Strangers in Their Own Land: A Review

By Ana Velitchkova

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As a newcomer in the South and a returnee to what seemed to be a new United States, I was eager to understand this new environment. Why were there so many people supporting a presidential candidate like Donald Trump? How has a fringe movement like the Tea Party become mainstream? Strangers in Their Own Land unquestionably provides answers. Its author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist known for ethnographies like The Managed Heart and The Second Shift, was interested in just that: understand a worldview that was foreign to her own too. Hochschild ventures into this worldview through a narrower question, understanding how people devastated by environmental disasters in Louisiana would end up supporting candidates whose goals include the elimination of the EPA, the very agency tasked with preventing such disasters. The empathy goal with which Hochschild embarks on her journey of discovery and the strong connections she reportedly establishes with her interlocutors who vouch for the seriousness of her effort. It is important to note that, while providing understanding, Hochschild is by no means supportive of the worldviews she encounters. The richness of the ethnographic details and the vividness of her accounts are certainly noteworthy. I will focus, however, on some of the main theoretical points that emerge from the book.

Hochschild develops ideal types for the kinds of individual profiles she observes in her five-year engagement with Tea Party supporters facing environmental degradation in Louisiana: “team player,” “worshipper,” “cowboy,” and “rebel.” “Team players” tend to be loyal and dedicated to their teams, capitalism being the focus of the game. Sacrificing oneself and the environment in this context are implied to be worthwhile in the name of the success of the team. The primary focus of the ideal type of “worshippers” is their belief in God. Renouncing oneself, one’s desires, and other worldly matters and leaving them in the hands of God seems to be the preferred approach to life for worshippers. For this ideal type, while environmental degradation may be scary and undesirable, it appears to be secondary to supporting the path of God. The dominant features of the ideal type of “cowboys” are their endurance and their proneness to risk-taking. Capitalist entrepreneurship is the hallmark value in this ideal type. Personal injuries, including those due to environmental degradation, in this ideal type, are almost seen as marks of honor. Finally, “rebels” challenge features of the previously described ideal types and engage in environmental activism while remaining Tea Party supporters.

Such personal profiles do not emerge in a vacuum. Persons are embedded in a set of overlapping institutions that comprise their lives. Hochschild examines how industry, state government, the church, and the press each help produce and reinforce the worldviews she encounters. With regard to industry, Hochschild starts with the hypothesis that companies likely to produce environmental degradation target communities composed of people having the “least resistant personality.” These tend to be long-time residents of small towns, high-school educated only, Catholic, uninvolved in social issues, involved in mining, farming, and ranching (nature-exploitative occupations), conservative, Republican, advocates of the free market, and are the least likely to resist locally undesirable industries, according to the consulting firm that first developed the hypothesis. While many of Hochschild’s respondents fit some of these characteristics, they have reasons of their own to welcome polluting industries. People are driven by a desire to improve their towns. They see industries not only as providing jobs but also as serving a purpose, being useful. Industries also allow people to reach their own potential. Finally, when industries take advantage of government incentives, exploit natural resources, and produce pollution, the communities that have welcomed them are unlikely to adopt a “poor me” approach, which they find contemptible when observed in others.

The mistrust of government characteristic of Tea Party supporters is in turn attributed to people’s experiences with their state governments. For example, the performance of the state of Louisiana that Hochschild describes consists of a number of failures. Preoccupied with pleasing corporations, state agencies often disregard environmental regulations, which results in environmental degradation. Corruption, coupled with poor responses to natural disasters and limited funding for services other than corporate welfare, further tarnishes the bad image of the government. In such a context, the federal government, being even more distant and more powerful than the state government, seems to be even more dangerous.

Whereas the government cannot be trusted, the church is seen by many Tea Party supporters as the pillar of society and as the emotional center of community life. “Being churched” is thus considered an essential aspect of one’s upbringing. In the absence of government-provided services, the church also acts as a service provider. Church donations become an important source of social benefits. Because of the unequal resources churches have, however, such benefits are unequally distributed. A widespread belief in the Rapture mirrors the reality of environmental degradation, which nothing appears to be able to stop.

With regard to the press, Hochschild challenges the view that Tea Party supporters do not try to be informed. Many religiously follow the news, not only as presented by Fox News but also by what they see as the liberal media. What matters most, however, is people’s reaction to the media. The liberal media is rejected by Tea Party followers as trying to impose liberal feeling rules. The focus of the conservation media, on the other hand, matches more closely what matters to them.

The worldview espoused by Tea Party supporters is not only believed to be true, but also it is felt deeply. Hochschild refers to this emotionally resonant narrative as the “deep story.” Both the right and the left have “deep stories” that are constitutive of how persons perceive the world. Hochschild attempts to bridge the gap between the two by providing the main elements of each.

To represent the deep story of the right, Hochschild uses the metaphor of waiting in line. People on the right see themselves as patiently waiting in line to achieve the American dream. While they work hard and wait for their turn, they are frustrated to see others cut in line and move in front of them. They tend to be anti-government also because they see the government complicit with those cutting in line. Gender, race, and class play key roles in this deep story. Hochschild’s careful analysis of each of them is important to examine too, which I’ll leave to the readers.

Overall, Strangers in Their Own Land is an essential read for anyone interested in mapping out and in bridging the divide that characterizes U.S. society today.

 

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