Duane Bonifer  |   Published November 15, 2016

A Nation Divided

Author Vance hopes U.S. leaders learn from presidential election
  • Best-selling author J.D. Vance presents at Monmouth College’s post-election event
Best-selling author J.D. Vance hopes that America’s political class learns a lot of lessons from this year’s presidential election. And he hopes that some political leaders lead an effort to fill a yawning gap between voters.

“One of the things that we learned – and I think one of the things that we should have learned over the past few years – is that we live in a country of very stark economic and geographic but also stark cultural divides,” Vance said.

The author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance spoke to an overflow crowd Tuesday night in Monmouth College’s Wells Theater.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance examines his family’s working-class roots in rural Southeastern Ohio and Eastern Kentucky and how they have since responded to the challenges of living in an increasingly globalized economy.

“People are fearful and worried about the fact that the economy seems to have changed in a very negative direction,” he said.

Vance, who graduated from Ohio State University and Yale University law school after serving a stint in the Marines, said anxieties caused by a rapidly changing world economy motivated many American voters to cast their ballot for Republican Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election.

“The story of globalization of the last 30 or so years is that it’s very, very good for rich people in rich countries; it’s very, very good for poor people in poor countries; and it’s very, very bad for poor and middle-income folks in rich countries,” said Vance, who works at a California-based global investment firm. “And Trump was the first real candidate in a very long time to recognize that and fight against it.

Vance – who read from his book and spoke for about 18 minutes before taking more than 40 minutes of questions from audience members – said that the presidential election also exposed a deeply divided nation.

“Fundamentally it boils down to the fact that we are living in a very culturally isolated world right now,” he said. “The white working class feels cut off from the rest of the country, it feels that the rest of the country judges it, it feels that rest of the country doesn’t really care about its concerns. And that’s especially true, and those feeling are especially intense, when directed at the so-called political elites – the people of both political parties who live in Washington and New York and make political decision that affect their lives.”

Vance said that what made Trump’s surprise victory especially startling is that his campaign attracted voters beyond the Republican Party.

“The story of this election is why millions of people who are Democrats or Independents who voted for (Barack Obama) for president in 2008, 2012 why they switched their vote (to Donald Trump),” he said. “I think we have to understand what motivates those folks.”

Vance said that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was also plagued by several problems, including an inability to motivate her party’s base.

“One of the things we learned in this election is that black and the Latino working classes, folks who vote disproportionately Democratic, millions of them who voted for Barack Obama, didn’t vote for Donald Trump. They just stayed home,” he said. “Why is that someone like Hillary Clinton, a classic Democratic politician, why did so many people stay home instead of vote for her?”

And Vance said that U.S. political leaders don’t have a lot of time to understand why “so many people are so angry and frustrated.”

“I think the answer is complicated, but we’ve got to start understanding and recognizing that we have this really strong divide in our country,” he said. And ultimately – the question that led me to write the book in the first place – is how do we give more of these kids better opportunities? How to make it easier to make kids who grew up like I did to live the classical American dream? I think unless we answer that question for the better … we’re going to continue to have this political pendulum swinging from left to right, from the change election of 2008 to the change election of 2016 and ultimately to the change election probably of 2020 or 2024.”
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