Arlie Hochschild is Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley and one of the most distinguished sociologists of her generation, and her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, has received much acclaim over the past year. Rightly so. I have just finished it and can add my voice to all those who have found it a remarkably fine and illuminating study.
Between the years 2011 and 2016 Hoschshild made ten trips to southwestern Louisiana — an area dominated by the petrochemical industry — in order to try and better understand what she calls the Great Paradox: how is it that the residents of the most polluted, toxic areas of the country tend to be members of the Tea Party movement, which vigorously supports the dismantling of environmental regulations? How have they come to oppose the federal government so comprehensively, to deem it so inherently corrupt, when their own states tend to benefit disproportionately from its expenditures? Why do they continue so unquestioningly to trust the very industries whose chemicals, indeed whose environmental disasters, have made them sick and rendered entire towns and regions uninhabitable?
Going further, Hochschild wanted to see if she could manage to, as she puts it, scale the “empathy wall,” the barrier which keeps coastal liberals like herself from being able to meet her counterparts on “the Right” halfway and see the world through their eyes. To this end she interviewed many dozens of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana and followed them around as they lived their lives. She went to church with them, ate dinner at their homes, accompanied them to political meetings and crawfish festivals, drove around to see their childhood homes and other places important to their life experiences. They became her friends, and Strangers in Their Own Land among other things proves to be a hearteningly successful exercise in sustained empathy and openness.
The book is in four parts. The first of these paints the bleak picture of environmental devastation in the region. Hochschild vividly describes several of the catastrophic accidents (not all of them, in fact, even accidents) which have landed Louisiana at the bottom of most measures of ecological and human health — the section on the Bayou Corne sinkhole is particularly chilling. And we’re introduced to a number of people who have suffered enormously, in any number of ways, from the state of things. Yet it is these very individuals who form the core of support for anti-government, anti-regulatory activist groups like the Tea Party. Thus: the “Great Paradox.”
Part Two examines the sociocultural landscape to see how, respectively, industry, state government, the churches, and the media help shape political attitudes in the region. But it is in Part Three where the book really begins to shine. All along Hochschild knew that her questions could only be better understood if she found a way into the feelings of others, their emotional landscape, their “deep story” (in her words). The chapter bearing that title, and the four profiles which follow it, become the heart of the book. To anyone utterly baffled by the electoral success of Trump, I highly recommend these chapters, which show rather than merely tell of a number of the significant connections leading to his political support.
Finally, Part Four then pans out to look at the South in a broader historical perspective, visits a Trump rally (the book was completed during the primary season), and ends with the author’s most recent visits to the friends she made in the region, the subjects of her book. A valuable section of her appendix counters a dozen beliefs concerning government and the environment accepted as gospel in the region she visited but unsupported by research.
One of the most toxic developments of our time is surely the extent to which political disagreements have become so routinely moralized, so that the other “side” is not only mistaken about one thing or another, but demonized for being so, their motivations assumed as a matter of course to be dark. But manichaeism sucks all the space out of a room, rendering any dialogue impossible. We need to counter this practice determinedly. In Hochschild’s portraits we see extremely hard-working, self-sacrificing, long-enduring, generous human beings grappling with their trials, their suffering, their perplexities, just like everyone else. Apart from in the final appendix, the author almost entirely abstains from adding any of her own political commentary: she lets her subjects speak for themselves, and her readers can also judge for themselves the merits of their conclusions on public policy or the nature of a healthy society. This is a great strength of a very significant, and timely, study.