Strangers in Their Own Land (part 2)

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The deep story

Arlie Hochschild defines a deep story as a “feels-as-if-story…the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tell us how things feel.” She tries to grasp the deep story Tea Party conservatives tell themselves and others that explains many of the political positions they take, some of which seem to work against their own economic self-interest.

Hochschild conveys the deep story using the metaphor of a long line leading up a hill. “Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.” If you work hard and live your life responsibly, you should expect to move forward.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor.

But something has gone wrong in recent decades. While the very front of the line continues to progress, the line has bogged down for the great majority. That’s because gains in income have gone primarily to the richest tenth of the population. (Actually, she could have said the richest 1% or less.) There is still some individual movement forward or backward, of course. But without general advancement for the line as a whole, someone’s movement forward must be offset by someone else’s movement backward. That intensifies competition and puts the aspirations of different groups in conflict.

The people in the back of the line certainly aspire to move up, and liberals say that they deserve to, since most of them were born with fewer advantages than those farther ahead, and many have been unfairly held back for one reason or another. (In a fair race, of course, everyone is supposed to begin at the same starting line and run unimpeded.) On the other hand, people in the middle of the line can make a case for at least keeping the position they have, a position that reflects their hard-earned achievements. They may see the line more as a checkout line, where no one should cut in front of you.

In this context, people can have a strong emotional reaction to government assistance to those in the back of the line. Whether your reaction is sympathetic or resentful depends on whether you are willing to acknowledge the folks back there as underprivileged and disadvantaged, or if you prefer to defend your own position by seeing them as less deserving than you are. In the latter case, you see government assistance not so much remedying an injustice as creating one. As Hochschild’s Tea Partyers saw it, “The free market was the unwavering ally of the good citizens waiting in line for the American Dream. The federal government was on the side of those unjustly ‘cutting in.'”

Race and Southern conservatism

In theory, such attitudes toward economic inequality and the role of government can exist even if all the people in line are the same race. Add America’s sad racial history to the mix, and the emotional stakes get even higher. Hochschild considers race an essential part of the deep story, although her subjects were reluctant to discuss it.

The American South has always been known for its extremes of wealth and poverty, including considerable white poverty.

Compared to life in New England farming villages, there was much more wealth to envy above, and far more misery to gasp at below. Such a system suggested its own metaphoric line waiting for the American Dream—one with little room for the lucky ahead, and much room for the forgotten behind.

Lower-income Southern whites have always been stuck in the middle, having only limited opportunities to move up, but determined to defend their place against the aspirations of the large populations of black people behind them.

Here I would like to add that the voting history of Southern whites shows that they have not always been so hostile to Big Government. Louisiana supported every Democratic presidential candidate from Roosevelt to Kennedy (1932-1960), except when they supported the States Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond in 1948. Only after the national Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Southern whites turn Republican in large numbers. Now they vote very Republican in national races–Trump won by a 20% margin in Louisiana–although Democrat John Bel Edwards did win the governor’s race in a runoff election in 2016. As part of the Roosevelt coalition, Southern whites had little objection to New Deal programs like the WPA and GI Bill that benefited mostly whites, but they are more critical of anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps that go disproportionately to people of color. In fact-checking her subjects’ opinions, Hochschild found that they tended to exaggerate how much of the federal budget went to safety-net programs, how many people of working age were living on “welfare” instead of working, and what proportion of the poor were getting TANF (today’s main family assistance program), a proportion which was quite low in Louisiana.

Hochschild does not specifically accuse her subjects of racism, settling for the more general statement that “many Americans, north and south, are racist.” What we can say is that Tea Party conservatives oppose government programs designed to help the most disadvantaged Americans; that people of color rely more on such programs because of the legacy of discrimination; and that Southern whites are especially drawn to Tea Party conservatism. Put all that together and it strongly suggests that racial divisions reinforce the status anxieties and resentments of white people in the winner-take-all economy.

To the extent that Southern conservatism is racist, it is rarely the explicit segregationism of Strom Thurmond or the Ku Klux Klan. Hochschild’s subjects didn’t want to talk about black people very much at all, at least in her presence. But they did want to talk about the freeloaders and line-cutters, the people who want to get ahead of them without deserving to. It is hard for such complaints to avoid implicit reference to the people of color who are still at the back of the line, people who have long been demeaned by stereotypes of laziness and irresponsibility.

Many Southern whites are not very far from the back of the line themselves. Yet they have strong motives to distance themselves from the most needy and disdain government dependency, although they do use programs for which they qualify. That emotional distancing helps explain why they “identify up,” voting with the white rich even when the latter are enriching themselves at the expense of the majority. It also explains why they oppose Obamacare, even though it makes health insurance more affordable for millions who are not poor. They did not succeed in stopping the expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana, once it was championed by the new Democratic governor. A recent LSU study concluded that the additional $1.8 billion in federal spending on health care created thousands of jobs and had a $3.5 billion economic impact on the state. In general, poor red states like Louisiana receive more federal dollars than their residents pay in taxes.

Cultural marginalization

In addition to feeling both economically challenged and threatened by less deserving competitors, Tea Party supporters also feel that their cultural norms and values are under attack. Since the 1960s and 70s, the mainstream culture has been moving away from them in several respects.

The government no longer endorses and enforces Christian norms as much as it used to. Gone are official prayers in public schools, laws against contraception and abortion, strict divorce laws, and anti-sodomy statutes. This too has alienated Christian conservatives from their government.

In Lake Charles, religious teachings “focus more on a person’s moral strength to endure than on the will to change the circumstances that called on that strength.” This conservative brand of religion helps explain why even people who personally experience environmental disasters look to God for answers instead of to government. That puts them at odds with most of the environmental movement, although some evangelicals are starting to see good stewardship of the earth as part of their religious obligations.

When women joined the “long parade of the underprivileged” to call for equal rights, it was experienced by many conservative men as another threat to their precarious economic position. It was experienced by many conservative women as a disparagement and rejection of their traditional, and perhaps God-given, role as homemakers. Family variations that liberals see as liberation from a “one-size-fits-all” family system strike conservatives as the “breakdown of the family.”

The 1960s also saw immigration reforms that ended the quotas favoring Europeans, opening the country to more Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. Whereas establishment conservatives have often welcomed the cheap labor, Tea Party conservatives more often see the new immigrants as unwelcome competitors for jobs and as carriers of alien cultures.

All this puts white Christians on the defensive, especially the Southern, white, Christian males who are the primary supporters of right-wing conservatism. The two main political parties used to disagree mainly over economic policy. Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, they have come to disagree over deeply emotional cultural issues as well.

Political propaganda

Hochschild says that the deep story her subjects tell is “also the Fox News deep story.” She describes a man who supported environmental causes, but also put up lawn signs for a candidate who wanted to cut the EPA. One reason was that “his source of news was limited to Fox News and videos and blogs exchanged by right-wing friends, which placed him in an echo chamber of doubts about the EPA, the federal government, the president, and taxes.”

Right-wing messages appeal to people for many different reasons:

You may assume that powerful right-wing organizers—pursuing their financial interests—“hook” right-wing grassroots adherents by appealing to the bad angels of their nature—their greed, selfishness, racial intolerance, homophobia, and desire to get out of paying taxes that go to the unfortunate. As I saw at the Trump rally in New Orleans, some of that appeal goes on. But that appeal obscures another—to the right wing’s good angels—their patience in waiting in line in scary economic times, their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance—qualities of the deep story self.

If we can cross the “empathy divide” and relate to conservatives as human beings, we can avoid dismissing them as stupid or evil. They are standing up for what they deeply believe to be right, even if they create or perpetuate problems for other people by doing so.

Having said that, I still worry that political propaganda may be threatening our democratic institutions, as indicated by the success of Fox News and the election of a master propagandist as president. Much of the blame for that goes to the abundance of dark money in politics and the fragmentation of media by cable TV and the internet. Our society makes it awfully easy to promote extremism. But I also suspect that the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, much of which I support, ushered in an era of unusual emotionalism in our politics, making people much too susceptible to emotional appeals unsupported by rational, fact-based arguments. Something is lost if deep stories do indeed remove judgment and fact. Hochschild’s sociology of emotions may reflect the times as well as illuminate them. In a previous post, I expressed some concerns about the extraordinary weight Jonathan Haidt gives to intuitions in The Righteous MindI don’t doubt that people vote their deep feelings, but I think that educators and other responsible leaders should be encouraging people to examine their feelings, not just catering to them.

My next post will deal with Hochschild’s take on the rise of Donald Trump and possible liberal responses to far-right conservatism.



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