Elites won’t allow any sympathy for poor whites
Netflix’s new adaptation of JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is devastating for the left’s political narrative. How do I know that? Because so many leftists are trying to keep people from watching it.
Critics complain that the movie has too many noble country folk — though neither Vance’s 2016 memoir nor the film version is exactly focused on nobility as such. They even gripe that the autobiography of a white guy from the hill country doesn’t have any major black characters. Well, yes.
For a film made out of a bestselling book by a well-known liberal filmmaker (Ron Howard) and featuring Glenn Close, Amy Adams and Gabriel Besso, the movie seems surprisingly controversial. And why? Because, as I mentioned above, it’s devastating for the left’s political narrative.
As Princeton professor Robert P. George noted, responding to one negative review, “Do you think [those] who don’t want you to watch ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ might have . . . I dunno . . . an agenda? . . . The campaign against the film — made by the standard issue liberal filmmaker Ron Howard, by the way — is purely political.”
To be fair, everything coming from the left is political. But the reaction to this Netflix film tells us something about the way the left feels right now.
Writing about the reaction, Rod Dreher comments, “It is now OK to hate Deplorables again, and maybe even mandatory.” He adds, “I think the ‘privilege’ discourse among middle-class, educated, white liberals is mostly about rearranging prejudices to make lower-class white people deserving of the scorn of the uppers.”
The old Southern Democrats maintained the allegiance of poor whites by making sure those poor whites felt they could look down on blacks. The modern Democratic Party maintains the allegiance of upper-middle-class whites by making sure they can look down on lower-class whites. By humanizing those lower-class whites, Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy” calls the whole enterprise into question.
Humanizing the working class was once what Democrats were about. But no longer.
After World War II and the G.I. Bill, a new managerial class emerged in the United States. A college education became not merely a rite of passage for the well-off, but a necessary passport, economically and especially socially, to the upper middle class. In 1960, one could be part of the upper echelons without a college degree; by 2000 that was almost unheard of.
That meant, of course, that those who had entered the upper ranks did what the insecure lower tiers of aristocracy always do: devote a lot of attention to distinguishing themselves from the non-elite.
In America, class war is disguised as cultural war, and cultural war is often waged under the guise of fighting racism. Thus, the Deplorables had to be cast as racists, though it wasn’t the working class that redlined neighborhoods or set college admissions policies.
And that means that they can’t be humanized, or shown to be victims. The sympathy of the upper classes is doled out in careful measure, toward select targets.
Of course, the consequences go beyond movie reviews. As Christopher Caldwell recently noted in The New Republic, the Trump economy involved the first “egalitarian boom” in decades. In 2019, before COVID-19 mucked things up, we had a 3.7 percent jobless rate (with record low unemployment for blacks and Hispanics.)
Contrast this with the Obama part of the boom, where nearly all the economic gains went to the top 10 percent income bracket.
Under President Trump, meanwhile, the “net worth of the top 10 percent rose only marginally, while that of all other groups vaulted ahead. In 2019, the share of overall earnings going to the bottom 90 percent of earners rose for the first time in a decade.”
And what’s the most-touted policy initiative of the Biden crowd? Student-loan forgiveness, which will involve the working-class majority subsidizing the college debt of people who are better off.
Most Americans don’t have college degrees, and college-degree-holders on average make more money over their lifetimes.
On net, the signature Democratic Party policy initiative is a transfer from the worse-off to the better-off.
It’s easier to take things away from people if you pretend they deserve no better. The response to “Hillbilly Elegy” suggests that we’ll be hearing more of such things in the coming years.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.