Strangers in Their Own Land: Understanding America’s right

Since 2016 I’ve striven especially hard to understand what’s happening in America. Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley professor who, in the same quest, immersed herself with “Tea Partiers,” as told in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Every Democrat should read it.

In the Tea Party’s heyday, I was still a Republican and could understand, even sympathize with it. But how did it transmogrify into blind support for a lying con man with ruinous divisive policies? Including a trillion dollar annual federal deficit — blowing off the Tea Party’s ostensible signature issue?

Our most basic ideological divide has long been that Democrats look to government to address societal problems, while Republicans don’t want government meddling in our lives. The Tea Party — a driving force among Republicans — demonized government as an outright enemy. This was a backlash against Obama’s presidency. Yet his administration was hardly radical. His real offense seemed to be governing while black. More broadly, Tea Partiers saw government as working more for non-whites, outsiders, and moochers than for good ole true-blue hard-working Americans.

 

Hochschild went to Louisiana, to dive into the culture she sought to understand. And this is really a matter of culture. Most people tend to situate themselves psychologically within a culture and shape their personal identity from it. Politics is part of this. In fact, as told in Bill Bishop’s book The Great Sort, many Americans gravitate into communities of like-minded people, accentuating the red/blue divide.

Hochschild sought to unravel what she deemed a “Great Paradox.” That people most hostile to government are often the ones most apt to need it. She focused particularly on the environment, especially pollution, Louisiana being one of the worst affected states, with widespread human harm. Yet Louisiana Tea Partiers opposed EPA pollution regulation. Louisiana also ranks at the bottom on measures like poverty, health, education, etc. Federal money helps. This too they oppose.

But this doesn’t seem so paradoxical to me. Hochschild discusses Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (which I’ve unfavorably reviewed). Frank was exasperated at people voting against their economic interests (as he saw them). But how often are we told (by lefties) that homo economicus is a mythical creature? While people do sometimes pursue perceived self interest, life is more complicated. Voters are often expressing values rather than interests.

So you can oppose big government despite suffering from pollution. Yet Republicans actually favor bossy government when it suits them, like prohibiting abortion. Indeed, Hochschild notes that they’re fine with thusly regulating women’s lives, but not man stuff like motorcycle helmets, liquor, and of course guns. And also keen for regulation when aimed at blacks. A local Louisiana law regulates how they wear their pants. Talk about intrusive government. Louisiana has the nation’s highest percentage of people incarcerated, and those are disproportionately black.

What right-wing Louisianans mainly dislike is the government in Washington. Not only physically distant but, more importantly, culturally distant. There’s a fundamental sense that the elites calling the shots in America lately have not been their kind of people.

Hochschild discusses one big Louisiana environmental disaster, the 2012 Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Locals felt state officials were asleep at the switch and did nothing for them. Feeding their general cynicism about government. But Hochschild sees that attitude itself as the cause of state government being weak in the first place.* They want minimalist government, yet want it doing the job. That may again seem contradictory, but only partly. There’s a sense that government can’t be trusted to do what’s right. Maximalist government that gets the job done is something of a fantasy too. Hochschild herself lists some big ways government has betrayed her liberal values, while saying her “criticisms were based on a faith in the idea of good government.” Talk about paradoxes.

Underlying everything is what Hochschild calls “the deep story” — the “feels as if” story — embodying these Louisianans’ “hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety.” Valorizing work as a source of personal honor. The grit of enduring — including enduring the pollution harms discussed. Religion is a big factor, their endurance strengthened by believing God has their backs. This is part of the cultural divide too, vis-a-vis secular coastal liberals.

And key to the “deep story” is the idea of “line cutting.” People see themselves lined up for the American dream by working hard and playing by the rules. It’s very tough and many feel stuck; maybe even slipping back in the line. And then others are allowed to cut ahead of them. Often by government, taking from good hardworking people and giving it to less worthy ones. Especially ones “not like us.” Blacks especially, but also immigrants, and women, even animals (endangered species). Obama was seen, and the Democratic party in general is seen, as on the side of those line cutters.

While the left resents the rich, the right resents government beneficiaries. And rubbing salt in the wound is disrespect, offending their sense of honor, cultural marginalization, being called backward, racist, etc. They don’t consider themselves racist; don’t use the N-word or hate blacks. Hochschild says it’s more like belief in a natural hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom, and whites’ self-worth based on distance from that bottom.

She notes half of all government benefits actually go to the richest 20%. And blacks have not in fact jumped the queue — in recent decades, statistics show, if anything they’ve fallen further behind whites economically. Women have moved up but still lag behind males. So who are the real line cutters? Robots. (Automation and technological change, that is.)

Democrats need to make clear they’re for fairness for everyone. Not just ethnic minorities, women, LGBTs. But especially hard working Americans. Should explicitly disavow condoning “line cutting.”

Having written in 2016, Hochschild tacks on a section about Trump — who exploited the “deep story.” With Trump, they no longer feel like strangers in their own land. This is not about issues or policies so much as feelings. (Thus the deficit is forgotten.) It’s the music, not the lyrics. Trump does seem to speak their language, yet it’s less about Trump himself than the solidarity they feel with fellow Trumpers. He is a totem, a symbol. It’s really a battle of their culture against the other one they consider degenerate. “Send her back!” served as a battle cry, intensifying their sense of unity in moral superiority.

All this Hochschild likens to an anti-depressant drug, even a drug giving them a high. Which they don’t want to lose.

They’re (mostly) not bad people. Reading this book made me feel a lot of empathy for them. I can understand why they feel the way they do about Trump, and refuse to let go. Yet it’s a national tragedy that they’ve so blinded themselves to fall for so wicked a man, so bad for the country they so love. Who’s in many ways the biggest line-cutter of them all.

*She cites data showing red states generally, due to weaker regulation, tend to have worse pollution problems than blue states.

One Response to “Strangers in Their Own Land: Understanding America’s right”

  1. Paul J Landsberg Says:

    I’m always leery of any article that harps on “you just have to understand them.” Too often that is used as a siren song to compromise, upon which time the goal posts keep on moving. My current takeaway is that there is a set of Americans that are eagerly and happily destroying an amazing tradition of Americans helping Americans in an orgy of “I got mine, EFF YOU!” Of course if you are saying we need to understand them enough to put a fence around their bull$*#&, yeah, gotcha!

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