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Arlie Russell Hochschild

Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a well-known Berkeley sociologist, well left-of-center politically, has used her characteristic method of immersing herself in the lives of a particular community to produce an insightful study of Tea Party Republicans in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana. She strove and, it seems, succeeded in scaling the “empathy wall” that divides left from right in contemporary America.

We get to know a variety of people, male and female, all white, ranging from middle age to elderly. All come from humble (at best, modest) origins (most were born near Lake Charles), and most have had a working class or middle class life. Many have had to struggle with stagnant incomes. Many have confronted environmental disasters caused by industrial operations in a state that is notoriously lax on environmental regulation.

Given low income, poor health, poor education, and wretched environmental contamination, why do most white Louisianans hate the government that could help them?

Hochschild starts with a paradox earlier noted by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? but posed even more starkly in Louisiana: given low income, poor health, poor education, and wretched environmental contamination, why do most white Louisianans hate the government that could help them? Environmental contamination provided what she calls the “keyhole issue” that could provide insight into the great paradox: “great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.”

Her approach to the paradox entails getting to know people well enough to articulate their “deep story,” their ways of looking at the world that they may not have articulated to themselves, but which shape their responses to the world. She comes up with four archetypes, each illustrated by a particular person. The Team Player is deeply committed to the petroleum industry that has shaped modern Louisiana, and will ignore or downplay industrial misconduct. The Worshipper is a devout Christian who sees it as her duty to renounce such aspirations as a clean environment. The Cowboy glories in risk-taking and rejects the whole idea of limiting initiative in order to protect against negative consequences. And the Rebel is a Team Player, with a degree of critical perspective—but not to the point of wanting more government regulation.

She points out that the Tea Party has roots in both Reconstruction and the political turmoil of the 1960s. Reconstruction, of course, from the Southern white perspective, amounted to an arrogant North attempting to impose its will on the defeated but virtuous South. It remains a central grievance in the historical consciousness of many white southerners.

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The 1960s were experienced as a Second Reconstruction, with northern liberals and blacks working to undermine the integrity of Southern white society. The sense of being besieged was deepened by the other major movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s: the peace movement, the New Left, Black Power, feminism, Gay Pride. People who thought of themselves as quintessential Americans were being pushed to the sidelines: it was like standing in a long line and seeing others less deserving cutting into the line ahead—and seeing them helped by the government to do so.

This is the context for the intense reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency that we have come to know as the Tea Party. How could a biracial man with a troubled upbringing have achieved so much, while we’re stuck here with pollution and corruption? He’s cut the line! The government and the Northern liberals gave him a leg up! We are strangers in our own land!

Perhaps Hochschild’s greatest contribution with this study is to portray those who have these political views as human beings who aren’t angry all the time, who lead normal lives in communities that have vitality in spite of the grave environmental challenges they confront. Perhaps others on both sides can cross the empathy wall as she has done.

The biggest weakness of the book is its underemphasis on race as the perennial, central fact of Southern life. She doesn’t totally ignore race, but in a state with 26 percent African Americans, and growing numbers of Latinos as well, it is striking that her respondents seem to exist in a totally white world. One doesn’t even read about African American maids in the houses she visits.

The Tea Party perspective on minorities is that they are undeserving of whatever they may have, that they are a drag on the enterprising, and that their political participation must be controlled. A key distinction with the earlier epochs of slavery and segregation is that today, whites don’t have to consciously discriminate to keep the blacks down, they can just depend on minimal government and the free market to do it. That’s why they hate Obama: he beat the system.

john peeler

John Peeler