Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide
Arlie Russell Hochschild
Welcome to Tea Party America with your host, Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States. Many people find this fête unsettling. I’d rather understand why my worldview differs so much from that of the party throwers.
Luckily, I am not alone in that desire.
Arlie Russel Hochschild is a noted sociologist on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve mentioned Dr. Hochschild before and you may even know her name. She’s one of those academics who has bridged the gap with the educated reading public.
Hochschild is best known for work in what I’d call sociology of the family. Her book titles alone provide the best guide to her interests: The Time Bind. The Second Shift. The Commercialization of Intimate Life. It’s as though she picked up where Christopher Lasch left off.
Here, what’s captured her interest is politics–specifically the rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 election cycle. Like many another resident of a more liberal area, the Professor has a hard time understanding why so many people have voted in a manner that (and this is where objectivity and subjectivity become hard to define) strikes her as not in their best interest. So she decamps to Louisiana and embarks on a multi-year qualitative study.
This is a good point to note that Dr. Hochschild’s research approach is based on a relatively small number of in-depth interviews (40 people) as compared with a national survey of hundreds or thousands.
I suspect that accounts for some of her crossover appeal. People more easily find themselves–or folks they know–in stories than in pages of charts and tables. Readers who are quantitatively oriented are going to be disappointed in the sample and its size. I wonder, though, just how a quantitative researcher would randomly recruit a few dozen people willing to give up their time and privacy over the course of years the way Hochcschild’s subjects do.
Method established we still need to know who to talk to and where to find them. Actually Hochschild takes an extra step. It’s easy enough to find locales where Tea Party politics have taken root. She wants to get at the heart of what she calls the Great Paradox (p. 8). Simply put, that’s the observation that the Tea Party is strongest in places where, arguably, government intervention might do the most good.
And so she zeroes in on Louisiana, a state ranked 48th, 49th or 50th in all sorts of important measures: life expectancy (Louisiana’s is the same as Nicaragua‘s), overall health, 8th grade reading scores, 8th grade math scores. For good measure 20% of the population has never graduated high school and only 7% hold a graduate or professional degree.
In an earlier time, say when the Great Depression hit, Louisianans turned to the government. The New Deal brought in the feds and locally Huey Long, the Kingfisher, made it a point to go after business to serve the less fortunate. Now the tide has turned anti-government.
I wish I could say that site selection was as rigid as the above suggests. Instead it was convenient–the mother of a graduate student from Louisiana had a best friend who was a Tea Party member. So the study was built from the top down rather than the bottom up. In the end that doesn’t matter, but it bears mention if only to acknowledge a possible source of bias.
Hochschild needs a frame for her inquiry, too. That’s important because without some sort of boundary the discussion risks going astray. Her subject is industrial pollution, very common in Louisiana. Often used by economists to illustrate the tragedy of the commons, this particular “externality’ has terrible costs all of which are being borne by people who mostly voted for the Tea Party which opposes, among other things, the EPA and too much government regulation. There’s your paradox.
One of the benefits of Hochschild’s approach is avoiding the insult-laden echo chamber of current political discourse. Hochschild just talks to people, over the course of four years, in focus groups, in-depth-interviews and immersion visits.
What does she learn? As I’ve said before, almost everything can be boiled down to a communication problem. Hochschild quickly realizes what’s apparent to anybody paying attention–neither side is listening to the other. Our preferences and preconceptions are more important to us than understanding someone else’s. In her delightful phrase, Hochschild’s task is to ‘scale the empathy wall.’
Because her intended audience is not primarily academic we’re spared the painful academic prose. What we get instead are well-turned portraits of the folks she spoke with. That allows considering them as whole people, each with their own story that informs their thinking.
Among her new friends there are more than a few fundamentalist church-goers holding views that will make coastal liberals twitch. One of them, though, has become an environmental activist, another is already there, one is trying to educate his fellow citizens and some are just trying to get by. It’s a pointillist approach that works because we can’t turn anyone into a cartoon.
Is there any hope? This is social science, not fiction. So what there is is a way to think about things. Hochschild develops what she calls the deep story of the Tea Party acolyte. It’s a tale of doing the right thing only to have your best efforts thwarted–and sometimes your entire way of being negated– by distant bureaucrats and experts fixing someone else’s problems at your expense.
While her subjects all recognize the deep story, they accept and act on it in ways that reflect their individual circumstances. Hochschild posits three social archetypes: the team member, the worshiper and the cowboy. Here’s how to keep them straight: if the team member has concerns, they need to be secondary to the overriding goal of the team’s success. For the cowboy, it’s a belief that life without risk isn’t worth living. For the worshiper, it’s to be conflicted while praying, hoping and working for the best personal outcome.
I think there’s a great deal of value in the framework Hochschild has built. And yet I can’t help feeling that in creating model types she risks creating labels that can be hung on folks we don’t understand or agree with.
Given the worshiper type I’m surprised she didn’t reference Weber, either. Max certainly made the strongest case for the alignment of Calvinism and capitalism and, to a person, Hochschild’s subjects defer to the captains of industry. There’s a reason it’s the Southern Baptist Convention (emphasis added) just as there’s a reason prosperity preaching is rooted in the South. Neither would surprise Max Weber and it strikes me as being too polite to ignore this real cultural backdrop.
There are, alas, no easy answers. This divide has been growing my entire lifetime –as far back as the 1960s. I drew the title of this post from a great 1977 Merle Haggard song which contains these lyrics:
For years I’ve been bustin’ my rear/
To make a livin’, but it ain’t made/
For years I’ve been tryin’ to pay off my bills/
But they ain’t paid/
I owe every dime I make, to every soul I know/
The higher up I reach, the further down I go
That was seven or eight years after Merle’s 1969 hit, ‘Okie from Muskogee,‘ which celebrated people who ‘like[d] livin’ right and bein’ free’ and who didn’t ‘let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do.’
Is there, then, no hope for the US of A? Strangely I think an answer lies in another paradox There were arguably no bigger Merle Haggard fans than America’s capitalist/hippie-commune/traveling roadshow, the Grateful Dead.
Sometimes getting along requires surrendering disbelief and just finding something common to enjoy.
And that’s something we all ought to be able to agree on.