Review: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right’

A review of ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In her ninth book, UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild confronts her alarm “at the increasingly hostile split in our nation between two political camps.” Strangers in Their Own Land, a finalist for the National Book Award, reflects five years of Hochschild’s field research in Louisiana. “[A]s a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlines politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their ‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt.”

Interviews with Tea Party advocates

Bypassing what she terms the “empathy wall” that gets in the way of understanding other people, Hochschild sought out members of the Tea Party at meetings of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, at campaign events for Republican candidates, and in private gatherings. Over the course of five years, she “accumulated 4,690 pages of transcripts based on interviews with a core of forty Tea Party advocates and twenty others from various walks of life,” returning to the region again and again. Several of her interviewees became friends.


Red states vs. blue states

Hochschild set out to understand “The Great Paradox” that underlies the right-left split, inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? “Across the country,” she writes, “red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birthweight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.”

Yet the politicians supported by voters in red states consistently vote against policies and programs that successfully address many of these issues in blue states. And they seek to slash the “very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states — in the case of Louisiana, 44% —” that comes from federal funds. And, she notes, “Virtually every Tea Party advocate I interviewed for this book has personally benefited from a major government program or has close family who have.”

Nonetheless, Governor Bobby Jindal offered $1.6 billion in incentives to attract more industry while firing 30,000 state employees, cutting funds by 44% for the state’s 28 public colleges and universities, lowering corporate as well as individual taxes, and rejecting Medicaid funds available under the Affordable Care Act. “Only after public outcry did the governor restore some funds to public education — and cut public health and environmental protection instead.”

The keyhole issue: environmental pollution

To focus her research, Hochschild shaped her interviews around the “keyhole issue” of environmental pollution that looms so large in Southwestern Louisiana, a region that is home to some 300,000 people (approximately three-quarters of them white and most of the rest African-American). There, enormous factories supply oil, natural gas, plastics, and other industrial products to consumers throughout the nation — and produce prodigious quantities of toxic byproducts, much of which has leached into the soil or poisoned the water.

There have been numerous reports of cancer from contaminated water and, even more commonly, among the workforce at the region’s factories who have worked for years without adequate protection. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has been virtually eliminated. And, over the years, gargantuan sinkholes have appeared, most recently a 37-acre sinkhole at Bayou Corne that swallowed whole trees and forced 350 local residents to evacuate.

Yet Hochschild found only one of her interviewees was willing to talk freely about the issue of pollution, an environmental activist who, unaccountably, is also a Tea Party member and (probably) a Trump voter. “Everyone I talked to wanted a clean environment. But in Louisiana, the Great Paradox was staring me in the face—  great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.”

Continue reading on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

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