By Woody Woodruff
Review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New Press, 2016, $27.95
The identity and community practices of the Tea Party voters who have seized upon Donald Trump’s candidacy as a vindication of their ways are a sought-after object of political and academic analysis. It’s being made clear by the wide-ranging (in space and time) net that is being cast for their elusive qualities that Trump didn’t start the fire, but that he has unique strategies for fueling it. The US population that is white, mostly of the old South or newer Southwest, inclined to fundamentalist religion and middle or working class is the subject of recent books like the first-person memoir, like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (see review in this issue) and of academics, like the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land.
Where Vance describes his own upbringing in hardscrabble Appalachia, Hochschild goes an anthropological route, leaving behind liberal Berkeley, where she is emeritus at the flagship state university, to operate as an ethnographic researcher in and near Lake Charles, Louisiana, spending five years on and off developing the “deep story” of a stratum of society that was ready for Trump when he emerged.
The acclaimed author of The Second Shift, Hochschild recognizes an “empathy wall” that exists between the bicoastal and more secular culture of her everyday life and the lives of Tea Party adherents. Her search for the elements of an “empathy bridge” that will help each culture understand the other’s “deep story” is the meat of this very personal book.
Hochschild’s method, which in the trade is called “grounded theory,” grows theoretical (but generally not predictive) structure from ground-level observation – ethnography. Her ethnography is not the absorb-everything, leave-nothing-out sort, however; she starts with a Louisiana contact developed from a Berkeley student and “snowballs” to pick up individual subjects and focus groups from there, allowing geography, family and workplace/community contiguity to help build her network of subjects.
These folks show some variety but are united in critical identity factors. Those are their conscious whiteness, resentment of big government and its perceived tilting of the playing field to favor groups they see as undeserving, and well-developed mechanisms through religion and culture for ignoring or excusing the economic and environmental devastation wrought by the local dominance of big petrochemical corporations and a state government bent on enabling more and more of this corporate extractive hegemony. She is looking for the “feeling rules” that enable the “Great Paradox” embedded in the sentiments of Tea Party whites in Louisiana.
For many of the white middle class of Lake Charles and its environs, the Great Paradox that they swallow is embodied in the mostly low-paid jobs offered by the big extraction companies – most recently, engaged in fracking – and the poisoning of a once-pristine environment where they could once hunt and fish but now don’t dare eat what can still be found. One community after another, polluted beyond livability by industrial accidents and persistent dumping for which penalties are overlooked, is abandoned by homeowners coping with cancer that seems often to touch every member of the family.
For northern liberals – whose consumption habits, in fact, are part of the reason that many Red States are riddled with such “sacrifice zone” – it seems inexplicable that people so beleaguered by corporations and their own corrupt misgovernment would fail to see where their interests lie and fight back. As Hochschild observes, Red States, typified by anti-tax fervor, are nevertheless net “takers” of federal revenue, contributing far less in taxes than is returned to them in benefits – often to relieve the working-class and poor people oppressed within the high-inequality societies wrought by low-tax politics.
The Blue States (where the tax differential comes from) are seen, of course, as a well of contempt for the poorer South and southwest. Media standbys like Rush Limbaugh, “defend her [Madonna, a Tea Party adherent] against insults she felt liberals were lobbing at her. ‘Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we are racist, sexist, homophobic and maybe fat.’ ”
“I was discovering good people at the center of this Great Paradox,” (page 23) Hochschild observes. They were largely middle class though often victims of sporadic ups and downs of employment as companies merged, caused catastrophes with little or no consequences and engaged in callous and capricious personnel policies. Their misconduct was matched by the amazingly venal governor Bobby Jindal, who laid off 30,000 state employees to generate a surplus to entice more polluting companies to the state (Hochschild’s period of fieldwork included the BP Deepwater Horizons disaster plus many local sinkholes and botched injection wells for fracking byproducts that drove still more people from their neighborhoods).
“Most of the people I interviewed were middle class—and nationally more than half of all tea party supporters earn at least $50,000, while almost a third earn more than $75,000 a year, Hochschild said in a companion Mother Jones precis/update of her findings. “Many, however, had been poor as children and felt their rise to have been an uncertain one.” The anxiety endemic to – critical to the sustaining of — capitalism is part of the deep story. “As one wife of a well-to-do contractor told me, gesturing around the buck heads hanging above the large stone fireplace in the spacious living room of her Lake Charles home, ‘We have our American Dream, but we could lose it all tomorrow.’ ”
If the Red States’ “resource curse” made life uncertain for the white middle-class Tea Party residents of this state, it is crushing to those struggling below that stratum. In mid-October 2016, the Sierra Club appealed for support for impacted communities in that very area under the corporate heel.
“Mossville, Louisiana, one of the first settlements of free blacks in the South, … is now being wiped off the map. What is happening in Mossville is a textbook example of environmental injustice — a low-income, minority community polluted and devastated by corporations, while having little ability for recourse. Industry has been gradually eating away at Mossville for the last 50 years, and now 14 industrial plants surround what remains of the community, making it potentially one of the most polluted locales in one of the most polluted regions of the country. Many residents sold their property 15 years ago when Condea Vista Chemical Company began buying up land in the community in response to their massive chemical spill.
Now, Sasol, a huge multinational petrochemical company known for their former ties to the Apartheid government in South Africa, is trying to finish the job of destroying what’s left of this community — with help from a $115 million tax break from the State of Louisiana. The company has been engaging in an immoral land grab in the community, intimidating residents into accepting buy-outs for their homes at far less than their fair value or the amount residents would need to relocate and start their lives over again. All of this so the company can build one of the largest petrochemical plants in the world in this already polluted community.” (From a Sierra Club appeal in mid-October)
This scenario, and the companies involved, will be familiar to readers of Hochschild’s account as perennial corporate gangsters in the pay-to-play world of Louisiana’s politics of development. They have also pushed the less-affluent white residents out of their communities but not as blatantly as in the case of Mossville.
Hochschild interviews several black community members in her investigation but never builds the full cultural array of factors that she successfully assembles for the white Tea Party members. Despite attempt to include minorities in this account, Tea Party political culture is inextricable from whiteness and a tacit white supremacy bolstered by resentment-fueled perceptions of unworthy and idle persons getting their tax money. There’s little personal contact with minorities in Tea Party whites, only TV images of rich entertainers or criminals.
The Jim Crow tactic of divide and conquer is still alive and well in the fractured class system of Louisiana, where white Tea Party adherents are too busy resenting those whom they see as unworthy recipients of their tax money to recognize the juggernaut of corrupt state government colluding with Big Carbon as the real enemy.
Hochschild, after many interviews, developed a “deep story” based on what she heard: a dreamscape of standing in a long line that stretches over the hill and out of sight, and of patiently waiting to move forward in the line while unworthy, idle “line-cutters” stepped in (by government authority) ahead of them, putting the unseen goal of prosperity and happiness still further away. The line-cutters, of course, are the Other. When she tries this dreamscape out on some of her interviewees, they say she seems to be reading their minds.
“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither the factory floor nor an Occupy protest [but] the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive…. Unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’ ” (149) And they think of the federal government as the ally of that taking sector, and the mythologized and revered free market as the ally of hard-working folks. Sharon Galicia in the Mother Jones piece felt “a liberal sympathy machine had been set on automatic [to provide for the indolent], disregarding the giving capacity of families like hers.” They tell her taking handouts from the government is a “source of shame.”
In her interviews she finds that Southern history creates “emotional grooves” for many of her friends who were descendants of small farmers. “The new cotton is oil, but the plantation culture continues” and that included the class structure outlined by W.J. Cash in The Mind of the South. Like Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” Cash said, (in her paraphrase) “the poor white did not see himself ‘locked into a marginal life’ but as ‘a potential planter or mill baron himself.’ ” Cash observed a mythology of white supremacy that, as other analysts have noted, displaces the sorrows of everyday life by allying poor whites with the plantation class in despising blacks. Nevertheless, she shows, poor hardscrabble whites were pressed off the best land and into poor and deforested soil as plantations expanded – just as the victims of pollution and site expansion are gradually pushed from their homes by the Carbon Power today. “…white men of the South seemed to have lived through one long deep story of being shoved back in line… corporations had gone global, automated, moved plants…. and to make matters worse, it was your sector, the free market, that was letting you down.”
All this is amplified by the Tea Party media surround, which is definitely not NPR or even CNN. Women doted on Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Her friend Mike Schaff “didn’t think the Koch-funded idea machine was duping him. In fact, Mike wondered whether a Soros-funded idea machine was duping me.” In the Mother Jones article she says “tea party enthusiasts lived in a roaring rumor-sphere that offered answers to deep, abiding anxieties.” Galicia said CNN’s Christiane Amanpour “was imposing liberal feeling rules about whom to feel sorry for.” Her interviewees felt and resented the “power of blue-state catcalls… [Rush] Limbaugh was a firewall against liberal insults.” Hollywood has “contempt” for the Tea Party way of life and ideology.
The “blue-state catcalls” and mirror-image media cultures that have consolidated the “empathy wall” certainly aggravate stances on both sides of the divide. As Tom Frank argues in Listen, Liberal, the Democratic/liberal emphasis on educated professionalism, merit and a studied installation of complexity into many aspects of both public and private sectors is likely to exacerbate these differences. Both cultures have a full array of delusions at play. But the delusional structure of secular culture is subject to paradigm shifts, and the meritocracy and professional relish of the complex put in place in the halcyon days of the Democratic Leadership Council may be altered or overthrown by the Next Big Thing.
For the distinctly non-secular culture in Hochschild’s lens, there is only one Big Thing and there is no Next, other than the Rapture.
Hochschild documents but does not deeply analyze the extent that millennial faith plays in the lives of many of her friends, a focus on the afterlife and expected redemptive overturning of the world as it is, and the need for endurance and bravery in the life being lived right now. Churches preach “moral strength to endure.” Her devout friend Harold Areno, a Cajun who with his wife is holding onto their house on Bayou D’Inde despite the pollution that is slowly decimating his family with cancer, tenders a farewell until “gravity leaves our feet, and we rise up” in the Rapture. Though the great cypress stands of his boyhood have all died off in the face of petrochemical depredation, “they say there are beautiful trees in Heaven.”
These elements bolster the culture and make it proof against all outside evidence about the principal source of the harm these people feel – the big petrochemical corporations, which always seem to come out ahead even when they inflict negligent, catastrophic damage on communities. Shouldn’t government restrain them? In the “undeclared class war” in which the Tea Party whites feel themselves struggling, “Both receivers and givers of public services were tainted—in the eyes of nearly all I came to know—by the very touch of government.” And, while the companies dodge blame for their depredations, the federal government uses pollution as an “excuse to expand.”
Ideologically and perhaps emotionally, the Tea Party culture she finds is bent, she says, in the direction of “freedom to” act, exploit and suffer without public/government intervention rather than “freedom from” the afflictions of pollution, community disruption and racially-stained economic inequality — a “freedom from” that could only involve the hated government. Here, perhaps, is the closest overlap with Frank’s searing portrait of educated, elite, meritocratic members of the Democratic Party’s new ruling stratum — so engaged with a “freedom to” innovate and prosper as opposed to the “freedom from” sensibility that union-style social solidarity can afford.
Finally, from Hochschild’s five years of interviews, she describes the “feeling rules” and “emotional grooves” that create this alternate Tea Party reality – one which, of course, seems to its possessors to be grounded in and explain their everyday lives – but she does not seem to explain its origins in today’s parlance. Her appeal to contrarian Southern history and the way it underpins a communal mythology that scapegoats anyone but the real villains is the most successful analytical strategy. The narrative dreamscape of standing in line and watching line-cutters push ahead of oneself – one Hochschild developed from her research – furnishes the outlines of a long-standing and ultimately racist resentment, a Tea Party mythology that, when Donald Trump came along, fit to a T.
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