Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
(The New Press, 2016)
Why does a large swath of America’s working and middle class want to elect a rich braggart, a born aristocrat who has probably never done a day of honest work in his life, to the presidency? This apparent paradox bears some similarity to the question posed by journalist Thomas Frank in his seminal 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: Why are middle- and working-class white people, who have been getting caned by conservative economic policies for the last five decades, dogmatically voting for those same “small-government” policies that directly harm them, while also virulently opposing any public programs that would directly benefit them? Why are they voting against their own economic interests?
There is a certain amount of liberal condescension and presupposition built into the question. In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Dr. Arlie Russell Hochschild, the eminent UC Berkeley sociologist, goes a step further than most liberals. The standard narrative, which takes its cue from Frank, resolves the paradox by claiming that the reactionary rich are duping lower- class conservatives by pairing their economic interests with red meat social issues (e.g. tax cuts for the one percent in exchange for anti-gay marriage legislation). Hochschild, on the other hand, set out to climb over the “empathy wall” that she sees separating conservative and liberal America. In her case, that meant immersing herself within the deeply conservative communities in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana. Starting in 2011, she made these communities her second home, well before Donald John Trump launched his presidential bid, back when he was (merely?) ranting about President Obama’s birth certificate. Thus, what was meant to be a study of the Tea Party has been rebranded as a study of the Trump voter, many of whom were Tea Partiers.
Hochschild attempts to understand “how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.” It is this focus on hot emotion rather than cool reason that separates and elevates Hochschild’s work from others before it. Indeed, her approach has been vindicated by none other than the rip-roaring orange id stomping around the country, something no one, including Hochschild as she was writing the book, foresaw.
What Hochschild finds, or rather rediscovers, is something fundamental yet easily forgotten in this age of social science empiricism: people make political decisions with what she calls their “emotional self-interest” in mind. Or, as David Hume wrote almost 300 years ago, “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Honor, ambition, memories suppressed and distorted, mythology, identity, self-esteem, shame, fear, anxiety, a troubled conscience—these, even more than economics (though that metric looms large), are what propel the people in Hochschild’s account to abnegate public assistance and to feel shame when, as happens often, they quietly, desperately accept it nonetheless. What, to coastal liberals, seems like stupidly voting against your own interests, is to conservatives keeping in line (as best they can) with a consistent moral code, one based on the belief that work should be hard, that honor is derived from self-reliance, that the American Dream is achievable not by asking those who have achieved it for help but by emulating them, that grace is found in enduring hardships like pollution and poor health rather than “complaining” and agitating to change things—after all, everything is in God’s hands.
Hochschild attempts to access the conservative psyche through a variety of methods. Her writing moves ably between narratives about some of the individuals she befriends; reportage about the unabated environmental disaster that the oil industry—with the cooperation of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s state government—has bestowed upon Louisiana, and Lake Charles in particular, with near impunity; broader sociological analyses connecting the “emotional grooves” of Southern history to today’s frothing resentments; and, the centerpiece of the book, a long extended metaphor that she calls “the deep story.” It’s a “feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols,” she writes. “It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel” and allows us to explore their “subjective prism.”
Hochschild describes being in the middle of a long, slow-moving single-file line leading up a hill. “Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream […] You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. […] But this line isn’t moving.” You’re a white, Christian, working-class person. But the people who were behind you in line—women, immigrants, refugees, people of color—start cutting in front of you using affirmative action programs and federal social programs. “Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with,” she writes. To add insult to injury, if you raise any kind of objection you’re immediately shouted down as an idiot, a bigot. Liberals make fun of you, laugh derisively at your manners and morals. You are embarrassed, angry, and confused. Hochschild says she shared the deep story as it appears in the book with her Tea Party acquaintances, who are now mostly Trump supporters. “I live your analogy,” one responded. “You’ve read my mind,” said another and so on. Fair enough. But as a reader from the same side of the empathy wall as Hochschild, it did not add to my understanding of her subjects’ emotional motivations, which she more effectively reveals through her narratives and analyses.
Hochschild’s mission was to breach the reader’s empathy wall, and to some extent she did increase my ability to understand these strangers. But that noble mission is overtaken by a more pressing one. Shoehorned into the book as the penultimate chapter is a dispatch from a Trump rally in New Orleans, just before the Louisiana primary. Throngs of people like the ones Hochschild has been living with show up. “We’re on the rise,” Trump says, “America will be dominant, proud, rich. I am just the messenger.” A protestor is ejected to chants of “USA!” “I see a middle-aged man,” Hochschild writes, “arms uplifted, as in the rapture, saying to those around him and no one in particular, ‘To be in the presence of such a man!’”
We all, liberals and conservatives, may be slaves to our passions, but it’s another thing entirely to capitulate to them. Trump seems to have inspired precisely that among his supporters. Hochschild’s decent effort, ultimately, has the curious effect of increasing my empathy while decreasing my sympathy. We may be strangers, and Hochschild helps us get to know each other. But it’s precisely because I now know these people a little better that I believe, more than ever, that the fate of this embattled union must not reside with them.