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Anthem For The Forgotten Man
December/January 2016/17

What is going on? This memoir hammers home one unnerving point. The white working class in the rural hillbilly and rustbelt states of Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and beyond, are not experiencing economic or ethnic “anxiety” to be cooled with a political Panadol. This is much more than a malaise. Tens of millions of white Americans are living in the aftermath of full-scale sociological collapse. Vance believes the decline of industrial America has spiralled into the collapse of every social institution in the rustbelt — from Main Street to the family home — that tied these communities together: “In the 1980s Middletown had a proud, almost idyllic downtown: a bustling shopping centre, restaurants that had operated since World War Two and a few bars where men like my Papaw would gather for a few drinks after the steel mill . . . Middletown today is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops and broken windows line the heart of downtown.” 

Life expectancy is falling in white America, while black and Latino life expectancy is rising despite them being on average much poorer. Working-class whites are now the most pessimistic people in America — even more pessimistic than black or Latino Americans who experience constant prejudice. A white American epidemic of prescription drug abuse and alcoholism is now out of control. “Bad neighbourhoods no longer plague only the inner city,” says Vance. “The bad neighbourhoods have spread to the suburbs.” Incarceration rates for white women are on the rise, white youths are more likely than their peers from other groups to die from drug overdoses, and rates of divorce and domestic chaos have skyrocketed. “Taken together, these statistics reveal a social crisis of historic proportions.”

The collapse of the American factory town has become a collapse of the American family. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 per cent, in Sweden 2.6 per cent. In the United States the figure is a shocking 8.2 per cent. This is how Vance explains “Mom’s revolving door” of father figures. It is a story from Ohio, but the implosion is very similar to Siberia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a collapse of the factory, the family and men’s sense of dignity — a sense of victimhood and hatred of cosmopolitan Moscow elites relentlessly stoked by Vladimir Putin.

Vance’s America has no heroes any more. “There is something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession,” he writes. He laments that his people have nobody to look up to. Failed wars have given America no George S. Patton, or Middletown any returning war heroes. The space programme, long a source of pride, has faded into history along with working-class celebrity astronauts. America’s new heroes looked nothing like Middletown. “Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society.” Until Donald Trump.

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