Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: I got this from the library just before the election, then couldn’t bear to read it for a while, then couldn’t bear to review it for a while. Shortest version: the Louisiana Tea Party types Hochschild sensitively portrays are sick of being told that they’re bad people if they don’t care about people who don’t look and act like them; they won’t be emotionally blackmailed into doing so. They perceive reporting that focuses on other people’s problems to be implicit demands for their care as well as implicit claims that those problems are her informants’ fault for their inaction. Also, they believe that government always makes things worse, so it’s better to suck up bad things that happen, especially if the bad things might be connected to economic development. If it’s jobs versus wetlands, sorry, wetlands. Hochschild has–and makes a plea for—empathy for these personally very nice (I’m sure) people but I’m not sure why I, a non-anthropologist, should have the same empathy when a core part of their identity is refusing exactly that to me.
Her interviewees like lots of stuff the federal government does for them (hurricane relief, highway funding, unemployment insurance, the FDA), but they’re sure that lots of other people are getting stuff they don’t deserve (Medicaid). They don’t blame people they know for taking advantage of such programs as long as they’re there, but they want to be recognized as “above” taking advantage of government—it was a source of pride and status for them to not notice how they benefited from federal programs. They are careful to talk very little about African-Americans, not so much about fear of Muslims, but fundamentally and wrongly they believed that “the federal government was taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.”
Her informants saw people (blacks, women, immigrants, public sector workers) cutting in line in front of them, when they’d followed the rules all their lives. If Obama rose so high fairly, “what kind of slouch does his rise make you feel like, you who are supposed to be so much more privileged?” But maybe he didn’t get there fairly! How could he? “But it’s people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you. They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do so…. You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy.” Plus, if there are so many line-cutters, you have been betrayed by someone helping them cut in line—Obama and his ilk. So those standing in line are paying for the line-cutters, and they’re tired of it.
Older white men disliked the word “victim” as overused by the undeserving, but they felt—though they couldn’t say—that they were victims now. They’d lost out on wages, on the American dream, and in honor because they were “the one group everyone thought stood unfairly ahead of the line”—in fact, the entire North had line-jumped the South (even as, she points out, federal dollars have been sucked out of the North for the benefit of the South). To resolve this conflict, white men tried to find honor in other ways—but work was becoming less secure. Regional/state pride might work, but most of her informants readily acknowledged that others looked down on them. Strong family values? Those were hard to uphold when people kept insisting on being gay and getting divorces. Church? Again, literal biblicalism led to being looked down on. Still, they needed pride—and they could find that by identifying “up,” with the one percent. That made them “optimistic, hopeful, a trier.” Trump’s focus on emotion was the perfect pitch for them, promising pride instead of shame. Trump provided the unity of the crowd—an “antidepressant” and “an ecstatic high”—for these supporters. Reviling outgroups helped that internal unity. He rejected not just “political correctness” but “a set of feeling rules—that is, a set of ideas about the right way to feel regarding blacks, women, immigrants, gays.” And if that’s the case, I don’t know what to do. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one man told her. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.” “In the realm of emotions, the right felt like they were being treated as the criminals, and the liberals had the guns.” Trump offered joyous freedom from such constraint.
As for race, the older right-wing whites she met knew of blacks not as neighbors and colleagues but (1) successful entertainers, showing that racism was not a problem; (2) criminals shown in rap and on the news; and (3) welfare recipients, despite the fact that most such recipients are white. Gender was also a big issue in her informants’ “disorientation, fear, and resentment.” The women she talked to worked, but “their political feelings seemed based on their roles as wives and moters—and they wanted to be wives to high-earning men and to enjoy the luxury, as one woman put it, of being a homemaker.” (This finding is nothing new—Kristen Luker examined similar views among anti-abortion women.)
Hochschild is particularly interested in environmental issues, because Louisiana is so polluted and many of her informants remembered beautiful, now-destroyed natural settings. Rather than seeing cause to act, though, most (not all) focused instead on the need for “moral strength to endure.” Endurance, sacrifice, risk-taking rather than risk-mitigation—these were the key values, and that also meant that there needed to be bad things to be endured and risked. They couldn’t let themselves feel too bad about pollution, because there was nothing to be done/it must be God’s will. They resented the “hundreds of millions of dollars in hard-earned taxes for these bureaucrats at the Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to do their job and they do nothing of the sort.” (Even though the Louisiana DEQ was responsible for allowing the worst environmental degradation precisely because of the Tea Party anti-regulation approach of Bobby Jindal.) “[M]any I interviewed estimated that a third to a half of all U.S. workers were employed by the federal government—a common estimate was 40 percent.” How do you deal with that kind of ignorance? I have to say, one of the biggest shocks was reading that her informants didn’t think that paying their taxes was particularly moral, because they no longer believed in the system that their taxes paid for.
Hochschild in the end appeals to her liberal readers to understand conservatives’ deep story of line-standing, and to conservatives to understand the liberals’ own deep story. In that one, people collectively built a public square that affords valuable resources that individuals on their own couldn’t and didn’t make, and that turns outsiders into insiders. But marauders are trying to take the public square apart and steal its components for their own private benefit. Can we really talk across these divides? I ended up not sanguine.