The struggling, rural, white communities that feel like nobody cares

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, in this topsy-turvy election year, we have a timely portrait of Americans who are often ignored and misunderstood, depicted as only an insider could.

It’s the first in an occasional series on books this election season we’re calling Political Ink.

J.D. Vance, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

This book is many things, “Hillbilly Elegy,” but I think, amongst all else, it’s a personal story. It’s about growing up in Appalachia under what I think what everybody would agree difficult circumstances, raised by your grandparents, father who wasn’t there, mother had an addiction.

I think, for most people, hard to write about these things, but not hard for you?

J.D. VANCE, Author, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”: No, it was definitely hard.

I definitely struggled allotted with the intrusion and just being so open about my personal history and my family history. But I decided that, ultimately, it was worth it because I felt that a lot of these issues needed to be talked about. They needed to be talked about openly. And I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than just be really honest about my own failings and my family’s failings, because sometimes honesty is just the best policy, and that starts with me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you do write very candidly about a rough-around-the-edges lifestyle, both in Kentucky and then when your family moved to Southern Ohio.

It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a life you love and a life you honor.

J.D. VANCE: Yes, absolutely.

There are good and bad parts of this community and of my own family, of course. And I try to be very frank about the problems, but also very compassionate, and also explain why so many of these people were so good to me and so important in my life, and, frankly, why I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have right now if it weren’t for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, as you grow older, as you finish school, you joined the Marines and your life changed, you began to be more critical of some of these people, of their lifestyle, not of the individuals, but of what you were seeing.

And what did you find? What did you grow to see that you didn’t see when you were younger?

J.D. VANCE: Well, I started to see that a lot of the reason that we don’t have the level of upward mobility, why there aren’t more kids like me at places like Yale Law School — that’s really the question I was trying to answer in writing the book.

And it occurred to me that there are things happening in our community, from the addiction crisis, to family breakdown, to also the economic problems that exist in the community. And all of these sort of conspired against a lot of our youth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you make it clear the blame can be spread all around.

You point out the social programs that haven’t helped. You talk about the individuals themselves…

J.D. VANCE: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … who are part of the issue.

J.D. VANCE: Yes, absolutely.

The thing I try to really hammer home in the book is that this is a sort of all-of-the-above type of problem. It’s not just that government has failed us. It’s not just that we have failed ourselves. It’s government. It’s individuals. It’s sort of everything in between, from families and communities and neighborhoods, churches and so forth.

And it’s the sort of problem that I think can’t be solved super easily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, as you say, you make it clear that the rest of us, the rest of the country, is partly to blame for what’s happened to white working-class Americans.

You don’t see a solution, but what should we be doing differently?

J.D. VANCE: Yes, I think that we should be understanding these communities and taking these communities as they actually are.

So, we might ask, for example, how do we make it a little bit easier for low-income parents to interact better with their children, to interact better with their partners? That’s just one idea.

But, hopefully, folks who pick up the book will take away from it a sense that this social crisis in white working-class communities is pretty complicated, but it’s not totally immune to public policy solutions. There are things that we might do as a broader society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spell out so much of the gap between educated America, well-to-do, well-off, middle-income America, and the life that you grew up in. Why is that gap getting bigger?

J.D. VANCE: Well, I think part of it is that we don’t spend a whole lot of time around each other.

So, it was really striking to me the sense of culture alienation I had when I started law school. It was clear to me that I had never really spent that much time around these people, and these people had never really spent that much time in a neighborhood that I grew up around.

So, when you’re so disconnected geographically, even if you live in the same maybe region of the country, it’s hard to really understand how the other thinks, what the attitudes of other groups of people are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think it’s pretty clear in this year a lot of people have looked to you to explain frankly much of the Donald Trump vote.

J.D. VANCE: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: White working-class Americans, is that really who you’re talking about here? And how do you explain the attraction of Donald Trump?

J.D. VANCE: I think it’s a very complicated phenomenon. It’s difficult to understand why so many of these folks have been attracted to Donald Trump.

But a big part of it is the way that he conducts himself. He’s relatable in a way that you might talk about politics around the dinner table. That’s something that people see in Donald Trump that maybe they see a little bit in themselves.

But there’s also a sense that people just feel ignored by the political class. They feel like their communities have really been struggling in a lot of different ways for 20 or 30 years, and nobody has really cared. And Trump is the first person to at least see these communities, even if you think, as I do, that he doesn’t have all the solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said many of the Americans you know so well don’t trust — not only do they not trust politicians. They don’t trust the news media.

You quote somebody you know as saying the free press, to them, is full of — I’m not going to say the word.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you do describe a gap here, people with information, with education, and those with less information and less education. How do you see that?

J.D. VANCE: Well, I think that the sense of cultural alienation breeds a sense of mistrust of everything that is perceived to be of the elite.

So, you ultimately don’t trust the people who seem to have information, power, and control over the news. But I also think, frankly, the conservative media — and I say this as a right-wing person — we have got to do a better job of engaging with voters.

I write that some of the ways that we talk about the news media, the way that conservative media talks about the president, it foments this sense of alienation. And what a lot of the folks in the white working class really need right now is something that encourages them to reintegrate with their communities, not to further self-segregate.

So, like everything, it’s the sort of situation where all of us have a role to play. And I certainly put my side in part of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have been paying attention to something Hillary Clinton said in describing Donald Trump’s followers. She called them a basket of deplorables.

Is there something to what she said, or is she completely off-base?

J.D. VANCE: Well, I think it’s probably both.

There are definitely — there is definitely an element of Donald Trump’s support that has its basis in racism or xenophobia. But a lot of these folks are just really hardworking people who are struggling in really important ways.

And the way that I think about is that folks can be led by political leaders in one direction or another. They can be pushed or pulled. And when Hillary Clinton says something like that, it strikes me that she’s pushing people away from what she wants them to get out of her message.

And if you think, as I do, that Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily have a good message either, that’s maybe not the best approach to politics. It’s not how you win these folks over. And if you’re worried about them being racist now, when you push them away and push them to somebody like Trump, you’re only going to make the problem worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is the way to win them over?

J.D. VANCE: Well, I think the first step, as Trump has sort of shed some light on, is just to recognize the nature of the problem, to recognize that these communities are really struggling.

And my hope is that, after 2016, after we have all survived this election season, that people are thinking a little bit more constructively about how to help. They’re not just diagnosing the problem and then saying, well, let’s build a Mexican border wall to fix everything. Maybe they’re diagnosing the problem and thinking a little bit more constructively about the best way forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: J.D. Vance, the book is “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” It is a great read.

Thank you very much.

J.D. VANCE: Thank you.

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