Finding 'real America'

A reader told me I, as a New York editor, could never understand the struggles of the rural working class. Here's what I wrote back.

From farms to cities, we are all American.
(Image credit: iStock)

When I recently mentioned in an editor's letter that I was reading J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, a peeved reader wrote me to say that I wouldn't understand it, "because you very likely have never met any of the types of people he writes about." His assumption was that some fancy-pants editor based in New York City could know nothing of the struggling working class or Southern poverty. I wrote back to say that while I'm a Northerner, my own roots are working-class, that neither of my parents could afford to go to college, and that to keep food on the table my grandparents did physical labor their entire lives (including farming, scrubbing floors, and making clothes in a sweatshop). I've also spent some time in rural Virginia and Tennessee, and seen the soul-crushing economic devastation there firsthand. My correspondent was gracious in his response. "It could be that you and I agree on more issues than I realized," he said. Quite so. Most of us do not fit so easily into class and geographic stereotypes.

Nonetheless, our nation's warring tribes are locked in a perennial argument over which is "The Real America." After Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012, urban progressives were confident their America — multicultural, socially liberal, youthful — was ascendant. Now, by virtue of an election that hinged on 80,000 votes out of 129 million cast, Trump voters are no less certain that Lubbock and Tuscaloosa are more real than San Francisco and Philadelphia, and that Meryl Streep's Hollywood is irrelevant. What does this tell us? Perhaps we give too much power to elections, which often are decided by random events and politicians' personalities, rather than by policies. Victory doesn't mean that the winners' worldview is the only valid one, or that the losers have lost their humanity as well as an election. Wherever we're from, we're all real, we all count, and we'd better figure out a way to make that work.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.