Literature, Politics

Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.

That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.

Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.

At its core, Strangers in Their Own Land is an ethnography about a specific group of people with all of the advantages and perils that entails. We get to learn a lot about its subjects, but we have to be careful whenever applying any of its conclusions beyond the small group of people actually profiled.

Like any ethnography, Strangers in Their Own Land lives or dies by the interest the author can evoke in her subjects. Here, the subjects are a small group of Louisiana Tea Party members. Prof. Hochschild certainly managed to make me interested in them by using them as a lens through which to peer at the “Great Paradox” of American Politics: why do many of those who could most benefit from the government hate it so much?

I’ve forayed into discussions of the Great Paradox before. Like Prof. Hochschild, I’m skeptical of the purported “two rungs up” explanation of the paradox. It goes like this: yes, lower income counties tend to vote against government programs, but it is not actually the people on those programs (or their loved ones) voting against them. People relying on government programs rarely actually vote. Actual voters in Republican-leaning counties are better off and are voting solely for lower taxes.

By focusing Strangers in Their Own Land on pollution, Prof. Hochschild was able to sidestep this explanation. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor – one of the more heartbreaking stories in the book is about a nine-year-old who died from a rare neuroblastoma, which everyone suspects was caused by pollution. Despite this, his well-off parents and well-off family friends continued to oppose the EPA.

A focus on pollution made Louisiana the obvious setting for this book. It’s one of the most polluted states in America and has some of the weakest and most ineffectually enforced environmental laws. Louisiana also has a very high rate of welfare use, which let Prof. Hochschild compare the two rungs up theory with alternatives (as she could count on finding people who were or knew someone on welfare).

In Louisiana, Prof. Hochschild found no one who was happy about pollution. The Tea Party voters she interviewed loved the outdoors. Many of them grew up hunting and fishing and almost all of them continued to cherish those outdoor pastimes in adulthood. It hurt them deeply to have no game to hunt or to be unable to eat the fish they caught. Yet still they opposed more regulations on pollution.

Reasons for this varied. Some believed that regulating pollution would hurt the oil and gas industry and lead to unemployment. They were saddened by the effects of pollutions on the environment, but they refused to put the environment ahead of other people.

Others believed that the government was (indirectly) responsible for pollution. They saw the government as protecting the worst polluters while coming down hard on any “little guy” who leaked even a tiny amount of gas from his boat. They believed that any additional regulations would be applied to them and their friends, not to the big companies responsible for the real pollution. They figured that the free market would disincentivize pollution well enough if the government could just leave everything alone and let it work.

Yet others were religious and figured that the world would not be around for much longer. They saw God’s commandment in Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth, and subdue it”) as justification for any pollution in the interim. Even justifying pollution wasn’t very important for the faithful though; they cared far more about a rapture they saw as close to hand than they did about any worldly concerns.

No one that Prof. Hochschild talked to said: “yes, the government could fix this, but we don’t want them to”. Instead, she got responses like “the EPA would just use whatever power we gave it to take away our freedoms”, or “the government can’t help, it’s in the pockets of the polluters and hates the little guys like us”; none of the Tea Party voters trusted the government.

Prof. Hochschild was used to people distrusting certain government figures or departments, while still believing that good government was possible, necessary, and worth fight for. Here Prof. Hochschild saw people so used to incompetent, hostile, or distant government that they had given up hope that good government could ever exist for them. Prof. Hochschild immediately wanted to know how this could happen.

She found that religious people tended to see the government as usurping the traditional role of the church. They thought that ensuring the welfare of members of a community should be the responsibility of that community. With welfare, the government was destroying the bonds that held communities together. They viewed the liberal tendency to leave the care of the poor to a central bureaucracy as evidence of a terrible culture of neglect and moral bankruptcy.

Some adherents of capitalism saw the government as the enemy. To them, job creation and economic dynamism came from private enterprise, which the government stifled through bureaucracy, regulation, and taxes.

Other interview subjects saw the government as taking their money and giving it to people who were unlike them, people outside of their communities. They thought they’d done everything right, played by the book, suffered, yet still found prosperity elusive. They worked long hours for scant compensation, while not far away, the government was just giving away money to single mothers – who they viewed as hedonistic sinners who had far more children than was reasonable. Factually incorrect beliefs about the number of children people on welfare had or the percentage of the population that was on welfare were rampant in this group.

This isn’t to say that everyone fell into one of these categories. Many people combined beliefs. It actually reminded me of a point Joseph Heath made in light of the sex education controversy in Ontario – when social conservatives realize they can’t get the regressive solution they want (everyone forced to live by their values), they tend to swing to the other extreme and ask for ultra-liberal solutions. They may most prefer the government forcing everyone to have their values, but absent that, they’d rather the government force no one to do anything, so that it can’t force them to give up their values.

I should also mention that not all Tea Partiers ignored the consequences of pollution. Strangers in Their Own Land also profiles Tea Partiers who cared about pollution, viewed it as a pressing issue, and advocated for the Tea Party to make pollution one of its core principles. They echoed something I heard in some of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debates: “conservation is a conservative principle.”

Still, it was hard to take the anti-pollution Tea Party activists too seriously. They want to solve a collective action problem with the free market. Solving collective action problems with the free market is a bit like doing surgery with a pizza cutter. It’s not that it’s impossible, strictly speaking. It’s just that there are ways of doing it (in this case, via government) that are far less messy and far more likely to give the desired outcome.

It’s hard not to feel like the conservatives in this book are being betrayed by the industries they stand up for. One of the Tea Partiers who actually cared about pollution cared because his house was ruined in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Even as he stood up against pollution, he continued to advocate for a freer market, fear the EPA, and vote Republican. All of this has counted for nothing with Texas Brine, the company responsible for the disaster. It continues to drag its feet on the class action lawsuit launched by residents.

Further to this point, Prof. Hochschild dug up a damning report, prepared at the behest of the California Waste Management Board by some very fancy (and expensive!) consultants. The report identifies communities that won’t complain about “locally undesirable land use” (LULU), with the goal of identifying these communities so polluting (and property value lowering) activities can be more easily sited. Protests are very inconvenient for construction, after all.

Communities identified as ill-suited to resist LULU are:

  • Composed of long-time residents (who are unlikely to want to move away)
  • Small
  • High school educated
  • Catholic
  • Without a culture or history of activism
  • Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” (e.g. farming, ranching, and mining)
  • Conservative
  • Republican
  • Primarily peopled by advocates of the free market

The communities where Prof. Hochschild did her research hit basically every single one of these criteria. This prompted some introspection on her part, as realized that one of the ways that her home of Berkeley is able to avoid substantial pollution is by foisting the negative externalities of modern life (like pollution) off onto communities like those in poor, rural Louisiana.

The back of the book purports to contain an analysis that shows that communities where people are more conservative (and more likely to believe that pollution isn’t a problem) are more polluted. I’m cautious of adopting the conclusions from it though, because conclusions are all it contains. From those, it’s clear that multiple hypothesis could have been easily tested [1] but unclear whether or not this was specifically controlled for. Without being able to look at the raw data or see the analysis methodology, I can’t tell if the correlation is likely real or a statistical artifact.

I will beg the question for a bit though, because Prof. Hochschild treats the correlation as real and spends some time explaining it. I think her explanations are interesting enough to talk about, even if they may be based on a flawed analysis.

Prof. Hochschild doesn’t put willingness to endure pollution down to the poor ignorant workers being deceived by the big dastardly corporations, a change from leftist discourse that I found refreshing. Instead she focuses on stories and teams.

Prof. Hochschild believes that the people of the south are (in general) conditioned to look forward, towards what were historically the planter elite and are now the resource extraction executives. They want to be like the most fortunate people in their communities and so support the same things they do. When liberals tell them they should be looking backwards and trying to help people less fortunate than them, this feels like an attempt to enforce foreign feeling rules. They feel like they are being told that to be respectable or good, they must perform concern or other emotions that don’t feel genuine [2].

I’m using forward and back deliberately here. This is the book that coined the “standing in line” metaphor for the anger of white working class Americans. In this metaphor (called by Prof. Hochschild a “deep story”; a story that feels emotionally true), there is a long line stretching to the top of a hill. Just beyond the brow of it lies the American dream. The line is moving slowly (or perhaps not moving at all) and the people in it are weary from their waiting.

Despite this, they stand there, patiently waiting their turn. But something terrible happens. There are people cutting in line! From the interviews she used to construct this metaphor, Prof. Hochschild identified the line cutters as African-Americans using affirmative action, women taking traditionally male jobs, immigrants working more cheaply than American whites are willing to, and (somewhat amusingly) pelicans, protected by environmental laws that were killing jobs. While the people standing in line expected the government (personified by Barack Obama) to do something about the line cutters, they were horrified to instead see President Obama helping and supporting them.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t something that either Professor Hochschild or I believe is literally happening. When it comes to the actual suffering of the people interviewed in this book, Professor Hochschild is inclined to blame big business interests, while I think the blame belongs more to a changing economy and automation (there is of course significant overlap between these two causes). When it comes to pollution, we’re in agreement that Louisiana would really benefit from tougher environmental laws coupled with more rigorous enforcement of its existing regulations.

Even though I believe there is no real displacement, no cutting in line, this metaphor seemed to resonate with many of the Tea Partiers interviewed in this book. To those people, the government is betraying them, working against them for another team. This makes them utterly incapable of trusting the government (with the exception of the military) and makes them incredibly defensive of people they do feel are on their team, like Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, one of the few sources of jobs that feel ennobling for them in the state.

Like I mentioned earlier, the communities where Prof. Hochschild conducted her research also relied heavily on the government. Nearly everyone Prof. Hochschild interviewed was on some form of welfare, had been on some form of welfare, or had a family member who was currently or had in the past been on some form of welfare. No one was particularly happy about this though. People did what they had to survive, but there was much more honour in going it alone. They viewed work as inherently ennobling and accepting anonymous charity as shameful, the sort of Calvinist curse that seems to be common on the American psyche.

This actually reminded me of a topic that frequently popped up on Freddie de Boer’s now deleted blog [3]. Freddie was constantly worried that conspicuous consumerism was ruining the left. Freddie was apt to point out that there is a class of modern leftist that acts as if the important political projects of the left can be accomplished if they only signal their “woke” views hard enough, signalling primarily accomplished by consuming the correct media. Imagine, as an example, someone who is enthusiastic about Hamilton as if it were a meaningful political or institutional blow for leftist interests.

For both “woke” consumerist leftist cliques and Tea Party libertarians, the best off are able to buy virtue (or at least status), while the less fortunate have the misery of want compounded with the misery of failing to live up to an ideal that is predicated on a certain amount of disposable income (Hamilton tickets aren’t cheap, after all).

As much as the standing in line narrative has gotten air time, I want to caution against believing it as a universal motivating factor in Trump’s voters or working class whites more generally. Because this book is more an ethnography than anything else, it would be improper to take its conclusions, conclusions made about very small group of Tea Party activists and apply those conclusions across a country as varied and vast as the United States.

Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t include polling data; it’s unclear how many of the people who supported Trump share the “deep story” presented by Prof. Hochschild. Remember, many of Trump’s voters decided at the last-minute and many of those last-minute voters voted more against Clinton than for Trump (due to Comey’s letter).

One hint that the views expressed by Prof. Hochschild’s subjects are niche comes from their near complete abhorrence of government programs. Polls of the American public mark this view as an anomaly, even in a country that voted ~46% Republican. In 2015, 83% of Americans said Social Security was very important. 77% said the same thing about Medicare, and 75% said it about federal aid to public schools. A “mere” 73% said the military was very important. It would probably be incorrect to take the views of the Tea Partiers who want to cut these programs and represent them as common.

It’s also important to remember just how much of Trump’s victory came from evangelicals voting solely (or mostly) out of the belief that Republicans stand against abortion. 81% of evangelicals (who comprise a full quarter of the US electorate) voted for Trump. We don’t need some new narrative to explain why groups like this voted for the Republican nominee; they’ve voted reliably for Republicans in every election that Pew has stats for.

Despite my quibbles, Strangers in Their Own Land was a fascinating portrait of the deep divisions in America and Prof. Hochschild was an excellent narrator. She consistently fought to react with empathy, even to people she disagreed with on virtually everything. When a woman named Madonna told her that she loved Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to Femi-Nazis, Prof. Hochschild (the feminist writer who coined the terms “emotional labour” and “the second shift”) invited her out to lunch because “it seemed like it would be interesting”. Nowhere in this book did Prof. Hochschild exhibit scorn or a sense of superiority.

I think it’s important to note that Professor Hochschild hasn’t sold this book as a complete explanation for Trump. That’s on a media that desperately wants a single easy story to hold on to. Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t contain that singular story, but it does hold one fascinating piece of it.

One thing that may have helped Prof. Hochschild connect with the Tea Party members she interviewed was her own rootedness. The clash between cosmopolitan (multicultural, migratory, and individualist) and local (homogenous, traditional, and community-oriented) values was every bit as on display as the clash between right and left. Reading the acknowledgments section, I was struck by just how rooted in Berkeley Prof. Hochschild is. She has a small legion of friends and acquaintances and (one assumes) a deep web of interdependency with them.

Prof. Hochschild seems to be neither migratory, nor caught up in the atomization of society. Several of the people she interviewed directly critique this atomization and its corresponding effect on the breakdown of systems of mutual aid and support. Prof. Hochschild, by virtue of her position in a vibrant community (as well as her previous work that has touched on atomization) was well positioned to understand these critiques of the contemporary cosmopolitan.

I know that myself (and many other cosmopolitan-leaning liberals) have begun to feel the pain that can come with our migratory impulses. I abandoned a graduate degree, in part because it took me away from a community I had grown to love. For all that I often found myself completely disagreeing with the Tea Party members profiled in this book, I was glad to find that I might be able to talk with them about the benefits of community. I’m not sure if that would be enough of a starting point to convince them of anything substantial – rootedness and community are just one axis of (dis)agreement, just one part of the story – but it’s where I would start if I ever had to build a bridge to these strangers in their own land.


[1] Specifically, Prof. Hochschild looked for correlations between agreement with the statements “people worry too much about progress harming the environment”, “industrial air pollution is dangerous to the environment”, “the U.S. does enough to protect the environment”, and “Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses”, political affiliation (Democrat/Republican), and pollution rates. Her analysis found that agreement with the statement “people worry too much about progress harming the environment” (as well as membership in the Republican party) was correlated with relative risk of being exposed to toxic chemical release. Because I don’t even have the P values these were significant at, let alone knowledge of how they corrected for multiple comparisons and how many comparisons were attempted, I have to treat the correlation as liable to be caused by chance. ^

[2] I think Prof. Hochschild could have done a bit more analysis around feelings rules, because in my experience, they cut both ways. As far as I can tell, there seem to be one set of local feelings rules and another set of cosmopolitan feeling rules. Cosmopolitan feelings rules emphasize charity and welcoming the stranger, while local feelings rules emphasize responsibility to family and community. In both cases, it is grating to feel compelled to pretend to emotions that aren’t genuine. ^

[3] I can’t find any remnants of Freddie’s blog that make the point I’m ascribing to him, but if you want to get an idea of the tone of it, I’ve found an excerpt from the post “Our Nightmare”, which talks about a different way he feels the left is under threat. Freddie is an excellent writer, and I do recommend checking out his current blog, The ANOVA. ^

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