Across the Great Divide

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right BY Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press. 187 pages. $28.

The cover of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

One day in August of 2012, the ground began to tremble in the tiny town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, the smell of oil filled the air, and the bottom of a nearby bayou tore open. Earth, brush, and trees were sucked under, as though down a drain, while oil oozed to the surface. The sinkhole, which eventually covered thirty-seven acres, was not a spontaneous development: Underground drilling by a company called Texas Brine had pierced the wall of a subterranean cavern, and the cavern had collapsed. The eerie disaster made a ghost town of Bayou Corne, after the state of Louisiana recommended that its 350 residents evacuate, and it made an environmental activist of a sixty-four-year-old man named Mike Schaff, one of the few people who refused to leave the town.

Schaff had moved to Bayou Corne five years earlier, feeling that he’d found the sort of close community he’d known as a kid. Now his neighbors had fled to trailers or motel rooms or were living in cars, and he was writing letters to members of the Louisiana state legislature, supporting a bill that would secure quick compensation for victims of an industrial accident, and objecting to a plan by Texas Brine to flush wastewater into the sinkhole. Yet he had been, and remained, a resolute Tea Party conservative, in favor of less government regulation overall. Texas Brine may have ruined his town, and more oversight might have prevented that, but even as he was asking the state to better ensure public safety, he felt that the “bureaucrats” employed by the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality were “slackers” who had failed to do their jobs and, more broadly, that the federal government posed a threat to the very idea of local community he held dear.

Mike Schaff embodies what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her new book Strangers in Their Own Land, calls “The Great Paradox”: People who live in the most polluted parts of America—who in theory might benefit from more environmental regulation—are less likely to favor government regulation of industry than are people who live in less polluted places. She began interviewing Tea Party conservatives in Louisiana in 2011 with the aim of better understanding the political divide in America, and settled on this “great paradox” as a starting point.

Describing her first encounter with Schaff, Hochschild writes:

I’d told him, “I’m from Berkeley, California, a sociologist, and I am trying to understand the deepening divide in our country. So I’m trying to get out of my political bubble and get to know people in yours.” Mike nodded at the word “divide,” then quipped, “Berkeley? So y’all must be communist!”

We’re in familiar territory here: An intellectual flies in from the coast to take the measure of working-class Americans, who oblige her with a mix of skepticism, politeness, and humor. At times this genre of narrative can feel a little suspect, a little condescending, no matter how earnestly it’s taken on (and Hochschild is nothing if not earnest); moreover, it seems to be the product of a unilateral impulse—I have yet to hear about any conservative Gullivers poking around in Berkeley coffee shops in order to probe the liberal mind-set.

Nevertheless, Hochschild has gone about her investigation diligently and with an appealing humility. She sits in living rooms and attends church services; she is invited to the 40s-Plus Pentecostal Gumbo Cook-Off and the Acadian Village Pig Roast. Hochschild is a decorated emeritus professor of sociology, now in her mid-seventies, whose best sources in Louisiana turned out to be older men, and while reading her book I could practically hear the soft rustle of conversations between her and her fellow seniors, trying to make sense of what lay broken around them. Although she began her research before the sinkhole that is Donald Trump swallowed the Republican Party and released its mephitic fumes on the general public, she came to know a group of likely Trump voters, and one of the merits of her book is to give a more thoughtful, nuanced view of his constituency than do newspaper snapshots of aggrieved white nationalists.

To really grasp the widespread resistance to government intervention, and to answer the larger question of why the Right is moving farther to the right, Hochschild argues, one has to learn more about the inner lives of conservatives. Her intention is to get to know the cultural underpinnings of the Tea Party, to gain access to its psychology, to find out “how life feels to people on the right.” Her mission takes on an explicitly therapeutic cast as she describes her own efforts to cultivate empathy for her subjects, something that she, as a person on the left, finds difficult when they talk about politics. She writes about the “empathy wall” she’s trying to climb as well as an “empathy bridge” she finds challenging to cross. “I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again,” she notes at one point. (Over the course of the book I began to imagine her as a contestant in a sort of empathy Tough Mudder competition.)

The irony in all this strenuous empathizing is that “my Louisiana friends,” as Hochschild calls her subjects, are weary of empathy itself. They’ve had enough of liberals’ high-minded concerns. One woman tells Hochschild that she feels scolded by CNN reports: “Take Christiane Amanpour. She’ll be kneeling by a sick African child . . . looking into the camera, and her voice is saying, ‘Something’s wrong. We have to fix it.’ Or worse, we caused the problem. . . . I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person if I don’t feel sorry for that child.” Here lies part of the appeal of Donald Trump, anti-empathy’s dark prince.

Mike Schaff at his home in Bayou Corne, Louisiana, 2013. © Julie Dermansky
Mike Schaff at his home in Bayou Corne, Louisiana, 2013. © Julie Dermansky

White, working-class aversion to big government in Louisiana has roots in southern history, but the people in this book also bring more recent complaints to the table. Some are religious and feel that the state restricts the church; some believe that taxes are “too high and too progressive.” The government, it seems, has harassed them and at the same time failed to protect them: “The health unit came down on my nephew for not keeping his hogs away from the bad water, but they didn’t do nothing about the bad water,” says Harold Areno, a Cajun pipefitter whose former way of life has been upended by the pollution in the swamp where he lives. The government made them buy LED lightbulbs, a group of Republican women tell Hochschild, and was responsible for “‘forced’ salads” on fast-food menus. The government has blocked off the road to wealth: “If you and I hadn’t had to pay into Social Security,” Schaff says to her, “we could have invested that money ourselves. . . .You and I would be millionaires by now.” (In her encounters with men on the right, she notes, “the repeated term ‘millionaire’ floated around conversations like a ghost.”)

There’s another phenomenon at work, too, a more nebulous sense of loss, a feeling among Hochschild’s subjects that they’ve been deprived of their place in the world. They’ve lost their honor, and the government let this happen. It has been doling out public assistance, which goes to lazy, undeserving people (a belief often interlaced with, but not quite reducible to, racism and sexism), and it has played handmaiden to a “cultural erosion” that allows for things like gay marriage and women working in traditionally male jobs. In the eyes of Hochschild’s Louisiana conservatives, the pollution of American culture is as dangerous as the toxic substances in the swamps and bayous. The government has come to seem shameful and feminine and nagging, and to be antigovernment is to stand for virtues like perseverance and hard work.

Does life in fact feel fundamentally different to people on the right than to people on the left? And if it does, can people on one side understand how it feels different to those on the other side? Hochschild would answer yes to both questions, and when she sticks with her subjects, she makes a good case. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is encumbered by a clunky thesis, a result she’s extracted from her research and serves up in the form of a “deep story” of the American Right, one that “tells us how things feel” to the people she’s met.

The story goes like this: You’re a person who’s been waiting patiently in line, one that leads uphill, with something called the American Dream just over the crest. But the line isn’t moving, and hey, wait, there are people cutting ahead of you, mostly women and minorities and immigrants—and it turns out President Obama is helping them! And you have to pay taxes that go to help the line-cutters. And meanwhile when you turn on the TV you’re made fun of as an ignorant redneck.

Hochschild runs this by her Louisiana contacts, and they give their endorsement. “You’ve read my mind,” one of them responds. Yet Hochschild’s story, even as it strikes a chord with her subjects, tends to flatten out the reporting that informed it: Instead of appreciating the “anger and mourning on the American right” promised in the subtitle, we picture a crowded day at some macrocosmic Department of Motor Vehicles.

I think Hochschild may have misunderstood where the power of her work lies—it’s the particulars that let us feel for and understand her subjects, not parables and typecasting. What will stay with me are her old men in their polluted environs: Mike Schaff wistfully intoning the word millionaire, and an impromptu elegy delivered by Harold Areno for the bullfrogs, turtles, and other marine life that used to populate his swamp before being killed off by toxic emissions. There’s a lot of sadness and nostalgia in these men, palpable and affecting. And then again I came to feel a nostalgia for the distant world of 2011, when Hochschild began her research. Perhaps back then it was more plausible that if we could just feel more empathy for people on the other side of the political divide, we could make some sort of progress. It’s harder to believe that now.

Karen Olsson is the author of the novel All the Houses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).