Strangers in Their Own Land

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Arlie Russell Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2018.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild makes a fine contribution to our understanding of today’s political polarization. Trying to move across what she calls the “empathy divide,” she gets as close as she can to far-right conservatives in one of the reddest parts of the country, the Lake Charles area of southwestern Louisiana.

The book is based primarily on long conversations with forty Tea Party Republicans, supplemented with interviews with twenty other individuals who are knowledgeable of the area and its issues. Although her study is small-scale and exploratory, she does a good job of placing her findings in a larger context with national survey data and statistics.

The “Great Paradox”

Hochschild begins with a paradox observed by others before her. Many of the people who vote conservative could benefit from many of the liberal programs they oppose.

Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states….Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.

This certainly holds true for Louisiana, which ranks among the worst states in the country for poverty rate, educational levels, income inequality, pollution, and many measures of health and well-being. And yet the majority of its citizens seem staunchly opposed to many government efforts to alleviate such conditions. Instead they support low-tax, low-regulation policies that seem to work to the main benefit of a wealthy minority.

Hochschild reviews some of the previous efforts to resolve the paradox and finds them unsatisfying. For example, in What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank suggested that wealthy conservatives trick people into voting conservative by using social issues like abortion and gay marriage as bait. Hochschild thinks it is too simple to regard people as gullible and misled, without considering how their votes express their deep convictions.

For Alec MacGillis in “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” it’s more a matter of who votes. The people who most need government assistance don’t vote enough, while the people who need it less vote against it. Hochschild’s hunch is that the paradox goes deeper. People really do vote against their own self-interest–at least economic self-interest–because of their deep emotional commitments.

Hochschild believed that the way to test her hunch against MacGillis’s was to study an issue that affected everybody in a state, even the affluent, and “to show they don’t want government help for that either.” The issue she needed was all around her in Louisiana, since “Lake Charles had become ground zero for production of American petrochemicals.” Now the paradox took the form of great pollution on the one hand, and great resistance to regulating polluters on the other. Many of the author’s subjects had experienced firsthand the terrible toll that hazardous waste disposal and other environmental problems were taking on their families and communities; yet they continued to support anti-environmentalist candidates.

The paradox went well beyond Louisiana. According to Hochschild’s analysis of survey data:

If, in 2010, you lived in a county with a higher exposure to toxic pollution, we discovered, you are more likely to believe that Americans “worry too much” about the environment and to believe that the United States is doing “more than enough” about it.

Red-state logic

Part of the reason sounds like economic self-interest, although it actually goes deeper than that. It is partly a matter of creating jobs:

The logic was this. The more oil, the more jobs. The more jobs, the more prosperity, and the less need for government aid. And the less the people depend on government —local, state, or federal—the better off they will be.

Carrying this one step further, the more state government has to spend on incentives and tax breaks for industry to bring in jobs, the less it has to spend on programs to help people or protect the environment. But then again, the hope is that people with jobs can take care of themselves.

The logic makes most sense to the people who actually do get high-paying jobs in the polluting industries, although they are a small percentage of the population. But when all the costs and benefits are added up, the wisdom of relying so heavily on petrochemicals is less clear. One expert Hochschild consulted argued that “the oil industry suppressed other lines of work, drew a third of revenue out [of the state], left pollution, and did nothing to resolved the many problems saddling the state.” The oil boom left the state’s poverty rate essentially unchanged.

The strategy of attracting jobs by offering corporations low taxes, weak regulation, and a low-wage non-unionized workforce has been called a “low-road” strategy. Apparently it isn’t the only strategy, since researchers have found that states with tougher environmental regulations have an even better record of job creation. One question the book does not try to answer is how feasible it would be for Louisiana to stop welcoming the polluters. States that are poor in financial and human capital, including workforces with limited education, have fewer choices. They may be at the mercy of companies that take much and give back little.

What the book does establish is that the red-state logic has become a deeply-held belief system. As one of the author’s interviewees, General Russel Honoré, put it, the people have become “captives of a psychological program.”

Emotional allegiances

Beliefs about jobs and the environment do not exist in isolation from other deeply-held beliefs. Conservatives put more faith in private enterprise to create the good society, while liberals put more faith in democratic government. Southern conservatives see the petrochemical industry as the latest goose to lay the golden eggs, hopefully replacing good jobs lost in the declining textile industry. For them, strict environmental regulation threatens to kill the goose.

Favoring business over government also has a deeper personal meaning. Business is associated with hard work, earnings, self-reliance, personal success and the ability to provide for one’s family. Government is associated with handouts, taxes, dependency, personal failure and family breakdown. Attitudes toward environmental regulation may reflect a much broader anti-government sentiment that goes beyond the alleged trade-off between the environment and jobs.

As a sociologist who has always been interested in the social construction of feelings, Hochschild looks for the deep, emotionally meaningful story that underlies seemingly non-rational behavior. That will be the topic of the next post.


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