Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Reviewed by Lenore M. Knight Johnson, Sociology, Trinity Christian College
Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, best known for her explorations into the intersections of work, family, and personal life, departs from her previous work and dives into the world of American political divisions in her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Disclosing her own standpoint as a progressive sociologist from Berkeley (Hochschild is professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley), she takes up the task of understanding the “other side” – Tea Party Republicans in Louisiana – by immersing herself in the communities, culture, and daily lives of people within a context which, to her, feels like another America. It is a seemingly personal journey on one side, but one primarily rooted in the in-depth ethnographic research for which Hochschild is best known. Though not written from a Christian perspective, her analysis provides a starting point for important and necessary conversations among people of faith around empathy, community, connection, and shared commitments across deep social, political, economic, racial, and geographic divides.
The study is set in the Lake Charles region of Louisiana among communities with historically rich and vibrant cultural traditions. A key focus of the book is what the author calls the Great Paradox, the confusing practice among Lake Charles residents of seeing the government as the primary enemy amid the noticeable negative impact private industry – oil companies and petrochemical plants – has inflicted on Louisiana. Pointing out examples of successful public policies and infrastructure in other states, Hochschild wonders why people in this region, most of whom align with the contemporary Tea Party, blame the government for the problems they encounter rather than seeing the government as a potential solution. In seeking to understand the Great Paradox, the author focuses on what she calls a “deep story” – “a story that feels as if it were true” (16) – behind Tea Party activists who adhere to an ideology seemingly counter to their own self-interest.
Immersing herself in the communities, connecting with the daily lives of people, and learning of the past and stark contrasts to the present, Hochschild offers readers an opportunity to see our nation’s political divisions through an alternative lens, one seeking empathy over antagonism. The author focuses on environmental destruction and pollution as her “keyhole issue” for exploring the Great Paradox. She chooses this issue over other divisive political debates because everyone in the communities she studies is, in some way, affected by the severe environmental degradation of recent decades. The natural resources of the area have long been prized among residents and serve as reminders of the beautiful landscape that existed prior to the oil companies and petrochemical plants that now dominate the land and the economy. Today, the fish and seafood, trees, waterways, homes, air, and even people’s bodies are tainted by the toxic waste, pollution, and structural damage brought on by these industries. And yet, throughout her research, Hochschild finds people largely remain opposed to any government intervention, regulation, and assistance to reverse the impact of these industries.
Although the author herself admits at the outset that a study on politics is outside her typical wheelhouse, she also notes how this book is not a pure departure from her earlier work in its engagement with the sociology of emotions, a subfield for which Hochschild deserves significant credit for its place on the landscape of sociological inquiry. One of the author’s tasks in uncovering the “deep story” behind the Great Paradox is to climb over an empathy wall, which she defines as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances” (5). It is an exercise in context, making sense of people’s environment, upbringing, and experience as a starting point for connecting to the way they feel and see the world, and it is a useful framework for a study like this. Hochschild explores her own perspective, describing her progressive political bubble at Berkeley and her own need to step beyond this context in order truly to understand the deepening political divides that mark American society. She challenges overly simplistic arguments that state people are ignorant and do not know better and instead shares a story of loss – real or imagined – of culture, tradition, livelihood, and security. In this sense, readers will have a chance to consider greater connection with others’ pain, regardless of where they may fall on the socio-political spectrum.
Out of Hochschild’s immersion into the region and culture and her rich descriptions of the landscape and its people, the Great Paradox emerges as a product of misplaced blame and an overwhelmingly strong trust in capitalism that seems to override any hope that the government can be of help. As the author studies the area and its economic evolutions, readers learn how oil and petrochemical corporations are largely responsible for the pollution and destruction of the natural environment. And yet, with just a few exceptions, any talk of government regulation is more often met with scorn than support. Illustrating this point, Hochschild shares a story in which the government issues guidelines urging limits on fish and seafood consumption due to high levels of toxic chemicals. Rather than directing anger toward the corporations who polluted the waterways (in some cases, illegally) and, in turn, the fish and seafood, residents point fingers at the government for the negative economic impact its guidelines have on the fishing industry. Hochschild’s methodology, coupled with her emotion-centered approach, successfully uncovers how pride and stoicism, with a strong emphasis on hard work, endurance, and self-reliance, undergird the unwavering free market mentality within this community. From an outside perspective, the Great Paradox is very much a paradox, but from the perspective of those immersed within this culture and community, it truly feels right to blame the government as a symbol of dependence and weakness.
The perceived binary relationship between people and the government is perhaps the most interesting thread woven throughout the stories told in this book. For readers of faith, questions will likely arise on how we understand our engagement with the world and the role of Christians in advancing positive social, economic, and environmental change. In exploring why residents seem so willing to sacrifice their communities, waterways, and air for industry, Hochschild discusses how some corporations rely on the “least resistant personality profile” (81) as a target audience for undesirable industrialization. These are communities with a deep distrust in government who are, in turn, unlikely to push back against corporate interests because they believe industry will bring what politicians have not: jobs and a stronger economy (though, as the author argues, the costs, which are largely footed by the state of Louisiana, far outweigh the benefits). The divisions are clear as one resident states, “But it’s real people – not the government – that should be telling us what is or isn’t too risky” (187). There is a noticeable passivity in the way people view their role in society and connection to systems of power and influence. What would it look like instead to see participation in civil society as an act of faith?
Interestingly, religious beliefs and, in turn, religious justifications for environmental destruction, play a central role in the passive postures people take on government regulation and intervention. Drawing from a theology of the end times, one man glosses over the pollution of a key waterway saying, “We’ll probably never see the bayou like God made it in the beginning until He fixes it himself. And that will happen pretty shortly, so it don’t matter how much man destroys” (53). Later, another resident argues, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (179), highlighting how free market values take priority over the value of human life, livelihood, and the flourishing of people. Christian readers will encounter a tension here, where the reality of a broken world in need of redemption intersects with intense, preventable suffering in the form of toxic waste dumped into waterways, a massive sinkhole, and high rates of cancer. As a sociologist, the author steers clear of a theological analysis, but her discussion on the role religion plays in shaping this passive acceptance of environmental damage is another opportunity to consider active engagement with civil society as a practice rooted in faith.
Partway through the book, Hochschild lays out her understanding of the “deep story” that emerged out of her fieldwork, walking through a tale of standing in line, holding tight to longstanding social and cultural beliefs and values, and waiting patiently for one’s chance at the elusive American Dream. A story of fairness and pride emerges, especially as more and more people join in the line – women, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrants, in particular – groups that do not always share in their beliefs and seem to be cutting in line and receiving special treatment without the same level of hard work as those already in the queue. Economic instability, a sense of cultural marginalization, and being part of a declining demographic all contribute to the deep story thread throughout the communities Hochschild studies (221). In a very real sense, a loss of advantage is not equal to discrimination, and yet, as Hochschild effectively argues, it matters how an experience feels.
The title of the book, Strangers in Their Own Land, represents a metaphor for this loss of advantage and its impact on how people experience the deep story, whether their sense of being a stranger is real or imagined. It is real to the residents and, therefore, as Hochschild effectively asserts, worthy of attention and care. A key element in this metaphor is the notion of ownership and entitlement over not just land, but also opportunities, recognition, voice, and stability. From a Christian perspective, there is much to learn about the posture we take in responding to our own felt sense of entitlement, as well as our sense of exclusion. Are our own goals of success and security at risk because others have success and security? What does it look like to share a common goal toward the flourishing of all people?
When resources and opportunities are scarce, we tend to hoard what we can get instead of working together to expand opportunities and resources, yet, as the author shows, this absence of community and connection only broadens divisions. Near the end of the book, Hochschild shares a letter directed toward her left-leaning friends in Berkeley and another letter to her new right-leaning friends in Louisiana, urging both sides to consider the sense of loss, instability, and marginalization felt by all. Indeed, the empathy wall has two sides. What would it look like for the residents of the Lake Charles region to also climb over this wall and more closely engage in the lives of those deemed line cutters within their deep story? Shared empathy is, of course, an important and necessary step toward healing our political divides, and yet such a task only goes so far without trust, community, connection, and a willingness to find common interests despite political, social, racial, economic, and cultural differences.