Strangers in Their Own Land
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
Prominent sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild offers an explanation of what to many appears as a mystifying paradox: that some people support wholly or partly ideas and actions against their own best interests. Huh, these befuddled observers might retort, no, it’s obvious, these people are hardhearted, or stuck in the past, or suckers for jingoistic bombast, or racists, or malleable simpletons, or lately dumpsters (among other terms for Trump supporters). But like most fodder for polemicists on the right and left, there is a small kernel of truth in the name calling, just not the whole truth.
In this very enlightening study, shortlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, Hochschild applies her years of research and development of the theory of emotion, personal and group, as the driving force in how people make sense of their world and decide what’s best for them. While directing your life from your emotional self may not strike some as rational, others might see rationality and consistency within the context of emotion. This can help in understanding where, in the case of the Tea Party adherents and generally people who appear to outside observers to be working against their interests, are coming from. You don’t have to agree with these people, but you can at least understand they aren’t the irrationalists they appear to be to many.
Hochschild spent five years immersing herself in the Tea Party culture of Louisiana. The paradox she addresses here is twofold: Why do people in among the poorest of the states, a state that receives nearly half its budget from the federal government, oppose help from the feds, and why do people living in a heavily polluted state oppose enforcing environmental regulations on the chief polluters, the oil and gas industries?
The book divides into four parts: The Great Paradox, The Social Terrain, The Deep Story and the People in It, and Going National, with supplementary appendices on the research method, toxic environment and voting patterns (the more polluted a state, the more red it is, and vice versa), and factual answers to false beliefs held by people interviewed in the book and generally throughout the right-leaning population. While the first two parts are interesting and provide context, you could go directly to the last two parts and the appendices to understand Hochschild’s conclusions.
What it boils down to is people viewing their world through the lens of their deep story. As Hochschild explains, “A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes facts. It tells us how things feel….The deep story here, that of the Tea Party, focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders. I constructed this deep story to represent—in metaphorical form—the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with. Then I tried it out on my Tea Party friends to see if they thought it fit their experience. They did.” Waiting in line, watching people cut in, government giving unfair help, the seeming suspension of personal progress, and the insults endured for protesting for a fair, or better, shake, these comprise the metaphor, as well as her constructs of types. Particularly strong is how she gives you historical context for appreciating what’s happening, focusing on the 1860s and the 1960s, two influential periods in the current emotional state of the nation.
If there ever was a book for the times, for understanding the political landscape of America today, this is it. It may not—probably will not—alter your viewpoint, but at least you’ll have a clearer idea of how Tea Party people see themselves. w/c