When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential elections, a bewildered nation turned to Strangers in Their Own Land to understand what had happened and what Trump voters were thinking when they cast their ballots. Renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild had spent the preceding five years immersed in the strongly Tea-Party-facing community around Lake Charles, Louisiana. As Jedediah Purdy put it in The New Republic, "Hochschild is fascinated by how people make sense of their lives. . . . [Her] attentive, detailed portraits . . . reveal a gulf between Hochschild's 'strangers in their own land' and a new elite." The hardcover edition brought Arlie Hocshchild into the public eye as she traveled from community to community to bring her insights to bear on the new election of Donald Trump. This paperback edition will feature a new introduction by the author reflecting on the election of Donald Trump and the other events that have unfolded both in Louisiana and around the country since the hardcover edition was published, as well as a readers' guide in the back of the book.
Her interviewees like lots of stuff the federal government does for them (hurricane relief, highway funding, unemployment insurance, the FDA), but they’re sure that lots of other people are getting stuff they don’t deserve (Medicaid). They don’t blame people they know for taking advantage of such programs as long as they’re there, but they want to be recognized as “above” taking advantage of government—it was a source of pride and status for them to not notice how they benefited from federal programs. They are careful to talk very little about African-Americans, not so much about fear of Muslims, but fundamentally and wrongly they believed that “the federal government was taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.”
Her informants saw people (blacks, women, immigrants, public sector workers) cutting in line in front of them, when they’d followed the rules all their lives. If Obama rose so high fairly, “what kind of slouch does his rise make you feel like, you who are supposed to be so much more privileged?” But maybe he didn’t get there fairly! How could he? “But it’s people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you. They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do so…. You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy.” Plus, if there are so many line-cutters, you have been betrayed by someone helping them cut in line—Obama and his ilk. So those standing in line are paying for the line-cutters, and they’re tired of it.
Older white men disliked the word “victim” as overused by the undeserving, but they felt—though they couldn’t say—that they were victims now. They’d lost out on wages, on the American dream, and in honor because they were “the one group everyone thought stood unfairly ahead of the line”—in fact, the entire North had line-jumped the South (even as, she points out, federal dollars have been sucked out of the North for the benefit of the South). To resolve this conflict, white men tried to find honor in other ways—but work was becoming less secure. Regional/state pride might work, but most of her informants readily acknowledged that others looked down on them. Strong family values? Those were hard to uphold when people kept insisting on being gay and getting divorces. Church? Again, literal biblicalism led to being looked down on. Still, they needed pride—and they could find that by identifying “up,” with the one percent. That made them “optimistic, hopeful, a trier.” Trump’s focus on emotion was the perfect pitch for them, promising pride instead of shame. Trump provided the unity of the crowd—an “antidepressant” and “an ecstatic high”—for these supporters. Reviling outgroups helped that internal unity. He rejected not just “political correctness” but “a set of feeling rules—that is, a set of ideas about the right way to feel regarding blacks, women, immigrants, gays.” And if that’s the case, I don’t know what to do. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one man told her. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.” “In the realm of emotions, the right felt like they were being treated as the criminals, and the liberals had the guns.” Trump offered joyous freedom from such constraint.
As for race, the older right-wing whites she met knew of blacks not as neighbors and colleagues but (1) successful entertainers, showing that racism was not a problem; (2) criminals shown in rap and on the news; and (3) welfare recipients, despite the fact that most such recipients are white. Gender was also a big issue in her informants’ “disorientation, fear, and resentment.” The women she talked to worked, but “their political feelings seemed based on their roles as wives and moters—and they wanted to be wives to high-earning men and to enjoy the luxury, as one woman put it, of being a homemaker.” (This finding is nothing new—Kristen Luker examined similar views among anti-abortion women.)
Hochschild is particularly interested in environmental issues, because Louisiana is so polluted and many of her informants remembered beautiful, now-destroyed natural settings. Rather than seeing cause to act, though, most (not all) focused instead on the need for “moral strength to endure.” Endurance, sacrifice, risk-taking rather than risk-mitigation—these were the key values, and that also meant that there needed to be bad things to be endured and risked. They couldn’t let themselves feel too bad about pollution, because there was nothing to be done/it must be God’s will. They resented the “hundreds of millions of dollars in hard-earned taxes for these bureaucrats at the Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to do their job and they do nothing of the sort.” (Even though the Louisiana DEQ was responsible for allowing the worst environmental degradation precisely because of the Tea Party anti-regulation approach of Bobby Jindal.) “[M]any I interviewed estimated that a third to a half of all U.S. workers were employed by the federal government—a common estimate was 40 percent.” How do you deal with that kind of ignorance? I have to say, one of the biggest shocks was reading that her informants didn’t think that paying their taxes was particularly moral, because they no longer believed in the system that their taxes paid for.
Hochschild in the end appeals to her liberal readers to understand conservatives’ deep story of line-standing, and to conservatives to understand the liberals’ own deep story. In that one, people collectively built a public square that affords valuable resources that individuals on their own couldn’t and didn’t make, and that turns outsiders into insiders. But marauders are trying to take the public square apart and steal its components for their own private benefit. Can we really talk across these divides? I ended up not sanguine.
The contempt that the recent presidential campaign has unleashed is shocking, so Hochschild's attempt to understand the beliefs of this particular group of Trump voters is a step in the direction of civility and cooperation. It is an imperfect book: I found the focus on the environmental problems of Louisiana, which is the issue that the author used as a basis for discerning people's values, to be depressing (if you lived in the US I think these disasters would be almost too tragic to read about); at times I almost drowned in the sea of metaphor, but I kept swimming and made it to shore. In the end Hochschild did identify the "deep story". She shared it with her subjects and they recognised themselves.
Definitely worth reading.
the foot;. Her explanation is that they don't really do this, but they are not too bright even if many of them have been to college, because the answers are available to anyone with a bit of curiosity. I have been to this state fairly often in the past ten years, and I have seen all of the plants on the highway. Who knew that it was polluted beyond belief?
If we have to treat some of these people differently, I hope that they do not get much money, because we are
Ultimately she decides that too many on the left ignore the emotional self-interest of those on the right, people who feel they’ve waited patiently in line for their share of the American Dream only to see others cut in front of them. Denied legitimacy and respect in the mainstream media, they find strength in endurance, independence, and their faith, values they believe the left does not share. Hochschild illuminates this view through her exploration of one issue—industrial pollution.
Timely and well-told, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone who fancies himself or herself a liberal.
But I still simply do not get their thought process.es Hochschild cannot truly explain or present their point of view, because it is so contradictory. She tries. She includes an excellent appendix that looks at some of their statistical understandings (my favorite: that 40% of people work for federal/state governments, which is why govt is so horrible and needs so much tax money--these people are takers! But added up: all fed employees, state employees, local employees (including local school districts), military, military reserves--the total is less than 17%. If it's just federal and state (civilian and military)--it's about 6%. Where do they get numbers like 40?!
These folks are strongly anti-govt. They do not like those who receive govt assistance, though they know people who have received disability payments for year or decades (but he deserves it! he was badly injured at work!), or they themselves have received food stamps (one woman was raised on them--but her mother deserved them!). So they do not mind govt assistance for themselves ("it would be stupid to not accept it") but think others who take it are living off taxpayers. I have heard this expressed by relatives IRL, and I don't get it.
These folks are strongly anti-regulation. As they watch their beloved swampy forests die around them do to chemical contamination by oil companies. The govt told them they should not be eating the fish because of mercury and other contamination—and they get angry at the govt for "overreaching", not at the companies for contaminating. One of her subjects is a Tea Party environmentalist—but he only became interested in the environment when he became an industrial accident refugee, as his home and town were destroyed by a giant contaminated sinkhole.
These people are generally Evangelical Christians or Catholics. They think they are "outnumbered" and somehow unique in their religion. I live in Los Angeles and I am surrounded by Evangelicals and some pretty strict Catholics. They say "the liberals" and "the city people" and "the coastal people" look down on them for their cultural heritage of religion. But they could move into a big city and find that community quickly.
Hochschild comes up with an analogy that her subjects/friends agree with: they see themselves in a long line working toward the American Dream. But people keep cutting in front of them. In the 60s the blacks cut in. In the 70s women cut in. Then Mexicans. Now Syrian refugees. They aren't getting closer to the American dream because the feds keep letting others cut in line. They see the American Dream as being a reward for a life of hard and honest work. But who gives that reward? They blame the feds and all these "cheaters" for they themselves NOT getting it, but who gives it? And what is it? These people own land (even acreage), a home, SUVs, they have good jobs or have retired from them, many have gone to college or sent their kids to college, they have hobbies and churches and communities and family close by. Many have traveled out of the country, or travel in the country, for vacations or fun trips. It sounds to me like they already have achieved the American Dream!! What else do they want? And who owes them this entitlement, whatever it is? I wish Hochschild had addressed this. All I can see is greed and jealousy of "the other", but not what this mystery reward is and why they think everyone else is getting it but them.
A very frustrating read!
Hachschild, a sociologist from Berkeley, California embedded herself in southwestern Louisiana for over a year trying to learn what makes white members of the Tea Party tick. She certainly got a compendium of their likes and dislikes, but her explanation of why they think the way they do, seems to be facile, as is her rather "kumbaya" prescription of how we all just need to "get along."
The depressing thing that this book left me with is that maybe this country really is headed for another kind of civil war because I'm not sure how one accommodates a group of people who want to ignore science and turn back the social clock 100 years, all the while letting industry destroy the environment. And upon reflection, I don't want to.
Hochschild set out to learn about the group of people in the Louisiana bayou who were most affected by both the oil, gas and chemical manufacturing industry and the resulting pollution in a very fragile ecosystem. Why were they so staunchly anti-government? Could she see the world from their perspective? What she found, over many years of research and personal contact, was that below the tension of economics and ecology, these people were raised with what she calls a 'deep story' of what constitutes honor and independence, and that deep story, often supported by fundamentalist religious beliefs, stands in the way of appreciation of what they would term 'big government' seeking to protect the bayou and all the surrounding ecology. In addition, their self-definition of independence and endurance prevents them from most local campaigns to save their surroundings, and encourages them to associate with the most right-wing elements of the political spectrum, in spite of the damage their representatives, including and especially Bobby Jindal, have done to the economy and resources of their state.
I came away from this feeling that their deep story (and we all have a deep story, just not this one) is a huge barrier toward understanding other people's viewpoints. Hochschild did a remarkable and patient job of trying to get into the skin of these people, and clearly appreciates them, their generosity and hospitality, and by the end of the book, their point of view. But she offers no consistent way in to any sort of compromise with them, as they turn their backs on any remedies others may have for their situation. It's very sad.