Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Left Behind

The Trouble with Euphemism

Nancy Isenberg

Mother and daughter, Hazard, Kentucky; Roger Tiley/Alamy Stock Photo.

When J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was the toast of the media, journalists and editors repeatedly landed on “left behind” as the most apt description for the kinds of folks Vance grew up around. As a recent Netflix film, the Vance story returned with its message magnified. But as we focus on poverty in America, we must be careful with our metaphors. The euphemism “left behind” is ambiguous, especially if we actually aim to remedy the larger societal problem it intends to expose.11xJ.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016); Ron Howard (director) and Vanessa Taylor (screenwriter), Hillbilly Elegy [feature film] (Beverly Hills, CA: Imagine Entertainment, 2020).

“Left behind” most often evokes sorrow, in pointing to survivors after a loved one’s death. An early use of the term appears in the caption of a Harper’s Magazine illustration shortly after the Civil War showing a grieving widow and her baby beside a casket. In the Vance context, the left behind are those who have been excluded from society’s benefits, from opportunity, who have been ignored, marginalized, abandoned. In the political environment of 2016, when Hillbilly Elegy topped the bestseller lists, the familiar term was ostensibly meant to provide insight into those folks who were attracted to presidential candidate Donald Trump for promising the rebirth of American industry while flinging insults at the elites who lorded over the “swamp” in Washington.22xFor the Civil War image, see “Left Behind,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 12, no. 610 (September 5, 1868), 569–70.

I have a personal investment in understanding all of this. Because my book White Trash and Vance’s were so often paired, I resisted reviewing Hillbilly Elegy until asked to do so, along with two other contemporaneous publications, in the New York Review of Books. The editors, of course, titled the piece “Left Behind.” As I thought further about the topic––class and regional inequality, death and despair among the rural poor––something didn’t quite sit right. At the end of 2016, Vance and I were once more paired, this time in Politico’s annual list of fifty “influential thinkers.” He’d taken on the critical question of the moment, “Does America need to be made ‘great again’?,” and ventriloquized his answer in the voice of Trump’s base: “No, but it needs to recognize that many of its citizens feel left behind.”33xNancy Isenberg, “Left Behind,” New York Review of Books (a review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte, and Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, by Steven Stoll), June 28, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/28/left-behind-hillbilly-elegy-appalachia/. For Vance’s use of the term, see “Our Annual List of Thinkers Transforming Politics,” Politico Magazine 3, no. 5 (September-October 2016), 22. The New York Review of Books used the same title a second time: see Helen Epstein, “Left Behind” (a review of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, and We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America, by Jennifer M. Silva), March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/03/26/left-behind-life-expectancy-crisis/.

I do not fault Vance for the easy recourse to this euphemism. He did not coin it. By “euphemism” I mean here a form of intellectual evasion, giving a seemingly positive gloss to the process of becoming poor, which sidesteps the active agents of class exploitation. In a strange and disturbing way, “left behind” functions like the old “vanishing Indian” trope, in which causes and struggles are muted or erased. Indians just disappeared. The poor just fell behind. It seems nonjudgmental, but polite evasion gives way to ahistorical explanations of fate, destiny, inevitable decline.44xThe OED defines euphemism as “That figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended.”

The fact is, it’s our ubiquitous media environment that revived “left behind” as a convenient shorthand to promote a story. Vance engaged multiple usages of the term in his memoir, introducing another contradiction for his readers to ponder: What is left behind is actually never forgotten. It’s what Sigmund Freud called the “uncanny” in describing the irrepressible traces, or ghosts, of memories from childhood. Vance confessed, “I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” It’s the cage we carry inside us, and it has become a familiar trope of modern autobiography.55xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 2.

Looking for a way to explain the Trump phenomenon, especially his white “working-class” supporters, the media were less focused on childhood trauma than on the seemingly less sensational and more sociological: the images Vance presented of family dysfunction rooted in industrial and cultural decay. As Vance wrote about his Appalachian roots and the crisis that rocked the inhabitants of his “Rust Belt” hometown of Middletown, Ohio, he echoed William Julius Wilson on black poverty in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987): “When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large population with high-quality work. Those who could––generally the well-educated, wealthy, or well-connected––moved on, leaving behind communities of poor people.” Instead of white flight, Vance had rediscovered white plight for liberal readers, and for conservatives he offered ample evidence of white blight. It is, I would argue, this double vision that made his memoir so popular. His emotional story spoke to both sides of the partisan divide.66xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 144. Joshua Rothman highlighted the William Julius Wilson quote in his review, see “The Lives of Poor White People,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-lives-of-poor-white-people. For a conservative review, see Geoffrey Norman, “Hillbilly Elegy’s Unsparing Look at Those Left Behind,” Washington Examiner, September 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/hillbilly-elegys-unsparing-look-at-those-left-behind.

So, who are the “left behind”? Are they the hapless poor in dying cities, towns, and rural counties? Those fallen prey to economic and cultural forces beyond their control? Is “left behind” a place, or a state of mind? Let’s hope that those left behind are not, as conservative commentator Kevin D. Williamson harangued in National Review, wretches engaged in “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog,” welfare wastrels who should simply pack up their cars, hit the road, and find work elsewhere. Until 2016, they were, as the media repeatedly declared, in shocking language, nameless and faceless and pretty much ignored.77xKevin D. Williamson, “The Father-Führer,” National Review, March 28, 2016, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2016/03/28/father-f-hrer/. The left behind theme persists, as one reviewer of the 2020 Netflix film of Hillbilly Elegy concluded, crediting Vance for offering compelling “pronouncements of how an entire generation of Americans were left behind.” See David Sims, “Hillbilly Elegy Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/11/hillbilly-elegy/617189/. For other examples of the pervasiveness of this term, see Guy Standing, “The Precariat Are Not the Left Behind,” World Economic Forum, January 21, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/who-exactly-are-the-left-behind-2018/; Clara Hendrickson, Mark Muro, and William A. Galston, Strategies for Left-Behind Places: Countering the Geography of Discontent, Brookings Institution, November 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018.11_Report_Countering-geography-of-discontent_Hendrickson-Muro-Galston.pdf; and Laura Silver, Shannon Schumacher, and Maria Mordecai, “In the U.S. and UK, Globalization Leaves Some Feeling ‘Left Behind’ or “Swept Up,’” Pew Research Center, October 5, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/2020/10/05/in-u-s-and-uk-globalization-leaves-some-feeling-left-behind-or-swept-up/.

What I call the “Vance effect” is still with us. The 2020 Netflix production of Hillbilly Elegy was directed by Ron Howard, who started his show-business career in the 1960s playing Opie, the young son of the title character in The Andy Griffith Show, a popular television series set in a small town in North Carolina. New memoirs with resonant themes have been published: Chris Arnade’s Dignity, Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, Cassie Chambers’s Hill Women, and Eliese Goldbach’s Rust. Vance also triggered a backlash, with such publications as Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to “Hillbilly Elegy,” a multicontributor volume providing more diverse voices and rich insights. Academics, too, are riding the wave—see, for example, sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America.88xOn the new spate of memoirs, see Gracey Olmstead, “Ron Howard’s Disappointing Hillbilly Elegy,” First Things, December 1, 2020; and Bill Schwab, “Review: Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit,” emissourian.com, April 29, 2020; on the backlash argument, see Dwight Garner, “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Had Strong Opinions about Appalachians. Now, Appalachians Return the Favor,” New York Times, February 25, 2019; and Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

But will the “left behind” ever be more than a stereotype or statistic? We may be at a crucial juncture in the effort to break the cycle in which rural poverty is suddenly seen as a national disgrace and then just as suddenly forgotten and ignored. Scholars such as Cynthia M. Duncan, Max Fraser, and Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shed light on the complex conditions responsible for perpetuating unemployment and inequality. The danger, now that Trump is out of office, is that the mainstream media will revert to its default position of downplaying rural disparities and class divisions.

In rural America, where poverty is greatest, many of the hardest-hit areas have endured the same pinched economy for more than fifty years. Right now, two thirds of these poor are white Americans who rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program subsidies and Medicaid. Rural America is in the midst of a devastating health-care crisis, which the pandemic has only made worse. The problem is exacerbated by private equity companies that are buying up vulnerable rural hospitals as distressed assets, reaping profits from bankruptcy and hospital closures.99xSee Cynthia M. Duncan, “Persistant Poverty in Appalachia: Scarce Work and Rigid Stratification,” in Rural Poverty in America, ed. Cynthia M. Duncan (New York, NY: Auburn House, 1992): 111–133; Cynthia M. Duncan, Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock, Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, March 2021), 22, 33–34. Rather than blame high mortality rates on poverty alone, Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that it is inequality that makes society unhealthy; see Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 139; see also Max Fraser, “The Disease Map of Rural America,” Dissent, Summer 2020, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-disease-map-of-rural-america; and Max Fraser, “Public Health, Private Equity, and the Pandemic,” New Labor Forum, September 2020, https://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2020/09/04/public-health-private-equity-and-the-pandemic/.

None of this is new. Class inequality has been a constant throughout American history. A lack of social mobility has always been more pronounced in rural areas. We can best appreciate the “Appalachian condition” by recalling the last time a major federal effort was made to address rural poverty: the 1960s. The “Vance effect” may have brought attention to family dysfunction, but if it was J.D. Vance’s intention to expose the enduring structural inequalities of our economy, his memoir falls woefully short. Moreover, its success in reviving the slippery “left behind” euphemism suggests that older ways of stigmatizing the poor will linger on.

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