A few months ago one of my colleagues wanted me to review Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book A Stranger In Our Own Land for our faculty magazine. I think the book helps to explain narratives that seems incongruent with each other: why do white working class people vote against their interests? I highly recommend you read it.
Here is my review of the book:
Can We Bridge America’s Political Divide?
Ever since the election of Donald Trump pundits, policymakers, and politicians have been attempting to ascertain what his election means for America. In particular, Democratic politicians have been wringing their hands about how they can (re) connect with a constituency—white male blue-collar voters that were once part of their base. Pundits and politicians have been asking what does Trump’s victory mean for America? Why did they vote for him? What, if anything, can be done to bring those kind of voters back into the fold of Democratic politics?
In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild provides part of that answer. Professor Hochschild’s book is not a study of Donald Trump voters per se. Her fieldwork was not even conducted in the primary states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—where the new president was able to swing enough support that drove him to victory in the 2016 election. Rather, Hochschild traveled to the heart of arch-conservative Louisiana bayou country to listen and understand what people actually believe. Her work is all the more fascinating because Hochschild’s site for her fieldwork is in the midst of an environmental disaster primarily caused by big corporations who have been the primary cause of decades of environmental degradation. Considering this environmental context you would think that this might be fertile ground for liberals and environmentalists to win greater support from Louisiana’s bayou country. The answer is the opposite and Hochschild’s book does important work in attempting to discern the beliefs of this slice of America that has important implications for the rest of the country.
Hochschild spent five years—2011 until early 2016—doing fieldwork in Louisiana’s bayou country talking to people of different political stripes by attending church services, gumbo cook-offs, Trump rallies, political party groups, and having conversations literally at people’s kitchen table. She divides her book into four parts, each with individual chapters. In part one, “The Great Paradox” Hochschild attempts to unpack parts of a narrative that are incongruent with each other. One part of the narrative is that large parts of the Louisiana bayou have become an environmental calamity because of chemicals dumped into the water and soil by large corporations. This environmental degradation threatens dozens of wildlife species, the livelihoods of thousands, and the very lives of tens of thousands more. People’s homes have literally been swallowed up by the earth caving underneath them because of this environmental disaster. Logic would dictate the Louisiana’s citizens would want greater environmental regulation to solve these issues. Moreover, you would think that people might sympathize a bit more with left-leaning environmental regulations who are trying to help clean up the bayou. The reality is the exact opposite. The other part of this narrative is the very people who are in the middle of this disaster are also vehemently opposed to government regulation and are more inclined to have deep conservative viewpoints. There is little to no sympathy for leftist environmental regulations. People in this part of the United States, even with some of the lowest standards of living in the country, refuse most assistance from the government. For Hochschild, that “great paradox” lies at the heart of the divide between left and right in this country. Her book explores a number of different personal profiles that attempt to delve deep into this paradox.
Underwriting the great paradox can be found in Chapter 9 entitled “The Deep Story.” The deep story of the Louisiana bayou country is one that cuts across many communities in the United States that are predominantly white and who have felt left behind. Deep stories are important because they tell a community about where they have been, where they are and where they are going. A deep story that probably most Americans know is the American Dream. In the story of the American Dream as long as you work hard it does not matter your race, religion, ethnicity, gender or whatever, you will be able to get ahead economically in the United States. In relating the deep story she found in Louisiana, Hochschild wants you to picture a hill where you are waiting in line to get over it. Over the hill is the American dream, which everyone should be able to access if they work hard, pull themselves up by their boot straps and take the opportunities provided by this country. However, the line you are in is not moving. In fact, it is going backward. Even though you have worked hard and paid your dues you cannot get ahead. Additionally, you see other people ahead of you who are cutting in line. Presumably, these people have not worked as hard as you are, but because of their ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, and educational background they are cutting ahead of you. So much so that you become suspicious. You think they must be getting help from someone along the way. That help could come from welfare programs, affirmative action, special accommodations for education and/or others. The point is that they are being helped, primarily by the government, and you are not. Your hard work is not paying off, while you see others who are being supported by government aid getting ahead of you.
When Hochschild communicated this deep story to her conservative friends in Louisiana all of them agreed with the basic outline. Lee Sherman, one of the central characters of Hochschild’s book, stated “you’ve read my mind.” (145). Janice Areno argued “you have it right, but you’ve left out the fact that the people being cut in on are paying taxes that go to the people cutting in line!” (145). Others point out that it is not just about monetary success, but about “feeling proud to be an American, and to say ‘under God’ when you salute the flag, and feel good about that” (145). In other words, the deep story for many in the United States is one of betrayal by the federal government. A government that has favored other groups over others. In general, it is a story about a country that has somehow lost its way both monetarily and morally. For me, the deep story Hochschild has uncovered is the key to her book and the key to understanding the large divide in this country.
Hochschild spends the rest of her book mining the depths of that deep story further by relaying the stories of other people she has met along the way in her fieldwork, but also relaying how these trends have become national. For example, in Chapter 14 entitled “The Fires of History: The 1860s and the 1960s” Hochschild turns to these two-time periods as pivotal moments in history where “movements rose up against secularism, modernity, racial integration, and a culture of experts” (207). She proceeds to unpack how the 1860s and 1960s laid the larger cultural groundwork for the deep story that underwrites a number of communities across America, including Louisiana’s bayou country
Overall, Hochschild’s book is a timely one that offers all sorts of lessons about the political divisions in the United States. Her conclusions about Louisiana are a microcosm for the rest of the nation. Certainly, there are differences between communities in the Louisiana bayou and upstate Michigan or western Pennsylvania coal country but the general outlines of the great paradox and the deep story feel familiar. The great question surrounding Hochschild’s work is what do we do with it? What does it mean for politics going forward in America? Can these political division be bridged? Understanding the great paradox and the deep story that underwrites it certainly explains, in part, the motivations and feelings of a lot of Donald Trump voters.
While Hochschild’s work is certainly important the divide that she speaks of has certainly appeared at other times in American history. For example, the historian Richard Hofstadter’s work on the “paranoid style” of American politics comes to mind. Hofstadter argues the paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon. The paranoid spokesman believes that people are out to get him and the country at large. He communicates this anxiety through tales of conspiracy. In these tales of conspiracy there can be no compromise with the enemy. It must be destroyed, lest it destroy the country. This paranoid style has manifested itself in different ways throughout U.S. history on both the left and the right. I am not suggesting Hochschild’s deep story found in the Louisiana bayou is a narrative of conspiracy, nor is it totally related to the paranoid style. However, its elements of betrayal and suspicion certainly are commonplace in U.S. history. This is not the first time we have seen this deep story and it probably will not be the last. Therefore, while Hochschild’s work is extremely important the question still remains can this political divide—the great paradox—be truly bridged?
At this moment, I do not have the answer to that question. On the one hand, there appears to be a massive political gulf between left and right, north and south, rural and urban, which just seems too wide to cross. On the other hand, this political division is not necessarily new it just has manifested itself in different ways, the United States is able to overcome it and then move onto the next subject. Understanding this political divide is the first step to solving it. And Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land is a great primer to begin the conversation.