Book Review of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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.

14 thoughts on “Book Review of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild”

  1. I just now found the time & energy to read your review, Wally. Thank you. And thanks for clarifying that people who voted for Trump are not simply stupid but made that choice for myriad reasons. I too have friends and family who made that choice. While your review provided me with some additional interest in reading the book, it seemed to say you found it to cover much of what many of us already know of this particular segment of our population. No real “aha” visions that illuminate the situation in a new or more enlightened way? (Please correct me if I’m not interpreting this accurately.)

    Somewhat of a disillusionment to me has been how, for weeks after the election, many if not most liberal/progressive leaning citizens have and continue to spend much of their time hashing out and re-hashing what is wrong with those who voted for Trump. I realize it is part of the grieving process. We were all in shock! Yet, how little time we’ve spent considering what may have been wrong with the way we’ve presented or failed to present our liberal/progressive viewpoints. How do we appear to others? The hardline denouncement of follow left leaning folks combined with the in-fighting, back-biting and outright attacks within what we like to consider this community of peace, love & enlightenment illustrate that there is much to be cleaned up within our own groups and within our own hearts. Political progress or any kind of transcendence will be impossible until those of us on the left begin to willingly look at our own interactions as intently and with as much honesty as we believe we employ in examining those on the right. The great thing about this is that no one else’s thinking needs to change or be converted in order for us to begin to accomplish this!

    1. I think it is important for us to critique ourselves. It does seems from my reading of this book that many who voted for Trump did it out of an emotional place rather than a rational consideration, so I think that Hillary’s comment using the word deplorable was a big mistake. However it seems we are stuck in a sort of Catch 22. If we work harder to promote factual data, for example that the economy has greatly improved under Obama and generally improves much more under Democratic leadership than Republican leadership, such rationality will fall on deaf ears on the right. On the other hand, I do not think that the answer is to appeal to emotions because any emotional appeal to compassion or justice will not easily compete with an appeal to fear, which is the primary focus of Trump. Fear is more powerful (because it emerges from the back of the brain rather than the front) and easier to manipulate. So honestly I am at a loss as to what we need to do. Perhaps as things fall apart under Trump, some of his support will wither. Perhaps we can then re-take the Senate in 2018 and elect Elizabeth Warren in 2020?

  2. My partner, a progressive, recommended the book to me. I was familiar with the book, but I went out to see what others thought. And I find this review.

    Here’s where it seems to go way off track. Admin seems to believe that the author’s goal was to convert people away from libertarianism and to progressivism. I don’t think Hochschield accepted that as her goal, nor does she seem to invite others to do so.

    Admin does get one thing right. The book does not do much to span any divide of any kind. The obvious reason: Hochschield seems oblivious to the coherent set of beliefs which generally define rural libertarianism. One cannot span a divide while expressing confusion as to why the people on the other side are too stupid to see what is good for them.

    So I give Hochschield more credit than does admin. I think she tried, but ultimately failed to try to put some bridges down. She failed because her own biases were so strong that she couldn’t accept that reasonable people could disagree with her.

    1. Thank you dwshelf for your post. I agree with you that Hochschield’s goal was not to convert people away from libertarianism and to progressivism. In fact, It is not clear to me that the people Hochschield interviewed could be easily classified as libertarian. Yes, many were suspicious of government interference in their lives, which is a hallmark of libertarianism, but they also were deeply suspicious of people of color and anyone who was not a white heterosexual Christian, which would not conform to my understanding of libertarianism.

      1. >>but they also were deeply suspicious of people of color and anyone who was not a white heterosexual Christian, which would not conform to my understanding of libertarianism.

        Indeed, rejections of color or gays is not part of a meaningful description of libertarianism.

        Nor are they part of the analysis of any libertarian I know. However, we get accused….

        1. Many oppose the continuing multi-generational welfare disaster we see in the inner cities. The wasted money is big, but the destroyed lives of young black men is huge. It’s much more about what works, and what doesn’t, than it is about suspicion. Many of us believe that government welfare to dysfunctional families, as we know it today is directly responsible for the results we see.

        2. Liberty involves living one’s life not under the thumb of government, and facing the government-ordered destruction of one’s business for declining to participate in a gay wedding (say by creating a cake, or creating a floral arrangement) is an issue which defines what being a libertarian is all about. When the government proposes a sodomy law, give us a call. When you want the government to crush someone, bug off.

        Some progressives would summarize those two issues as being some varieties of phobic. That’s an external observation, not something which is actually going on inside.

        There are nutty people of all stripes, of course. Let’s marginalize them, rather than letting them define some broad ideology.

        1. I did not intend this posting to end up being a critique of libertarianism. As you are well aware, sodomy was illegal not too long ago, and it was progressives who were instrumental in getting these laws changed. My primary problem with libertarianism is that in the current state of affairs, the rules of engagement are not neutral. Those with great financial resources have the ability to influence the government to provide favorable laws to help them make more money. Since corporations are recognized as persons, these entities can pollute the environment, create toxic dumps for example, and then simply declare bankruptcy, walk away, and expect the government to clean up their messes. Where is the personal responsibility in that? Why is corporate welfare acceptable (“too big to fail”) and an individual safety net is not? It is possible that I am unaware of libertarian objections to these issues, so if so, please correct me.

          1. > It is possible that I am unaware of libertarian objections to these issues, so if so, please correct me.

            Ok. What you’re doing right here is what Hochschield was unwilling or unable to do. First figure out what these people believe, and how it makes sense to them. Then, by all means, take it on. But don’t imagine something which is obviously screwed up and imagine that people are really that dumb to believe the screwed up stuff.

            The libertarian solution to preventing environmental damage has three components.

            1. Criminal laws, where real people go to prison for violating the law.
            2. Bonds. You want to engage in activity which endangers the environment, you have to put up a bond which is sufficient to cover any conceivable damage. Proceeding without the bond is a criminal offense.
            3. Civil lawsuits. You damage property, public or private, or you damage people, you get sued. If you don’t have the money, we’re taking it from the bond. And if you don’t have the bond, y’all go to prison. The crucial part of this equation: corporations do not protect people from going to prison when they violate laws.

            Corporate welfare is never acceptable to libertarians. Never, never, never.

            Does that sound at least a little better?

  3. Thank you dwshelf for your points. I agree. I would assume then that you would not be in favor of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. I would add that if a company makes a product that has toxic components and it is designed to be trashed, then they ought to foot the cost for the recycle of those components and/or an environmentally sound disposal, and of course they can pass those costs off on the consumer who buys the product.
    I would add a couple points, going back to the book:
    1) I do not think that most of the people that the author interviewed have clear libertarian positions as you describe them, although it is certainly possible that she didn’t ask the right questions.
    2) Due to the ways in which big business is entrenched into the political system in both Republican and Democratic parties, it seems unlikely that your points will ever be enacted into law, at least not in the near term. One of the problems that I have with dismantling the safety net and governmental regulations such as the EPA, and libertarians’ support of such, is that absent these other sorts of laws and regulations as you describe them, is that it only makes everything worse. The poor get poorer and the middle class get poor. Wealth is more and more moved up to the richest, who hide their assets in other countries rather than build businesses so it can “trickle down.” The rich continue with their loopholes. Big business can pollute without penalty and the libertarians can claim a win, because they have cut out affordable health care, for example.

    1. Happy to see we’re back full width.

      I also thank you for discussing politics in an intellectual way. I’ll do my best to hold up the standard you have maintained.

      Maybe you can express your concern with Citizens United. I’m generally, and broadly, a supporters of free speech, as one of the pillars under our free society. Usually, the speech we’d like gone is speech we disagree with.

      I don’t have a strong position regarding recycling, and I don’t believe it to be high up on any libertarian agenda.

      Libertarians, and I think this reflects the general attitude among the deplorables, support economic opportunity over all else. Take down the governmental barriers to people getting started and moving up. That opportunity is what has made America great, and it’s what has slipped away somewhat under contemporary big government.

      The government impairment of opportunity at the bottom is the absolute worst, and frequently benefits the rich over the poor. Pernicious regulations regarding who can be a hair braiding professional are the most ridiculous example among thousands. Who benefits? Existing, organized hair care people. Who loses? A person, usually a woman, who wants to get started. Minimum wages dramatically reduce opportunities for people who’s efforts are simply not worth the minimum wage. Without the minimum, they would fit in somewhere, and could start their climb upward.

      Correct, there is a wrong way to change from a regulation based model of environmental protection, and to a legal responsibility model. Kind of like the 1986 immigration law, which granted amnesty to those already here, and blocked new immigrants. The amnesty part happened, but that blocking part never did, so we end up where we are. We need to be sensible.

      Lastly, I agree. Most people, whether progressives, libertarians, or anything else, do not have a coherent political philosophy they can discuss. That is not proof they are stupid people who don’t know what’s good for them. What they all do, and this includes liberal school teachers in coastal cities as well as right wing oil field workers, is to trust selected other people to have coherent analysis.

      And for the most part, their trust is rational (if misguided). The problem with the people they trust is not that their analysis is incoherent; rather, the problem might be that it just doesn’t work. My view on the minimum wage, for example, is that its worst effects are on the poorest among us, those just starting out. Perhaps after a release from prison, more often from a perspective of being 17 and needing a start in life. I don’t accuse those unemployed liberals who vote for someone promising them $15/hr as “not wanting what is good for them”. I think they’re trusting leaders who have picked a plan that doesn’t work.

      1. Sometimes half of a good idea is a bad idea.

        My problem with Citizen United is the notion that a corporation is given the rights of persons. A corporation is a construct. It is not a real thing. It cannot be put in prison for misdeeds. Yet it can purchase property. It can pollute the atmosphere. It can file for bankruptcy if it makes bad decisions. Humans can dissolve it and walk away unscathed from the misery it causes. Humans without a lot of money, such as students with massive debt are forbidden by law from declaring bankruptcy on that debt. So the rules are not fair. It is not a fair playing field.

        Regarding other issues I am sure we will have to disagree. Because there is a lot of unfairness in the system and because majority rights must sometimes be superseded by human rights, I happen to believe that the government must step in to protect those who are with less power. If libertarian issues were in place during the civil rights movement, private businesses would be allowed to deny black people the right to be served at the counter, or to use a public rest room. Contracts among people with equal status are one thing, but contracts when there is a big difference in power are something else. So a big corporation like McDonald’s has a lot more power than a teenager or even a fifty year old woman or man who has lost her job and desperately needs a job. So if the McDonald’s corporation decides to pay 50 cents an hour it can get away with it. Or if a landlord decides that a sexual favor is worth one week’s rent, and a tenant has little power, then that would be OK in a libertarian society (correct me if I am wrong, it is a contract between individuals) and in my mind it is not OK. I know there are market forces and McDonald’s may not be able to find anyone willing to work for 50 cents an hour, but market forces are variable and I believe that the government needs to provide some protection to those who are most vulnerable. It seems to me that libertarians tend to believe that generally there is a level playing field and I happen to believe this is not true.

        And thanks also to you for keeping this an intellectual discussion.

          1. I can’t answer the question because the question assumes that it is an easy or clear thing to decide how much a person’s work is worth. I go back to my earlier arguments in that the unfair playing field rewards work differently. Why should a man shuffling papers make $500 an hour and a man emptying waste baskets make $8 an hour. How is this decided? Maybe an 8 year old cannot work as fast as a 20 year old, but I happen to believe in child labor laws and do not think the 8 year old should be forced to work, or is able to give informed consent to work for 50 cents an hour.

          2. Maybe “kid” was the wrong term, I was imagining someone who, say, just graduated from high school. Or just dropped out. Not a child, rather, someone who desires a job. Someone probably still living at home, someone with a lot to learn.

            In the story, we know s/he’s worth $5/hour because one employer is willing to pay that much, but that’s the best offer available.

            Generally, people get job offers at a level where the employer cannot find a better person for less, but can find a better person for more. Better, as judged by the employer. Perhaps by profit, perhaps by customer satisfaction, perhaps by something else.

            The reasons why a person is not worth the US minimum wage usually involve issues. Job performance, personality, grooming, attitude, etc. A young man may well need to get fired three times and be dumped by two girlfriends before he comes to understand the value of putting real effort into a job.

            You have a plan for this guy?

          3. No I do not have a plan for this young man, nor do I believe that paying him $5 an hour will help him to learn the lessons you want him to learn. What it comes down to is that I do not trust a totally free marketplace to ever work, and I think history is on my side. Absent any government regulations, employers could decide that black people are not worth hiring or should only be paid half of what white people are paid, etc. etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *