Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land: Republican Voters in the South

Arlie Russell Hochschild has produced a fascinating and enlightening volume evaluating the differences between liberals and what might be generalized as Tea Party conservatives in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  She is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was disturbed and puzzled by the increasing political polarization within the nation.

“In 1960, when a survey asked American adults whether it would ‘disturb’ them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered ‘yes.’  But in 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered ‘yes.’  In fact, partyism, as some call it, now beats race as the source of divisive prejudice.”

“According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side see those in the ‘other party’ not just as wrong, but as ‘so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being’.”

Being comfortably imbedded in the liberal enclave of Berkeley, Hochschild had little opportunity to interact with the engaged members of the other party, and assumed that those with opposing political views would be equally isolated from contrary opinions.  Her sociological training sent out warning signals.

“Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.”

Hochschild was interested in understanding the cause of the “great paradox:” why people would support policies that would cause them great harm.  In particular, why would people oppose environmental policies that would limit the pollution that put their very lives at risk?

“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.  Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua.  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.”

Louisiana is a home for the oil industry and the many associated chemical processing plants.  Sections of it merit the label of “sacrifice zone:” a region so important to industry that people are willing to harm the inhabitants and the ecology there in order to produce their product.  Yet the state is also the home of people virulently opposed to government regulation of industry.

Hochschild would choose to study the people of Louisiana, not only because they were an obvious example of the great paradox, but also because it was the home of self-proclaimed Tea Party sympathizers.

“In the 2012 election, in the nation as a whole, 39 percent of the white voters voted for Barack Obama.  In the South, 29 percent did.  And in Louisiana, it was 14 percent—a smaller proportion than in the south as a whole.  According to one 2011 poll, half of the Louisianans support the Tea Party.”

She set up shop in Lake Charles, Louisiana and set about meeting and talking to people.  She would come back a number of times to re-interview Louisianans over a period of about five years.  She was interested more in the why of their attitudes than the what of their political beliefs.  Others had tried to explain the mindset of the conservative voter, but Hochschild thought they had missed an important component.

“While all these works greatly helped me, I found one thing missing in them all—a full understanding of emotion in politics.  What, I wanted to know, do people want to feel, what do they think they should or shouldn’t feel, and what do they feel about a range of issues?  When we listen to a political leader, we don’t simply hear words; we listen predisposed to want to feel certain things”

Approaching the people she encountered with this perspective was very fruitful.

“At play are ‘feeling rules,’ the right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel—happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes.  The left sees prejudice.  Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief.  And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump….can appeal….”

Hochschild digested what she was learning and managed to assemble a description that captures and illustrates the perspective shared by those she encountered in Louisiana.  She refers to it as a “deep story,” a concept that is a bit hard to describe, but is clear once an example is provided.

“The deep story here, that of the Tea Party, focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders.  I constructed this deep story to represent—in metaphorical form—the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with.  Then I tried it out on my Tea Party friends to see if they thought it fit their experience.  They did.”

This is Hochschild’s deep story.

“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominately male, some with college degrees, some not.”

“Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees.  It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well.  Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving.  You deserve to move forward a little faster.  You’re patient but weary.  You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill.”

“The sun is hot and the line unmoving.  In fact, is it moving backward?”

“Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!  You’re following the rules.  They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back.  How can they just do that?  Who are they?  Some are black.  Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, and they hold a certain secret place in people’s minds….Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end?”

“Then you become suspicious.  If people are cutting in line ahead of you, someone must be helping them.  Who?  A man is monitoring the line, walking up and down it, ensuring that the line is orderly and that access to the Dream is fair.  His name is President Barack Hussein Obama.  But—hey—you see him waving to the line cutters.  He’s helping them.  He feels extra sympathy for them that he does not feel for you.  He’s on their side.  He’s telling you that these line cutters deserve special treatment and that they’ve had a harder time than you’ve had.”

The many people that have cut in line if front of you generates an enormous resentment—a resentment that is fed by the similar feelings of the people around you and by your source of news about the world.

“You resent them, and you feel that it’s right that you do.  So do your friends.  Fox commentators reflect your feelings, for your deep story is also the Fox News deep story.”

This story that Hochschild constructed—and that was endorsed by her Louisianans—is built on a blatantly racist concept.  The southerners who continually complained about the political correctness imposed on them by liberals, actually hide behind political correctness in order to try to shield themselves from being labeled as the racists they are.

“Curiously, the people of the right that I came to know spoke freely about Mexicans (4 percent of Louisianans were Hispanic in 2011) and Muslims (who accounted for 1 percent) but were generally silent about blacks, who, at 26 percent, were the state’s largest minority.  When the topic of blacks did arise, many explained that they felt accused by ‘the North’ of being racist—which, by their own definition, they clearly were not.  They defined as racist a person who used the ‘N’ word, or who ‘hates’ blacks.”

“As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom.  By that definition, many Americans, north and south, are racist.  And racism appears not simply in personal attitudes but in structural arrangements—as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white.”

If these people represent the Tea Party, then it is no accident that the Tea Party arose with the election of Barack Obama as president.  Hochschild places Obama prominently in the deep story as the most visible and most outrageous of those butting in line.  Here she describes the sentiments of her Louisianans.

“And President Obama: how did he rise so high?  The biracial son of a low-income single mother becomes president of the most powerful country of the world; you didn’t see that coming.  And if he’s there, what kind of a slouch does his rise make you feel like, you who are supposed to be so much more privileged?  Or did Obama get there fairly?  How did he get into an expensive place like Columbia University?  How did Michelle Obama get enough money to go to Princeton?  And then Harvard Law School, with a father who was a city water plant employee?  You’ve never seen anything like it, not up close.  The federal government must have given them money.  And Michelle should feel grateful for all she has but sometimes she seems mad.  She has no right to feel mad.”

One should note that among those butting ahead of the mostly white men are women.  These people focus on the feelings of their men.  Their religion and their traditions place men first.

“Gender, too, lay behind the disorientation, fear, and resentment evoked by the deep story.  All the women I talked to worked, used to work, or were about to return to work.  But their political feelings seemed based on their role as wives and mothers—and they wanted to be wives to high-earning men and to enjoy the luxury, as one woman put it, of being a homemaker.”

If the attitudes of the women seemed those of a bygone era, those of the men were more so.

“….the federal government was not on the side of men being manly.  Liberals were certainly on the wrong side of that one.  It wasn’t easy being a man.  It was an era of numerous subtle challenges to masculinity, it seemed.  These days a woman didn’t need a man for financial support, for procreation, even for the status of being married.  And now with talk of transgender people, what, really, was a man?  It was unsettling, wrong.  At the core, to be a man you had to be willing to lose your life in battle, willing to use your strength to protect the weak.  Who today was remembering all that?  Marriage was truly between a man and a woman….Clarity about one’s identity was a good thing, and the military had offered that clarity….even as it offered gifted men of modest backgrounds a pathway to honor.  Meanwhile, the nearly all-male areas of life—the police, the fire department, parts of the U.S. military, and the oil rigs—needed defending against this cultural erosion of manhood.”

Part of the answer to Hochschild’s great paradox was that men considered environmental regulations as being unmanly.  She provided this anecdote as an example.

“….a man hired as a corporate industrial hygienist, tasked with sampling acid mist in the battery charging area in a Ford battery plant recounted this: ‘To set up the air monitors, I had to wear a respirator.  Staff asked me to take it off since it might make workers who saw me with it on worry about the ill effect of the air on them.  But they needn’t have worried.  Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they [did].  But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist’.”

Hochschild has sympathy and affection for many of the people she has met.  She describes them as friendly and generous.  However, most of their generosity seems to be reserved for their own communities and their social equals.  Embedded in her deep story is the notion that the poor and unfortunate should take care of themselves and not bother them as they look towards reaching their American Dream. 

Whereas people on the left see conflict between a tiny wealthy elite and the rest of the nation, the right admires the elite and wishes they could join them.  For the right, the conflict is between the middle class and the poor.

“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither a factory floor nor an Occupy protest.  The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive.  Government checks for the listless and idle—this seems most unfair.  If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a ‘fair share’ of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’  For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is down between the middle class and the poor.  For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector.”

Hochschild sees the Tea Party as an emergence of southern attitudes that has taken hold in conservative minds in the North as well.  She provides this assessment of what that means for our nation and its future.

“So in the Tea Party idea, North and South would unite, but a new cleavage would open wide; the rich would divorce the poor—for so many of them were ‘cutting in line.’  In the 1970s there was much talk of President Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which appealed to white fear of black rise, and drove whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican.  But in the twenty-first century, a ‘Northern strategy’ has unfolded, one in which conservatives of the North are following those of the South—in a movement of the rich and those associated with them, to lift off the burden of help for the underprivileged.  Across the whole land, the idea is, handouts should stop.  The richer around the nation will become free of the poorer.”

So the Democrats, the left, had the temerity to put forward a black candidate for president, and then follow that with a female candidate.  The female was defeated.  The left has been criticized for pandering to the multiple minorities who are continually put at risk by the white-dominated right.  The left has also been criticized for not doing more to pander to the lower middle class whites who were so angry about their status.  It is difficult to see how one could win the hearts of these angry whites and still save one’s political soul.  Not all dissatisfied whites are racists and misogynists, but enough of them voted for a candidate who did pander to those sentiments to elect him president.

So stay the course, liberals!  History is still on your side.

If reinforcement of your beliefs is necessary, consider Hochschild’s version of the deep story shared by liberals.

“In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theater programs, libraries, schools—a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all.  They are fiercely proud of it.  Some of them built it.  Outsiders can join those standing around the square, since a lot of people who are insiders now were outsiders in the past; incorporation and acceptance of difference feel like American values represented in the Statue of Liberty.  But in the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center.  Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm.  That’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life.”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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