Strangers In Their Own Land

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of people scratching their heads. Here was a figure with no experience, and whose candidacy seemed little more than a bad joke, upending the entire established political system. A number of books rushed to explain what had happened, and in particular what made Trump voters tick. Of these, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, while not providing a complete answer, is the best we have so far.

Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, takes as her test ground the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana, where petrochemical refining is the main industry. This has led to a lot of local problems with pollution, and Hochschild takes the environment as a “keyhole issue” to understand how people with different political points of view and from different social and economic classes respond to something that affects everyone equally (meaning that they all breathe the same poison air, eat fish from the same dirty rivers, and are threatened by the same sinkholes). How do right-wingers square the damage caused by pollution with their resistance to regulating polluters?

In answering that question three concepts become central: the Great Paradox, the empathy wall, and the deep story.

The Great Paradox is that made famous by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do so many people vote against their own clear self-interest? In particular, why do poor, working-class people vote for governments whose policies actually punish them economically, while only benefiting a tiny elite?

The empathy wall is what divides us from understanding how people with different points of view from our own think and feel. It seems from most reports that this wall is becoming higher, and more and more a fixed part of the American political landscape. Hence the need for the kind of immersive reportage that Hochschild undertakes.

The deep story is a myth, of the kind you get in Plato’s dialogues where someone wants to make a point by telling a story. The story isn’t “true” (that is, it never happened) but it nevertheless represents a felt reality or can be used as a thought experiment. As Hochschild puts it, “a deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”

For Hochschild the deep story explaining Trump voters and Tea Party members is of a bunch of people waiting in line for some promised payoff. Hard work and self-reliance will lead to the realization of the American Dream, or at least some fair reward waiting just over the horizon. Unfortunately, people standing in line see others jumping the queue or being unfairly advanced ahead of them. To their horror they feel themselves actually slipping backward, despite doing nothing wrong and playing by the rules. They feel like strangers at home, and that they have lost honour and respect.

The cornerstone of their faith – and the Tea Party is a religion: “not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of feeling about a place and its people” – is hatred of the government. Not distrust, but hatred. The government has betrayed them. It has taken their money and done nothing to protect them or improve their lives. Instead, they’ve only looted the till, feathering their own nests with public money.

Public servants, they feel, should not get rich for doing their duty. This explains the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s anti-Hillary television ad that asked how she had gotten so “filthy rich” from a lifetime spent in politics. Nor was this the result of a true double standard. One didn’t expect probity or altruism from a reality TV personality and NYC real estate developer, but from a senator and Secretary of State?

In one of the more telling anecdotes in Hochschild’s book she talks to a local man whose idea of public service is modeled on the church, with those doing government work living modestly like nuns. Similarly, tithing is seen as an honour, where taxes are seen as tyranny. As unrealistic as all this may be, it’s a point of view that I think is widely shared.

As for the environment, I’m afraid that message is being lost completely. Pollution, according to Tea Party doctrine, is “the price we pay for capitalism.” Hochschild breaks down one interviewee’s point of view:

Clean air and water; those were good. She wanted them, just as she wanted a beautiful home. But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” An operator job in an oil plant is a passport to houses in Pine Mist. One of those rare engineering job gets you into Autumn Run, and a high management job gets you into Courtland. The Arctic Cat, the SUV, the house: all these, she felt, came indirectly from oil. For its part, the federal government got in the way of both oil and the good life.

This kind of thinking drives progressives crazy, but it isn’t crazy itself. It denies reality (or, in Karl Rove’s deathless words, “the reality-based community”) as well as economic self-interest for what Hochschild calls “emotional self-interest”: “a giddy release from the feelings of being a stranger in one’s own land.” This sense of elation or “high” is what Trump offered, the feeling of “being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” In comparison, what could reality offer? Downward mobility, or moving backward in the line. Of course Trump was only going to make the lives of his followers worse, but you could say the same for any drug.

Review first published online July 19, 2017. Brian Alexander’s Glass House is another excellent work of social reportage on much the same phenomenon. 

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