Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

28695425Nonfiction – print. The New Press, 2016. 351 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Anger and Mourning on the American Right” and then sub-subtitled “A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide”, Hochschild’s book documents her attempt to scale the “empathy wall”. As a sociologist living in the liberal stronghold of Berkeley, California, Hochschild found herself condemning those “Red Staters” joining the Tea Party movement and voting for the interests of billionaires like the Koch brothers. Yet, she didn’t know any of these “Red Staters” — her circle of friends, her daily interactions were limited to people who voted and believed exactly like her.

To rectify this, to climb her self-described “empathy wall”, Hochschild relocated to Louisiana and proceeded to seek out self-proclaimed members of the Tea Party movement. Why Louisiana? By nearly every measure, Louisiana in the worst state in the Union. It was ranked 50 out of 50 for both child poverty and infectious disease transmission in 2015, 48 for infant mortality, 47 in percent of population considered obese and cancer-related deaths, 46 in public education in 2017,  and 42 for percent of population without health insurance. It has been negatively impacted by natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina in 2005) and man-made (Deepwater Horizon in 2010).

And yet residents of the state routinely elect politicians who reduce regulation on businesses polluting the environment and cut funding for public education and health initiatives. They align themselves with the Tea Party and proclaim a deep dislike for the federal government even as they mourn the declining beauty of the bayou, which the Environmental Protection Agency (also known as the federal government) could help clean-up, or watch their family members succumb to cancer from interacting with toxic chemicals at work that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (again, the federal government) regulates.The mental gymnastics it must take to see a problem and decide the solution is actually the cause of the problem.

In her conversations with Louisianians, Hochschild decides that Tea Party adherents “arrive at their dislike of the federal government via three routes — through their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt), through hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and through its impact on their loss of honor” (pg. 35). These three routes dovetail together in the way “Red Staters” deride the government assisting people through programs like Medicare, Section 8 housing, and SNAP/WIC benefits, which are collectively known as “welfare”.

Welfare programs, according to the Tea Party adherents Hochschild interviews, are an example of the government using taxes to support “the wrong people– especially welfare beneficiaries who “lazed around days and partied at nights” and government workers in cushy jobs” (pg. 35). One man, Lee, does not want the politically correct “rules” of liberals and Democrats to tell him who to feel sorry for and, therefore, who his taxes should support.

People like Lee believe their religious convictions can guide them in deciding who is or is not worthy of help, and the government is stepping in to replace the role of the church with these programs. If an individual needs assistance, then they should turn to their religious community and allow that community (presumably Christian) to provide help. If they do not have a religious community, then perhaps the root of their problem is their lack of moral grounding and personal conviction.

And, according to others interview by Hochschild, those who do posses personal convictions and religiously-based morals lose their honor as a result of these programs. Either they ignore their personal conviction to work in order to quality for these programs — thus becoming deadbeat “welfare queens” who are exploiting hard-working people — or, they watch themselves and their families be pushed further and further backwards in line.

It is the perceived position in line that Hochschild identifies as the real reason — “the deep story”, in her terminology — for why those on the right are so angry and so willing to vote against their own interests. To her interviewees, everyone in America is standing in a single file line. The closer you are to the front of the line, the closer you are to realizing the American Dream and becoming as wealthy as the Koch brothers.

Yet, as the statistics provided about Louisiana suggest, many of those living in Louisiana are at the other end of the line. Over generations, thanks to the oil and gas industry in Louisiana, these interviewees started to move forward in line. But, now, liberals and  Democrats have invited other people to cut in front of them in line — blacks through affirmative action, women through feminism, immigrants through a lack of border patrol, animals and plants through environmental regulation — and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair because these (white, male) residents of Louisiana have waited in line for a long time. It’s not fair because the line is growing longer thanks to immigration and it’s moving slower thanks to jobs — jobs that used to let people leapfrog in line — moving overseas. It’s not fair because liberals and Democrats denigrate these Louisianans as racists and backwards from their comfortable spots way further up in line.

The only way to make it fair, according to these interviewees, is to put the line back the way it was. If the environmental regulations are removed and taxes are lowered, companies will bring jobs back from overseas, which will help the line speed up. If affirmative action and gender-based hiring preferences are unlawful and the border is enforced, then fewer people will cut in line ahead of those who have been waiting a long time. (Never mind that some people weren’t even allowed to line up for decades.) And if government welfare programs ended, then those who do not deserve their places in line will fall behind those who work hard and follow their religious convictions. It is as simple as that.

So simple, in fact, that I’m not confident I needed Hochschild’s book to teach me this. (Perhaps because my 18+ years of living in deep red states means I still interact with more “red staters” than Hochschild ever did in the years before she left Berkeley.) Her attempt at fostering understanding, at getting to the “deep story” often obscured (rightly, in my opinion) in charges of racism and sexism and other -isms is admirable, though, and I did appreciate the exercise in mental gynamistics her book required of me to get from start to finish.

And, ultimately, her book probably best explains why Trump won broke the “blue wall” of union members in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan and won the presidency. To these union members and to their fellow voters in Louisiana, reducing the wait time in line will “make America great again” and “reward” the rugged individualism codified American Dream is based on. Or, at least, doing so will make America (financially) great for them — their fellow Americans, their environment, and their children’s health be damned.

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