I first heard about this book while listening to an interview of the sociologist author, Arlie Hochschild on NPR. She spoke of her work to traverse the empathy wall between herself as a white liberal Californian and the white rural people she interviewed and spent several years with. She noted than one of the people she interviewed complained that the left-leaning people thought she was a racist and misogynist. The NPR interviewer then asked Hochschild whether in fact that might not be true, and my impression from the interview was that she skirted the question, and I thought perhaps she was inadvertently acting as a Trump apologist. Before I was willing to say that this was true, I thought that I needed to read the book, which I have now done. Hochschild makes a sincere appeal to both conservatives and progressives to reach out to the other side, to attempt to bridge the empathy wall, and to get to know the others as individuals and to attempt to understand where they are coming from. She makes a valiant attempt to share what she has learned from spending time with white middle class southern Tea party supporters, to come to terms with a deeper analysis than to assume they are voting against their best interest because of stupidity or because they are deplorable. I do not believe that she is a Trump apologist.
Since Donald Trump was elected president, there have been many people arguing that we as a nation have not acknowledged the serous difficulties that poor and middle class white people have been dealing with, especially rural folks. Hochschild has clearly put time and energy in trying to listen and learn from such folks. She in fact spent five years doing so, and she is generous in sharing her thoughts, reflections, doubts, prejudices, and perspectives as she describes many of her encounters with white middle class, mostly southern, Americans who are by and large genuinely distressed and worried. Most are anti-government Tea Party supporters.
Two primary themes emerge in Hochschild’s book: the Great Paradox and the Deep Story. The Great Paradox refers to the ways in which these Tea Party supporters are against government intervention and are in favor of the abolition of key governmental agencies such as the the Internal Revenue Service, the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, Interior, and even the Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, the rural southern communities with these majority views are the same communities that benefit most from these programs. Most of Hochschild’s research for this book comes from interviewing people in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 2016, 44 percent of its state budget came from the federal government. Louisiana is one of the poorest and most polluted states in the United States and the number one hazardous waste producer in the nation. Louisiana ranks 49th out of 50 on general well-being. It has the second highest rate of cancer for men and the fifth highest male death rate from cancer in the country. It is a big oil state, and the state government gives very large subsidies to the oil companies, resulting in extreme cuts in education, public service jobs and other essential governmental services. The belief is that oil means jobs, but at most 15% or less of the citizens in Louisiana work in the oil industry.
The Deep Story is Hochschild’s attempt to explain this Great Paradox. It has to do with deeply held beliefs and emotions rather than facts. It goes something like this:
You are waiting in a long line going up a hill. At the summit is the American Dream, but the line isn’t moving. The 1% are already at the top of the hill and you want to get there and feel that you have followed all the rules and have kept the faith, and it isn’t fair that you can’t get there. You admire the 1% and want to be like them. The liberals want you to feel sorry for those behind you — the poor, those on Welfare, people of color, the immigrants, the LGBT folks, but you don’t want to do so. In fact you think that they are in fact cutting in line in front of you. You see President Obama as helping them do so and that makes you angry. You resent some of the endangered animals such as the brown pelican that seem to be cutting in line as well. You believe that the white Christians ought to be in the front of the line, and men before women.
In her appendix C she outlines several of the assumptions and beliefs that permeate this deep story, and one by one, using research data, she debunks every one:
- The government spends a lot of money welfare (in reality 8% of the budget)
- Welfare rolls are up and people on welfare don’t work (both not true)
- People on welfare depend entirely on money from us taxpayers to live. (of poorest 20% — 63% of their income comes from working)
- Everyone who is poor gets a handout (less than 74% of poor people do; also half of all tax benefits go to the top 20% of Americans)
- Black women have a lot more children than white women (on average black women 1.88 children, white women 1.75)
- A lot of people — maybe 40% work for the Federal and state government (actual numbers: Feds 1.9%, military 1%, states 3.5%)
- Public sector workers are overpaid (actually they earn 12% less than private sector)
- The more environmental regulations, the fewer jobs (environmental protection adds more jobs than it displaces)
- Economic incentives and relaxed regulations are necessary to attract oil and gas business (businesses like communities that spend more on public goods and services)
- State subsidies increase jobs (generally not true)
- Oil stimulates the rest of the economy (20-35% leaks out to other states)
- The economy does better under Republican presidents (the opposite is true).
At the end of the book Hochschild offers a progressive version of the deep story which has to do with living in around a public square with many services available to all. In this metaphor, progressives are upset with the rich people who are in the process of dismantling it to build their own mansions. She seems to offer a sense of equivalence between these two deep stories and offers them as a possible way to help people connect to each other over their respective empathy walls.
I do not find Hochschild’s argument persuasive, primarily because the “American Right’s” story is fueled, as she so pointedly confirms, by beliefs that are not in any way connected with the facts. There are many forces in the dominant culture that serve as enforcers of this story, including evangelical Christianity. She quoted one of those she interviewed, Harold, as saying: “If we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never have to worry about the environment then on. That’s the most important thing. I’m thinking long-term.” (p.54)
She also acknowledges the prime role that Fox News has played and continues to play in enforcing this narrative. In order for this deep story to be sustained, it must be continually fortified through repetition of lies and deceptions. It is even possible that Hochschild’s work ends up thickening the plot of this story and encourages those who rely on it to continue to do so. The 1% that the progressives focus on are in fact contributing to the continuation and propagation of this story by propagandizing the above inaccuracies.
The progressive “deep story,”on the other hand, is not well formulated and I am not sure that it in any way represent progressive thinking. However if we are to take it at face value, it by and large formulates its narrative from factual data.
As a white male, I am reasonably confident that I could get to know some of the people whom Rothschild has befriended. I would likely find many of them to be friendly and interesting folks. However, I doubt that this would happen if I were a black woman or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a transgendered male in the midst of a transition. I do think that as a white woman who was accepted into this community and who benefited from southern hospitality in spite of her liberal perspective, Hochschild may have minimized the importance of racism, xenophobia and homophobia in her analysis. Even if those she interviewed were not explicitly racist, it seems clear that their implicit biases serve to intensify the beliefs imbedded in their deep story.
I do not think that reading this book has helped me to traverse the empathy wall between myself as a progressive and the Tea party conservative folks who embrace their deep story. As a mental health therapist, I work with people every day who are fearful and suspicious, who believe that the world is a dangerous place and that they are unworthy. When I am able to identify a problem-saturated story that has become the dominant story in a person’s life, it is my job as a therapist to assist them in becoming curious about their lives. I am keenly attuned to possible contradictions to such stories and attempt to elicit curiosity about those exceptions because by and large the people I serve do not want to continue to have such problem-saturated stories live their lives for them.
Perhaps I was not alert enough in reading this book, but I was unable to find much evidence that the people Hochschild interviewed were interested in challenging their own “deep stories.” Rather they seem to find solace in these stories as a justification for marginalizing those who do not believe what they believe. Having a deeper understanding of how their stories are fueled by lies and propaganda does little to help me find a way to connect with them.