On Wednesday afternoon, J.D. Vance LAW ’13, the author of The New York Times best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” gave a lecture to a filled ballroom at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale.
In his 30-minute speech, Vance described the core tenets of his book and recalled his experience as a working-class Ohio native attending Yale Law School. Vance highlighted the value of “social capital,” and spoke about his first time dining in an upscale restaurant in New Haven for a networking event.
“I think two butter knives is overkill,” Vance said. Like using a variety of different utensils for the same meal, making connections through friends and colleagues was foreign to him, Vance said.
The event was sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale.
In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance discussed the long-changing attitudes of American working-class whites, a demographic that largely constituted President Donald Trump’s supporters during the 2016 election. Through personal experiences growing up in a poor family in the Midwest, Vance explained the root causes of political disconnect between the white underclass and liberal elites.
In his lecture, Vance pointed out the disparity between working-class people who identify as religious and those who actually attend church, arguing that church-going often leads to a lower rate of alcoholism and a higher high school graduation rate.
Reflecting upon his lack of skills — such as financial planning compared to his law school peers, Vance said he felt like an anomaly at Yale.
He also said 40 percent of working-class children experience forms of domestic and household abuse, which shape their familial beliefs in adulthood.
“The first person I was truly in love with, I treated her just as badly as I was treated as a kid,” Vance said. “It’s not easy to acquire some elite credential and just turn off everything you learned as a child.”
According to Vance, the American working class is deeply affected by cyclical familial issues. Rather than attributing income inequality to simply economics and politics, he sought to address issues within the communities such as religion and family.
Vance argued that the most important standard for people’s well-being is not how they are faring financially, but how they expect their children will fare.
He also examined the political shifts within the Republican and Democratic Party. In the recent election, Vance noted, Republican voters were overwhelmingly working-class, far more than they have been in recent history. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, now consists of “well-to-do white Americans and minorities from across the political spectrum,” Vance said.
“So many of the working- and middle-income Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 just stayed at home,” he said, expanding on American’s increasing dissatisfaction with the barriers to mobility.
A question-and-answer session followed the lecture. One audience member, a current School of Management and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies student and a former coal miner, asked about how the historical exploitation of industrialization affected working-class culture today.
Vance discussed Appalachian literature and the existing explanations of current poverty, but cycled back toward diagnosing the current problems rather than focusing on history.
A former school teacher from Pennsylvania asked Vance about how to discern biased media coverage from facts. Following a critique of fake news, Vance emphasized the media institution’s need to rebuild credibility.
Adam Gerard ’17, a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, said he expected Vance to lay out more convincing reasons for Trump’s victory.
“I don’t think he fully answered how the dissatisfaction of the working class directly led to the election of Donald Trump,” Gerard said. “Many attendees were expecting a tell-all of the election results, but unfortunately this was not what the event was.”
Still, Gerard said the turnout for Vance was unprecedented for a speaker event at Yale that did not feature a major political figure, which spoke to students’ interest in the topic given a tumultuous political climate.
Christopher Moeckel ’20 said Vance’s talk shed light on the working class, a group that has long been overlooked by mainstream society.
“He showed us that we can’t pretend to label America just based on what we see in our own backyard,” Moeckel said.