Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press 2016.

Many books will be written trying to explain Trump’s electoral success. But perhaps the best book about Trump has already been written, based on research just prior to the election. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has spent five years living with supporters of the Tea Party in rural Louisiana. Trump isn’t a political force for the first two thirds of her book; he starts to cast his shadow only in the last third as a candidate in the Republican primaries, quickly gaining in prominence. It’s to the great credit of Hochschild’s book that Trump doesn’t feel like a surprise at this point, but rather as a natural conclusion to what she has found.

Hochschild’s Paradox

Many of Hochschild’s subjects hold views which, to a European liberal like me who finds even mainstream American conservatism unfathomable, are deeply strange. So they are for Hochschild. But she goes to Louisiana to cross the “empathy wall”, as she phrases it. Unlike most liberals—especially in the election aftermath—Hochschild isn’t interested in quick judgments, or in putting Tea Partiers into easily labelled boxes.

Hochschild’s patience pays great rewards: the book paints Tea partiers not as racist monsters or irrational rednecks who vote against their best interests, but as likeable, if politically misguided people whose political beliefs form part of a coherent emotional whole. What Hochschild aims to discover in particular is the “deep story” behind the Tea Party, by which she understands an account of how the emotional, political, religious and cultural beliefs of her far-right subjects fit together.

The geographical focus of Strangers in their Own Land is Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the US. The particular “paradox” through which Hochschild approaches her topic is the paradox of pollution. In the beginning of the book, we encounter the Arenos, a Cajun family who live in rural Louisiana by a contaminated bayou. The Arenos deeply love their environment, to live, fish and hunt in it. It is heart-breaking to hear how their environment was successfully destroyed: first the frogs die, then the cows, then the trees, then their relatives and neighbours—slowly, of cancer. The fish can no longer be eaten safely; sometimes the air smells funny.

There seems a clear culprit for the Arenos’ fate: their bayou has been systematically destroyed through petro-chemical companies who dump toxic waste in it. (Hochschild interviews an ex-employee of one of these companies who was ordered to dump the waste—her research is extremely thorough.) But here’s the paradox: while the Arenos are angry, fearful and dismayed with the pollution, they vote for far-right conservative candidates who favour even more environmental de-regulation. They seem to hate the federal government more than the companies which destroy their lives.

The Arenos are not an exception. Hochschild consistently finds that her Tea Party interviewees oppose environmental regulation. They vote for political candidates like Bobby Jindal who give billions of tax breaks to petro-chemical companies, while drastically cutting the school budget at the same time. They oppose the federal government, and the EPA in particular, as overbearing and tyrannical. At the same time, Hochschild highlights that Louisiana is one of the most contaminated states in the US, with one of the highest cancer rates; it is second-last in human development, profits significantly from federal subsidies, and is the most likely to suffer from the consequences of climate change.

Here it is then, the old puzzle: why do rural voters continue to vote for Republicans? Why do they vote for the destruction of their own environment—why, in short, do they vote against what seems to be their own best interests? Wouldn’t they profit from a more interventionist, redistributive (federal) government? Shouldn’t they face the problem head-on and lay the blame where it belongs—with exploitative companies who externalise their real costs?

The main part of Hochschild’s book is an attempt to find an answer to these questions. Hochschild tries out various explanations, but she finds each of them incomplete. Religion and social conservatism play a role in support for the conservative party, but they cannot explain the “structural amnesia” regarding environmental pollution. Neither does Hochschild accept that her subjects are somehow manipulated into their commitments by Republican elites or right-wing talk radio.

When Hochschild presses her interviewees on the subject, she finds a maddening assembly of half thought-out explanations: companies wouldn’t pollute beyond the necessary as that isn’t in their self-interest, she hears; pollution was a problem in the past, but isn’t so now, another Tea Partier explains against all the evidence; regulators are just removed from reality and want to kill the American Dream, is a common refrain; pollution is the necessary price one has to pay for economic growth, goes the most coherent line of argument (Hochschild shows that petro-chemical plants create few jobs which mostly go to foreign experts, as do the profits); and so on.

Indeed, what Hochschild most commonly finds is simply stoic acceptance of the detrimental effects of pollution; a sense that complaining would be fruitless, or show weakness. How most of Hochschild’s Tea Partiers deal with the issue of pollution is less a question of reasoned argument; instead, Hochschild suggests, their reaction is guided by a more fundamental “deep story” which glues their religious, emotional and political commitments together.

The “Deep Story”

The “deep story” is the story of how the Tea Partiers conceive of themselves, others, and the political environment. It is of great interest, I believe, to anyone wanting to understanding Trump. Here it is, paraphrased lightly:

You—the older, poorer Louisiana rural Tea Party supporter—are waiting in line for the American dream. It’s a long line: it’s moving up a hill, and the rumour is that the American dream is just beyond the crest of the hill. Unfortunately, it is hard to estimate how long it will take to get to the crest, and there are many, many people waiting in line with you. You’re a patient, optimistic, tough-minded person, who gives their best to get ahead. You hate people who complain about the waiting, or who demand that someone help them up. Still, you must admit, the line has been moving very slowly as of late, if at all: certainly, the rapid movement of the queue you remember from your youth and your parents is no longer there.

This would be cause for worry enough. But what’s more, some people are cutting in line. While you have been patiently waiting for your opportunity, others have unfairly taken a place ahead of you. Many of these people cutting ahead are black, immigrants, women, or refugees. You don’t mind them their successes as such, but you think they’ve gained them unfairly. What’s even more grating, these people are getting a leg up through your tax money—they’re climbing ahead on your backs. Now environmental regulators are telling you that the brown pelican needs to be protected: even the animals, it seems, get more attention than you; they are put ahead of you in the line. But pelicans are only animals after all, and given how long you’ve been awaiting, clearly that’s setting the wrong priorities?

Ideally, you think, government should patrol the line and ensure that no one cuts ahead. But now, it seems to you, government does the precise opposite: it seems that it is actively helping the line-cutters—the refugees, and blacks, and the brown pelicans. It takes your tax money to use it for affirmative action and to save the brown pelican. This enrages you. It seems that you’re doomed to wait at the bottom of the hill while others climb over your backs.

At the top of the hill sit the Harvard-educated cosmopolitans who live in the big cities. It seems they’re actively cheering on this injustice. What’s even more enraging, they insult you from the top of the hill—they call you racist, and backward, and stupid, and “deplorable”, and say that you “cling” to religion. It’s bad enough waiting in line for so long, and now you’re being humiliated on top of that.

It’s easy to extrapolate a continuation of this story for the rest of 2016. You really wish there was someone standing up for you; someone who shoved it to the elites and politicians who sneer at you, and work against you. Someone who pushes back against the line-cutters (the picture of a wall immediately springs to mind). Someone who gets the line moving again, perhaps by someone who himself knows what it means to have climbed the hill. Someone who flatters you and understands you have been patiently waiting in line all this time. Someone who doesn’t promise you handouts—you certainly don’t want to be a line-cutter yourself!—but opportunities to make your own luck. Someone who will make America great again.

Political Upshots of the Deep Story

So much for Hochschild’s “deep story”. What’s important is not whether the story is factually accurate, but whether it is psychologically accurate—whether it captures how Tea Partiers political views in fact cohere, how they see their views as cohering. Hochschild claims that her story is quite successful with her Louisiana Tea Partiers, one of whom is deeply moved by it confessing that “this is my life”.

I’m not a sociologist, nor close to knowing anyone resembling Hochschild’s right-wingers, so I can’t judge the adequacy of her empirical claims—though it did strike me as quite powerful in explaining a number of features of the American far-right which I have so far found puzzling. Either way, it is fascinating what Hochschild’s story leaves out, and what political upshots it would have if true.

First, race is not a primary factor in Hochschild’s deep story. Few people think of themselves as racists, and so it isn’t part of the deep story—at least, insofar as we’re interested in reconstructing the story as those people see it themselves. Indeed, if Hochschild’s picture of Tea Partiers’ own story is right, then dismissing Tea Partiers as racist plays right into their “deep” story, in which arrogant cosmopolitan elites are part of the supporting cast of villains.

That’s not to deny that race is a motivating force behind the deep story—it might well be central, as Hochschild hints at some points in her book. But the practical problem is clear: even if racism is central, challenging people as racist will further harden and support their deep story; so we might have reasons not to challenge them in such ways. Either way, Hochschild’s book is a plea to attempt to understand the “deep story” of our political opponents first before we condemn them.

Second, a demand for authoritarian solutions is also not central to the deep story, though a demand that “things should be set right” is. Furthermore, it seems that hating (federal) government or demanding small government isn’t an inevitable feature of the story, which is more fundamentally about the American dream and reaching it. Indeed, it is still somewhat hard to understand how an acceptance of polluting companies fits into the deep story. The best explanation is perhaps that evil companies don’t neatly fit the deep story. The issue falls into an uncomfortable ideological blind spot, and so it is cast aside or dealt with awkwardly.

Third, a crucial part of the story is about the pride and virtue of those waiting in line. Indeed, the centrality of individual integrity is perhaps the most important feature altogether. We who wait in line are morally upright, community-oriented people who don’t complain; but our pride is wounded by the undeserving, lazy line-cutters and the arrogant elites that help them up. If this is your view of politics, then much of the political game isn’t about pursuing the truth. It’s about respect and pride, and engaging in politics is a demand that one’s standing and character be recognised.

A related, fourth insight is that classic liberal attempts to create justice via social redistribution will be insufficient to placate those who believe in the deep story. This is a point Chris Arnade has made repeatedly as well. While many of Hochschild’s Tea Partiers rely on government welfare, they deeply resent having to rely on it: it contradicts their self-image as strong, independent individuals; it makes them suspect that they are akin to the lazy welfare scroungers who are getting the unfair leg-up. (Suspicion of welfare recipients is a consistent theme throughout Hochschild’s book, especially amongst male Tea Partiers.) Thus, a guaranteed basic income and similar liberal schemes might actually be perceived as insulting and degrading by poor Louisiana conservatives, even if they improve their material position.

Fifth, there are some indications that the “deep story” depicts politics as a zero-sum game. After all, there has to be some kind of order of those waiting in line. For everyone who moves ahead of us in line, we move backwards. (It might of course be that the entire line moves ahead, and so everyone wins in absolute terms. But it seems that comparative terms are as important, if not more important, than absolute terms in the deep story.) This forces a hard choice on us. It’s either the queuers or the line-cutters; we can’t favour both.

This forcefully brings out what is perhaps most troubling about Hochschild’s “deep story”—independent from worries about the factual accuracy of the story, of course. Those who accept the deep story have their own empathy walls: it is difficult for them to accept that those who “cut” the line did so on their own efforts, or perhaps even deserved to be put ahead as a matter of justice. Hochschild mentions that many of her interviewees feel “sympathy fatigue”: they can no longer feel sympathy or pity for those many groups which make a claim to government assistance.

All this suggests that, if the deep story captures at least some aspects of the political psychology of many American conservatives, then Trumpian populism is not a fluke, but here to stay as a political force. Unless the “line” gets moving again, or unless the perceived “line-cutting” is stopped, or unless the outlines of the deep story are significantly changed, political dissatisfaction on the far-right will continue, and Trump-like candidates will be viable.

Some Philosophical Observations

What was most interesting to me was to read Strangers in Our Own Land as a philosopher. Here are some scattered observations.

1. Hochschild’s book puts severe stress on the simple idea that the kind of conservatives she surveys “vote against their own interests” by voting Republican. In some sense they do, when they vote for deregulation and for favours to the big petro-chemical companies. But in some other sense, if the deep story really captures the psychology of Tea Partiers, and if we take a broader look at what people’s “interests” are, then Trump might well be in their best interest. In outlining the “deep story”, it was obvious how Trump is a natural upshot of the story in many ways. You might find the Tea Partiers’ deep story inaccurate and repulsive; but they might well have voted for who represents their concerns best. (This, of course, does not hold for all Trump voters and comes with many asterisks.)

Many parts of the deep story are of course factually inaccurate or morally misguided. So we might push against the idea that giving people what they want (according to the story) is what is in their genuinely best interest. There’s perhaps an uncontroversial sense that enforcing anti-pollution rules would be in their interest, as pollution provably affects their health. But beyond this idea, it’s not clear what would be.

A standard philosophical idea at this point is to move to an “informed” or “reasonable” account of what’s in our interest—so the question becomes: what would people want if they were better informed, less morally vicious, more impartial, with a wider set of experiences? Through this counterfactual test, we might hope to uncover what is in people’s interest. Quite independent from whether this is a valid philosophical move, Hochschild’s book impressed me with the difficulty of giving an answer to this question for actual people, with their multi-layered and complex inconsistencies, but also with their own and particular views of what they politically want.

2. The next question is whether Hochschild’s Tea Partiers are “reasonable” people. Political liberals and deliberative democrats often want to draw a line between “reasonable” or “qualified” people, and those which are “unreasonable” or “unqualified”. The legitimacy of political institutions is then a function of the degree to which they reflect the views of the former, but not the latter people.

Much depends on how stringent a test for reasonableness you wish to impose; but at least on a wide variety of drawing the line, it is hard to see how many of Hochschild’s subjects would come out on the reasonable side. Their deep story is too divorced from the actual facts about pollution and economic progress, too insensitive to new evidence, too much guided by an emotionally loaded self-image, too lacking in empathy and impartiality, to count as reasonable. So I take it that, at least on the ultimate analysis, many of the Tea Partiers’ objections wouldn’t pose a philosophical problem to the legitimacy of our institutions. (This brings us back to the tragedy of truth I’ve outlined previously.)

Many politically realist approaches to legitimacy, on the other hand, do not operate with a reasonable/unreasonable distinction. For them, legitimacy depends on whether political institutions “make sense” to those subject to them, and they prefer an account of legitimacy which is much more sensitive to the views and acquiescence of actual people. Many of the Tea Partiers Hochschild interviews are so deeply alienated from political institutions that it is hard to see what could be said to them, on the realist picture, in favour of those institutions. So this puts immense pressure on the idea that political institutions are legitimate, at least as Tea Partiers are concerned.

I’m just reporting these as tentative results about how some theories of legitimacy might deal with the issue. I suspect that both theories capture part of the truth: political liberals are correct to think that on a fundamental moral level, we should ignore the Tea Partiers’ “deep story”, as it is in some relevant sense “unreasonable”. At the same time, realists are correct that we should be deeply concerned if some people experience the type of alienation that Tea Partiers experience. The challenge will be to develop a theory of legitimacy which allows us to account for both of these intuitive reactions.

3. The other main point that Hochschild’s book vividly brings home is that real-world politics operates primarily, perhaps almost exclusively, on an emotional level. The Louisiana voters feel betrayed and left behind; they are angry because their pride has been wounded; they crave respect; they yearn for lost community; they despair in the face of an America in which they feel disoriented and humiliated; and so on. It’s hard to see how any line of argument—say, about the benefits of Keynesian intervention, or rising rates of inequality, or climate change, or the benefits of environmental regulation—will sway voters who are guided by Hochschild’s deep picture.

The take-away message from Hochschild’s book shouldn’t be that this is a phenomenon limited to far-right. There is good reason to suspect that many far-left and moderates also operate on the basis of a “deep story”—a deep story which to a large degree is implicit, integrates our emotions and self-image with the rationalizations of political thought, and to a greater or lesser degree stubbornly resists challenges coming from new evidence. Indeed, there’s a mirror to Hochschild’s book waiting to be written, one which visits the cosmopolitan communities such as Hochschild’s Berkeley and tells their deep story.

If many of us are guided, at least by some degree, by an underlying “deep story”, what impact would this have for philosophical thinking about politics? First, many of the more optimistic theories, especially about deliberative democracy, badly miss their mark. Politics might primarily be about clashing deep stories in which rational argument only rarely has an impact. No degree of reciting facts about pollution will sway the Louisiana Tea Partiers, unless we give them the psychological means to change their deep story. Any philosophical view which suggests that democracy could be like a big seminar room in which we compare, pool and combine rational insights looks incredibly utopian from this background.

Second, this image suggests that much of the hand-wringing over “fake news” and “post-truth” politics ignore one big factor: there is demand for these types of misinformation. Too much political commentary focusses on the supply side of lying—e.g., on the particulars of Trump’s lies. But much of political thought is merely the rationalized surface of the underlying deep story (a phenomenon often called “motivated reasoning”).

I don’t think this makes serious philosophical engagement with political arguments impossible. But it does mean that we should see political ideologies as both bodies of propositions, arguments and intellectual ideas, and as reflections of deeper psychological and cultural realities. As an example, I suspect that Ayn Rand’s novels, while philosophically juvenile, in many ways accurately portray the psychological “deep story” which some—certainly not all—libertarians accept. (Note that the story is different from Hochschild’s.) This gives us reason to engage with Atlas Shrugged, though our engagement should be very different from how we engage, say, Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Final Remarks

I couldn’t do justice to all parts of Hochschild’s rich and insightful book. I would highly recommend it to any reader who is as puzzled about American politics as I am. Her book is a tour de force in exercising political empathy, and an exhilarating search for the sociological and psychological heart of the Tea Party. Whether the central “deep story” that Hochschild uncovers holds up to scrutiny is for others to judge; but following her in her journey should be interesting to everyone.

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  1. […] feel like predictable ideological reflexes, lazy attempts to deflect serious reflection. This is what I found so compelling in Arlie Hochschild’s book: while her book isn’t ostensibly about Trump, Hochschild’s […]

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