance mused about a Scots-Irish American culture “that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it”.
“We spend our way to the poorhouse,” Vance wrote. “We buy giant TVs and iPads.”
Hillbilly Elegy made quite a splash when it published in 2016, in part because it simultaneously appealed to anxious liberals keen to “understand” Trump voters and to anti-Trump Republicans who wanted to blame Trumpism on what they perceived as sheeplike and undereducated poor whites. At a time when conservative commentators such as National Review’s Kevin Williamson were claiming that white workers weren’t “victimized by outside forces”, but rather had failed themselves through welfare dependency, drug and alcohol addiction, and family anarchy, the New York Times was lauding Hillbilly Elegy’s similar narrative as “a message of tough love and personal responsibility”.
Bill Clinton made it; why didn’t you? JD Vance made it; why didn’t you?
Today, Vance seems to be setting himself up as the Ohio version of Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator who trumpets himself as a champion of the American worker. But Vance’s post-2016 evolution from the media’s chosen interpreter of poor whites and Trump critic (while getting rich as a tech venture capitalist) to the populist Hawley wing of the Republican party didn’t necessitate a policy shift. Sure, he has to tweet more about Dr Seuss now, but Vance’s new model, Hawley, has only a 5% rating from the AFL-CIO, the largest working-class organization in the country.
When it comes to rhetoric, the new breed of conservative populists – Carlson, Hawley, Vance – love saber-rattling against “cosmopolitan elites”. When it comes to actual policy, they have no interest in challenging corporate power and few plans to invest in working-class communities. Take Vance’s recent opposition to universal childcare, which he called “a massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent”.
Vance’s alternative idea to help American parents, who frequently face a crushing, Catch-22 style choice between giving up their full-time jobs or paying astronomical amounts of money on childcare? Instead of an expanded social wage through a government program, Vance lauds a plan, proposed by Hawley, to give a tax credit to married parents with children under the age of 13. Not exactly transformative, New Deal-style reform to aid struggling Americans; if anything, it’s the kind of tepid, wonkish program that the New Democrats could have very well dreamt up 30 years ago.
Recall the words of the then candidate Bill Clinton, who in 1992 pined for “an America in which the doors of colleges are thrown open once again to the sons and daughters of stenographers and steelworkers. We will say: everybody can borrow money to go to college. But you must do your part. You must pay it back.”
Like the Clintonites, Republicans such as Hawley and Vance are trying to find a way to balance pro-working class appeals popular with voters with the enduring fact that their party is largely funded by rich donors and powerful business interests. Their solution is to offer Americans rhetoric about elites and the importance of hard work, but not to actually take power away from those elites or, say, enact job programs.
It took decades, but millions of voters came to see the New Democrats as frauds. The same, I hope, will be true of the New Republicans.