Tuesday, October 25, 2016

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

It is common for political commentators to lament the political divide that has become a chasm in our country.  In 2004, the divide was the subject of Barak Obama's breakthrough speech at the Democratic National Nominating Convention, but since then the divide has only become worse.  Among liberals, the main question the divide poses is, "why are so many people in the working class voting against their economic interests?"  This question was made popular by Thomas Frank's 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas?  Frank's explanation was that clever deception by establishment Republicans -- supported by right wing media -- has duped many working class people into betraying their economic interests, and all they get in exchange are empty promises to enact a socially conservative agenda.  Other authors have picked up on this theme.  Upon closer examination, though, this explanation appears too shallow and demeaning to account for the long-standing allegiance to the Republican Party among many working class voters.  Indeed, the explanation seemed too facile to UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, especially as she spent five years in southwest Louisiana getting to know citizens on the other side of the divide.  Her book Strangers in Their Own Land is Hochschild's report on her "journey to the heart of our political divide."  It is an admirable contribution to the attempt to communicate across that divide.

Hochschild's contact with conservatives in and around the town of Lake Charles, Louisiana was facilitated by the liberal mother-in-law of one of her former graduate students.  Hochschild's Louisiana contact was able to introduce her to what was to Hochschild a warm and welcoming community of conservatives with whom she became friendly in the course of numerous formal and informal interviews.  These interviews were conducted over the course of five years.  Hochschild's project might be considered a classic anthropological study in which the anthropologist embeds herself in an alien community in an attempt to understand that community from the inside -- that is, from the perspective of the community members.  This requires a concerted effort to discard as much as possible the previous, external perspective and social assumptions the anthropologist brings to the study.  Hochschild describes this as overcoming "the empathy wall."  In doing so, Hochschild claims to have understood the "deep story" of conservatives living in and around Lake Charles.

By "deep story," she means a perspective that is not necessarily based on simple facts of the world, but on the what seems true emotionally.  Some deep story or another, in this sense, predicates everyone's sense of and explanation of the world.  One's deep story will predispose one to either be credulous or skeptical of the many dubious claims we routinely encounter.  The deep story is critical in constructing our system of beliefs.  By discovering the deep story of the conservatives in Lake Charles, Hochschild believes she is better able to understand the motives the people on the other side of the political divide.  By doing so, she was able to open up avenues of communication heretofore closed to her.  It is clear that her work encourages us not only to appreciate her own effort, but to follow in her footsteps -- to seek a more charitable understanding of those with whom we disagree.  We'll look at the deep story that lies behind the conservative worldview a little later.

To begin to understand the perspective of conservatives, Hochschild investigates what she calls a "keyhole issue:" environmental destruction.  Hochschild seeks to understand why people who have been severely harmed by pollution from Louisiana's the petrochemical industry would be so hostile to government regulation.  She calls this "the great paradox."  Curiously, the solution to the great paradox is one that environmentalists understand all too well.  Hochschilds interviewees recognize the damage done to their communities by industry.  The first portion of her book recounts the horrific effects she heard described.  In one instance, the 700 acres of Bayou d'Inde became so saturated with contaminants from illegal dumping by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company that the property value of the residents crashed and their livelihood from fishing was destroyed.  In another, a subterranean salt dome was punctured by the drill from a mining company, Texas Brine, causing a 37 acre sink hole to form which devoured the entirety of Bayou Corne, home to 350 residents.

While this is not part of the region of Louisiana known as "cancer alley," Hochschild heard story after story of cancer deaths.  Everyone in the area knew or was related to someone who had developed cancer.  In one instance a man recounts eleven people in his family and close neighbors (including himself and his wife) who died from or were fighting cancer.  Hochschild recounts so many tribulations faced by the residents of Lake Charles and its environs that it is bewildering to read of the general hostility to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality; but their hostility is not without some foundation.  These residents see government regulatory bodies failing to protect their land and health.

Indeed, the primary role of these regulatory bodies has been to permit the destruction of people's lives and communities in the interest of the petrochemical industry.  Among environmentalists this is said to be a consequence of "regulatory capture" by industry.  Due to the revolving door between industry and agency executives, regulations designed to protect people and the environment are merely one consideration balanced against business and economic interests.  The role of the regulator is to determine the extent to which exemptions can be made to "balance" these interests.  The agencies are reduced to exemption-granting bureaucracies.  Hochschild reports that "according to [Louisiana's] own website, 89,787 permits to deposit waste or do anything that affected the environment were submitted between 1967 and July 2015.  Of these, only sixty -- or .07 percent -- were denied."  In light of this, it is understandable that the residents would see the regulatory agencies as aiding and abetting their suffering.  (For an excellent examination of how regulatory agencies function and their failure to protect the environment, see Nature's Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age by Mary Christina Wood -- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.)

This plays directly into the hostility to taxes that is prominent among working class conservatives.  Far from providing value for the cost, government merely appropriates the workers' limited income for useless bureaucracies or for welfare programs that they believe go mostly to people other than themselves, including unproductive government bureaucrats.  Many of Hochschild's interviewees acknowledge that they or their family and neighbors take advantage of some of these programs, but they do so with some embarrassment and with the attitude that as long as its available and necessary, they might as well take advantage of it.  In many cases, they claimed to be willing to forego the assistance, if the entire program were abolished and attendant tax burden were removed.

The deep story behind these and other attitudes that Hochschild believes she has discovered was confirmed by her interviewees.  They imagine themselves in a long line in a open field.  The line is moving slowly toward a distant hill.  Over the hill is the American Dream.  They are patiently waiting their turn, when after a while, people who had been behind them, begin cutting in line in front of them.  They are expected to allow this because of the disadvantages these line-cutters (or their ancestors) experienced.  Of course, they see themselves as responsible and hard working, and that the line-cutters are getting something for nothing.  In this analogy, they are white and Christian, while the line cutters are members of minority groups: black, Latino, immigrants, Muslims, women, and government bureaucrats, often no more disadvantaged than they are.  To add insult to injustice, many in the line in front of them turn around to hurl unkind epithets at them: racist, homophobic, ignorant, cracker, redneck, hick, white trash, etc. and criticize them for a lack of empathy.  Recently, the President of the United States is actively facilitating the line cutting.  He himself is a line cutter.

Given this deep story and the tribulations faced by a clearly marginalized population, it is easy to understand why working class conservatives feel "anger and mourning" over their fallen status and why they might choose different means to rectify their loss than the means chosen by historically marginalized groups.  It is also understandable why they might resent a media that ridicules them, a liberal elite that ignores them in preference to people they see as their competition, and even a Republican establishment that works in tandem with the corporations in a system of crony capitalism.  Their condition, while possibly slightly better than minorities and recent immigrants, is not markedly different when compared to the owners and managers of our society who are clearly beyond their reach.  Consequently, their dignity requires an even playing field, not vis-a-vis the corporate and government elite, but vis-a-vis their ordinary fellow citizens.

While Hochschild does not mention meritocracy, her observations support the idea that working class conservatives ardently support the values implicit in a meritocracy.  They do not want what they have not earned and they find it morally objectionable that anyone would be required to sacrifice (in taxes) their hard earned money for the benefit of others.  Charity must be voluntary or it is little better than theft.  This also provides the basis for excusing the excesses of the most well-off and defending them against high tax rates.  For the conservative working class, work and business is the essence of social life, and those who have become successful deserve admiration and respect, not envy and disdain.  Government intrusion in the market merely interferes with the working of a meritocracy.   It is just another obstacle in their path to someday joining the wealthy class.  One need not have a highly developed defense of laissez faire capitalism to recognize the relative value of hard work and frugality in markets dominated by small business and service sector employment.  In much of the country, particularly in rural areas, this is business environment.  Large corporations, even with their downsides, can be believed to be beneficial engines in an otherwise stagnant economy.  In the words of one of Hochschild's interviewees, "pollution is the price we pay for capitalism."

Perhaps the most admirable features of Strangers in Their Own Land are the effort to overcome the "empathy wall" and the goal of seeing those on the other side not as simple cardboard cut outs described in political polemics, but as real people living difficult lives with a genuine sense of dignity and morality.  In many ways, this morality is different from people on the other side of the wall, but in other ways it is similar.  Indeed, this was the message that Barak Obama attempted to communicate in his 2004 speech before the Democratic National Nominating Convention.

Furthermore, Hochschild is able to distinguish species of thought within the people she interviewed.  In Part 3, Hochschild describes "the team player," "the worshiper," and "the cowboy."  One can see these personalities in wider political discourse.  The team player is a loyal member of the Republican establishment, well-acquainted with the ideology of conservative politics, particularly deregulation and reduced taxation.  The team player places trust in the party and its allied institutions in its contest against the Democrats and their allied institutions.  The worshiper places his or her faith in God and the Church above any other social or political institution and is in common cause with the conservative (read Republican) movement insofar as he or she believes God, the Church, and Christian morality is under attack from a secular (read Democratic) society which has largely dominated government and our main cultural institutions.  Finally, the cowboy is the classic rugged individual, willing to resist social forces larger than himself or herself in defense of his or her dignity.  Team players might be just as familiar to many as Democratic Party team players, differing only in that they are motivated by a different ideology, while worshipers and cowboys cut an honorable figure, if one accepts the values that they accept.  But clearly, liberals must scale the empathy wall before allowing themselves to adopt this point of view.  Hochschild's work should help liberals understand that conservatives must not be treated as a monolith, but that they are as various as any political grouping and as people, they have legitimate interests and are deserving of basic respect.

This, however, introduces one of two criticisms that I have of the work.  Hochschild consciously sought to study "the geographic heart of the right."  For her, this turned out to be Louisiana which cast only 14% of its votes for Obama in 2012, has 50% of its residents supporting the Tea Party, and is second only to South Carolina in Tea Party state and federal legislators.  Furthermore, she studied only people in a particularly, environmentally hard hit parish, Calcasieu Parish.  While this admittedly would provide her a clear picture of people on the other side of the political divide, it is also a rather rare -- perhaps unique -- corner of the other side.  Hochschild wondered if her subjects were "odd-balls," not representative of conservatives in other locales, but she was reassured to find that the same relationship between environmental damage and politic ideology held across the country.  In an appendix she writes, "The Louisiana story is an extreme example of the politics-and-environment paradox seen across the nation."  But this is precisely what should concern her.  An extreme example is by definition an odd-ball.  Working class conservatives, Tea Party supporters, and Trump supporters live in communities all across the country, each with their own local history:  Peoria, Illinois; Manchester, New Hampshire; Grand Junction, Colorado; even Seattle, Washington and New York City.  So her exploration of "the heart of the right" may not tell us as much about the right as she suggests.

My second criticism of her work is its relative neglect of the elephant in the room: race relations.  The deep story that was being told to her studiously avoided discussions of race.  When it did arise, her interviewees reported not being racist.  After all, they rejected David Duke, did not use "the N-word," and did not hate black people; however, the deep story of a lot of other southerners would include a long history of slavery at the hands of white people, followed by apartheid, Jim Crow, and now the incarceration state.   Granted, Hochschild was acting in the fine tradition of anthropology in attempting to understand her subjects from their own perspective, but the family legacies of racism, particularly in the South, and the barely disguised (and sometimes undisguised) racial animosity among Tea Party members, the Alt-right, and Donald Trump's campaign seems to demand that the question of race be seriously dissected.  Hochschild's subjects may not consider themselves racist and they may not be racist on their own understanding of the concept, but they also might be simply disingenuous or in denial about their own subconscious motivations.  It seems that Hochschild was simply too polite to really explore this hot topic, possibly because she might lose access to her subjects.

Nonetheless, Strangers in Their Own Land is a remarkably valuable look into a world that academic authors seldom approach dispassionately, much less with sympathy.  A dispassionate approach is necessary to understand and address the political divide that has paralyzed nearly every attempt to address important social, political, and economic problems.  Additionally, a sympathetic approach is necessary in order to demonstrate respect for a population that objectively speaking has suffered grievous harm from our social, political, and economic order.  Hopefully, Hochschild's work will initiate a new phase of social and political analysis that will bridge the chasm that separates us and bring us greater understanding, peace, harmony, and justice.

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