Why ‘Hillbillies’ Don’t Do Networking

Working class Americans used to be linked by work, family, and church, but those links are fraying. Meanwhile, financial elites are more interconnected than ever.

Photo Illustration The Daily Beast

The world has never been more connected, yet rarely—if ever—has it been more divided. While the networks of the elite have become even more powerful, those of the working-class have deteriorated, and between these two worlds there’s virtually a complete disconnect.

The brittle social fabric of the white working class and its disconnect from the establishment has been thoughtfully illustrated by J.D. Vance in his book Hillbilly Elegy. In it, he tells his personal story of growing up in a deeply dysfunctional environment dominated by broken families, joblessness, welfare dependency, violence, opioid abuse, and hopelessness.

The disadvantages of the “hillbillies,” as Vance affectionately refers to his tribe, stem to a large extent from a lack of connectivity—therein lies the schism between the hillbillies and the elite. Vance underscores this point when he describes how, despite his challenging upbringing, he accomplishes the otherwise unthinkable: admittance to Yale. Here, he discovers “a mysterious force at work”: networking. He has an epiphany, realizing that “virtually everyone who plays by… [the] rules fails… [that] Successful people are playing an entirely different game: They network.” And that these “networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and import valuable information.”

This goes exactly to the point I make in my own book based on network science: $uperHubs: How the Financial Elite and Their Networks Rule Our World. Professionally, networks are the ultimate competitive advantage. But on a more basic level they are a fundamental precondition for social mobility. Network science mathematically substantiates that in all networks a greater number of connections increases the chances of individual survival. Our fates are determined by the place we occupy within networks, and that place depends on the number and the quality of our connections. “Nodes” with the most connections and the most influence—including human ones—are “superhubs.” Nodes at the fringes are the least connected and suffer the greatest risk of failure. This network topology also manifests itself geographically. Accordingly, Vance explains that increasing residential segregation pushes hillbillies into high-poverty neighborhoods, which are now expanding beyond urban ghettos into suburbs.

Clustering, geographical or otherwise, points to another network dynamic: homophily, which translates into the love of being alike. Since we have a natural proclivity to surround ourselves with people who are like us, we tend to develop social ties with people who have similar backgrounds, personalities, and qualities. Common experiences create common reference points, which help us relate to one another, build trust, and communicate. Vance alludes to the strong sense of tribal identity and the sense of kinship he felt in his adolescence with others who were like him. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, superhubs also cluster together: They attend the same kind of private schools and have similar careers and lifestyles. These two distinct worlds tend to self-perpetuate, and rarely overlap.

Another major difference between hillbillies and superhubs is their culture. Culture is an important network feature that determines how a network behaves. Every system organizes itself around rules, and our society’s rules are reflected in our culture in the form of our commonly accepted values, norms, objectives, and modes of behavior.

Vance describes a self-defeating culture of living beyond one’s means, having a sense of lack of control over one’s own life, and a lack of personal accountability, blaming one’s misfortune on others. He laments that “students don’t expect much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much, [that] we spend our way into the poorhouse and… purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy.”

In contrast, superhubs thrive in an empowering culture, where they generally receive guidance from an early age, feel very much in control of their own destiny, have confidence in themselves, a strong sense of purpose, and are given—or make—opportunities to realize their potential. At elite schools, they receive the best education and, even more important, are introduced to top-tier professional networks. “At Yale,” Vance writes, “networking power is like the air we breathe—so pervasive it’s easy to miss.” These networks allow superhubs to create circumstances favorable to advancing their interests. To optimally scale and capitalize on the system, they continuously build ever more interlinkages. Meanwhile, the social networks of the hillbillies, once supported by churches, unions, and local communities, are disintegrating.

This increased social stratification has also been driven by the wider accessibility of university degrees and overconcentration of highly educated professionals in highly paid professions in urban centers. “Assortative mating,” meaning people with a comparable socioeconomic background marrying each other and facilitating their offspring’s advantaged start in life, has aggravated the opportunity, income, and wealth gaps even further.

In “The War on Stupid People,” an article for Atlantic magazine, author and journalist David H. Freedman analyses this chasm, lamenting the fetishizing of IQ, and stating that only a few decades ago, good jobs could be found based not just on IQ and education, but also more on soft factors such as “integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along.” He alleges that “the successful and influential seem more determined than ever to freeze the less intelligent out… rather than shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity.”

Such polarization and segregation has isolated people in their own social bubbles and echo chambers. How can this divide be bridged and the playing field be leveled?

First, the self-perpetuating feedback loops of power laws need to be disrupted by introducing much greater ethnic, gender, and socio-cultural diversity. An improved state-funded education system is particularly important in view of the fact that we live in a knowledge economy, where robotization will continue to make blue-collar jobs redundant. In addition, a higher minimum wage, stronger labor unions, and other government policies are needed to break through the network dynamics that contribute to increasing inequality.

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Vance has defied network dynamics and himself become a bona fide superhub by virtue of his privileged network position: He now is part of the highly exclusive nucleus of Silicon Valley, where he works directly with billionaire tech titan and presidential advisor Peter Thiel. He recently joined AOL founder Steve Case’s efforts to develop tech sector opportunities in “fly-over” country by improving its topology, connectivity, and access to capital.

Vance allocates much of the responsibility to fixing the system to the white-working class itself. I would agree, but go further to argue that the superhubs in society have an even greater responsibility to work and contribute toward a more equitable system, because their individual actions and their networks have the greatest influence on the system. But the pressure on the superhubs—especially politicians—must come from the hillbillies, because superhubs are naturally inclined to protect their vested interests and perpetuate the dynamics that propelled them to their positions. Hopefully, in a concerted-effort, hillbillies, superhubs, and all the rest of us will succeed in changing the monopolistic structure of networks to create a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable system that benefits all.

This article is partially based on excerpts of Sandra Navidi’s book $uperHubs: How the Financial Elite and their Networks Rule Our World.