Now, Vance is an aspiring Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. But he’s running in Ohio, not Kentucky, and the hillbilly background he once enthusiastically promoted and profited from seems to have vanished.
The experience of leaving the mountains changed me. Eventually, I returned to Kentucky, and began my career as an attorney working with low-income women similar to those I had known in childhood. Yet, from Day 1, I was aware of the ways that I was now an outsider in the community that had once been home.
I say this to explain why my identity is complicated. When people ask me where I’m from, they often get a long-winded answer, along the lines of: “My family is from Owsley County, Ky. I spent a lot of my childhood there. But I would say that I grew up in Berea, Ky. I moved away for a decade or so, then I moved back. Now, I live in Louisville.” I want to acknowledge that I am from eastern Kentucky, while recognizing that I am no longer of eastern Kentucky.
Vance didn’t draw such distinctions in “Hillbilly Elegy.” He presumed to speak for people who lived in mountain country, even though he had never lived there himself, and was born in Middletown, Ohio. His claim to Appalachia was that previous generations of his family grew up in eastern Kentucky, and that — as a child — he would visit relatives who still lived in the mountains.
Given that tenuous connection, I was surprised when Vance went so far as to call himself a “hillbilly.” He wrote about the needs of “me, my kin, people like us, and the broad community of hillbillies,” and said, “you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”
The word “hillbilly” refers to people from the hills of Appalachia. It is used by the community to describe the community. Vance was, at best, a generation removed.
Despite my skepticism, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe his visits to eastern Kentucky really had shaped him in a profound way. Maybe he called himself a hillbilly because he felt like that’s who he really was.
But my “maybes” were misplaced. I know that now, because I’ve seen who Vance has become as he competes in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary. I’ve watched him navigate the campaign trail, listened to him interviewed on podcasts, read news stories about his run. I’ve heard him talk about who he is and what motivates him. His experience in Appalachia, once so seemingly dear to his heart, doesn’t make it into any of the talking points I’ve heard.
The top of his campaign website promises, “JD will bring Ohio values to Washington,” and the “About JD” section says he “grew up in Middleton, Ohio, a once flourishing American manufacturing town where Ohioans could actually live a middle-class life.” I couldn’t find a single reference to Appalachia, eastern Kentucky or a “hillbilly,” elegized or otherwise.
I’m in politics myself, and I understand the importance of signaling to those you seek to represent that you understand their concerns. But Vance’s campaign feels all too revisionist.
Here’s why it matters: Vance spent years making plenty of money from the claim that he spoke for the mountains, describing a “culture in crisis” and explaining the region’s “political reorientation from Democrat to Republican.” The rest of the country wanted to learn more about Appalachia, and he profited from their curiosity.
Like so many outsiders before him, Vance extracted the value from the mountains and never repaid the community for the things he took.
Creating long-lasting change requires elevating the voices of Appalachia. It means showing the world that there are smart, hard-working people in the mountains, and that Appalachia can be — has to be — a partner in its own future. We need folks to see the hope in the hills and feel inspired to invest in the people there.
Although I’m mad that Vance has abandoned the platform he built, I also know that there is opportunity in it. The way has been cleared for authentic community voices to take the stage. Please listen to them when they do.