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Stangers in Their Own Land

Stangers in Their Own Land

5 Stars out of 5

Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, is an up-close-and-personal analysis of the prototypical Tea Party/Trump voter. It’s a sincere attempt by a sociologist from Berkley, California to “break down walls” in order to achieve not just a deeper understanding of, but a genuine empathy for people who seem like such strange aliens to liberals like her (and me). She does a terrific job with the understanding part – after reading this book I now have a much better take on what makes these people tick – but when it comes to feeling empathy for them, well, let’s just say I’m working on it.

Hochschild’s field research took her to Louisiana, one of the reddest of red states, starting five years ago and culminating with the rise of Donald Trump. Focusing most intently upon the issue of environmental protection, Hochschild extrapolates her subject’s attitudes about this question in order to make inferences about their positions on the full array of issues. What she discovers is a stunning paradox. With an economy predominated by the petro-chemical industry, it’s hard to imagine a more polluted state than Louisiana. Its once pristine bayous have been turned into toxic cesspools. Its air is smoky and stinky. Thanks to some sketchy mining methods, a 26-acre sinkhole began sucking down clean water and cypress trees while burping up poisonous methane gas and great gobs of oil. It happened in a place called Bayou Corne, and as far as I know, the place is still slowly sinking into hell. Louisianans, and in particular, Louisianans who work in the refineries and chemical plants, and who are also Tea Party and Trump supporters, get cancer and all sorts of other horrible diseases at rates way above the national average. And yet, these same folks stand by the companies that have wrecked all this havoc, and absolutely reject the EPA and all it stands for.

Holy smokes, you may wonder, how could this be? Why would anyone be against a government agency that only wants to keep you, and the earth you live on, safe and healthy? Jobs of course, are one reason why, but in Hochschild’s estimation, all those good paying petro-chemical jobs are not the only, and perhaps not even the most important reason why Tea Partiers in Louisiana hate the EPA so much. What really turns them against the EPA is what Hochschild calls their “deep story.” This is a personal narrative – and yet another paradox – shared not only by white, working class Louisianans, but also by white, working class people living in Trump Country nationwide. These are people that pride themselves on being self-sufficient and independent, while at the same time feeling deeply resentful for been left behind by their government.

In the view of Tea Partiers, the only folks the EPA really cares about are stinking tree huggers from the fancy suburbs. And it’s not just the EPA that’s messing with their pride. It’s the whole federal government screwing them over on a whole host of issues, and oh yea, they’ve got an argument with Hollywood too! This is the elite establishment allowing a bunch of Others – most predominantly blacks, immigrants and gays – to jump the line ahead of them. They are the ones that belittle their bedrock religious values and make them look like ignorant rubes on TV. These are the “politically correct” forces that make Tea Partiers feel like strangers in their own land, and why they’re so convinced that a bull-headed idiot like Trump can make America great again.

So, like I said, I can see why these people have a beef. Thanks to Hochschild’s thoughtful research and her well-written book, I can understand why someone feeling so aggrieved might put their emotional self-interests ahead of their more rational and long-term economic self-interests, and vote for a guy like Trump. I know also that I should have empathy for these fellow Americans. They really do have many good qualities. They truly do! They love their country and their kids and their neighbors as much as anyone. I should focus on these positives, and should never think of Tea Partiers as being ignorant, or racists, or religious nuts, or cry babies, or selfish. Even though, deep down, in spite of what Hochshild writes, I still can’t help but think it’s true.

I need to work on that.



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