Anger, mourning and the American right
Arlie Hochschild talks Trump, liberal ignorance and the importance of empathy.
‘We live in grim times. There’s a job to do.’ So says Arlie Hochschild, author, sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley and self-styled ‘feminist, liberal and environmental wacko’.
If you didn’t know Hochschild, or her acclaimed works from The Managed Heart: the Commercialisation of Human Feeling (1983) to The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (2012), you could be forgiven for writing her off as just another member of the West Coast elite. But Hochschild isn’t like many of her peers. In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she seeks to address the failure of many liberals in the US to pierce what she calls their own political bubble. And she did this by spending five years of her life carrying out sociological research in Lake Charles, Louisiana, home to a huge number of Tea Party and latterly Trump supporters.
And what does Hochschild conclude from her trip into the heartland of the American right? That US politics needs more empathy, and specifically, that members of her own political tribe, the so-called progressives, need to get out more. Little wonder that Strangers in Their Own Land was not only a finalist for the National Book Award, it was also hailed by the New York Times as ‘one of the six books [you need to read] to understand Trump’s win’.
So, is Hochschild’s research a wake-up call to liberals? And does she feel positive about a future politics in the US that can be more frank and open about differing viewpoints? We decided to catch up with Hochschild and get her thoughts on Trump, her time in the South, and her return to the liberal bubble.
spiked review: What was the driving force behind Strangers in Their Own Land? What made you decide to take on this research into what motivates Republican and Tea Party supporters?
Arlie Hochschild: Even five years ago, we were in a political deadlock. Congress was gridlocked and rhetoric was escalating on both left and right. There was a negative feeling and really very little communication across the divides in the US. So it was at that point that I realised that I was in a political bubble. I was in Berkeley, California, where I’d taught sociology for 30 years. And I realised that everyone around me shared my worldview, but what I was reading in the newspapers and seeing on the television was a whole different worldview that I didn’t get.
So, I was very curious to get out of my bubble and find an equal and opposite kind of political bubble. I wanted to turn my own moral and political alarm system off, and really give myself room to be curious. I wanted to get to know people who lived in a different truth. So that took me to Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the South. I first thought: I want to go to the South, I want to talk to older whites – but where within the South? So I looked at the 2012 returns for the proportion of white people voting for Barack Obama. In California, half of white voters voted for the reelection of Obama. In the South, in the former confederacy states, it was a third. But in Louisiana, it was 14 per cent. Louisiana was the super South.
I was also really haunted by what we call the Red State paradox. The red states, the Republican states, are the poorest with the worst facilities, the poorest health and the lowest life expectancy. The people living there get more money from the federal government in aid than they give to it in tax – and yet they’re the most against the federal government. I thought, I’m not alone in scratching my head with this. But in Louisiana, there was a super red-state paradox, because in 2012 it was the poorest state in the whole country – it even beat Mississippi. Forty-four per cent of its state budget came from the federal government, and yet it was hugely supportive of the Tea Party, and now of Donald Trump. So I thought to myself, this is just where I want to be. I want to see where people went to school, where their parents are buried, I want to go on fishing trips with them and just see what their lives are like.
review: Were you surprised that Donald Trump won the election?
Hochschild: I didn’t anticipate Trump, but I did end up at one of his rallies in New Orleans Airport during my research. And I suddenly realised that I had been studying the very dry kindling, and that Donald Trump had been the match. He lit it up.
review: Do you think too many people are content to dismiss the concerns (and votes) of those who congregated around the Tea Party, and latterly voted for Trump, as being simply sexist, racist or just plain wrong?
Hochschild: Yes, and this seems to me an enormous mistake. You simply cannot write off half the country and think you’re doing an interesting, important or progressive thing. Empathy becomes hugely important as a passport to entering a way of life and really understanding what are very real and important grievances. And I think that the progressives in this country have not done that – this is the next order of business. It’s really counterproductive to say that people you don’t agree with are racist, or ignorant, or that they’re just rednecks. Those were precisely the insults that drove the people I came to know well crazy – the arrogance of it!
It’s funny, about empathy, because when I set out on this, people said: ‘Oh, going to the South, and talking to Tea Party people. I could never do that. I’d just get too mad.’ As for other people, well, I could see the look on their face, as if I was maybe giving in to the other side. Was I a covert right-winger? But this is a misunderstanding of empathy – the idea that it alters the basic you, so you better watch out and not empathise too much; that it’s a dangerous thing, giving in to the enemy; or that it’s too taxing, too exhausting hiding your feelings. On the contrary, I found my experience enlarging and not in the least exhausting.
I’ll give you an example. Once I was down in Louisiana, I began to go to meetings of the Republican Women of South-West Louisiana. And, around the table, I met a Pentecostal minister’s wife. She was white and in her forties, and she said to me: ‘Oh, I love Rush Limbaugh.’ (He’s a very conservative, highly influential radio host who dominates the midday radio airwaves, with extremely right-wing views.) I had a flash – other times, when I ordinarily hear his voice, I change the channel. But I thought, wait, here’s an opportunity. So I said: ‘Could I meet you for sweet teas tomorrow? Could I talk to you about this?’ And she said, ‘sure’, so we did. And, the next day, when I asked her what she loved about Limbaugh, she said: ‘Oh, I love it that he hates the feminazis’ (or feminists, like me), ‘and environmental wackos’ (also me). And so I was acting neutral, and taking notes, and then she stopped and said to me: ‘Was it hard for you to hear what I had to say?’ And I thought, wow, she’s watching me. And I said, very honestly: ‘No, not at all. I have my alarm system off and the reason I’m here is to learn from you and you’re doing me an enormous favour and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.’ And she replied: ‘You know, I can turn my alarm system off, too. I know what you’re doing – I can do that too.’ And then the conversation changed, it became an entirely different conversation. She said: ‘You know what I really like about Limbaugh? It’s that he protects me from the liberal epithets that you college-educated people on the coast often express toward us working-class Southerners.’ She said: ‘I know that a lot of people, Democrats, would think that I am sexist, racist, homophobic, too religious, educated and fat.’ And she told me that Rush Limbaugh protected her from all those epithets. But most interestingly, she could relate to what I was doing. She understood my desire to listen and empathise.
review: While the people you talk to in the book have their gripes, they clearly don’t want to go down the victim route, which is part of what they find so irksome with identity politics. Do you think we need less emotionalism, and more empathy, more solidarity?
Hochschild: Empathy seems to me to be a tool for really entering a worldview, and a perspective, at the bottom of which, are human feelings.
I came up with the idea of what I call a ‘deep story’ – we all have it, left, right and centre. What is a deep story? A story of how life feels, what feels true. So you take facts and moral judgements out of your deep story – it’s just what things feel like. I’ve listened to what was altogether 60 people, 40 hardcore Tea Party supporters, and I came up with a deep story, went back to them and said: ‘Hey, does this fit?’ And they told me that it did, or told me to add something to it and then it fit.
So the deep story was this: You’re waiting in line, like in a pilgrimage, and you’re facing up a hill, at the top of which is the American dream. And you’ve been waiting there for a long time. Your feet are tired. You have tremendous sense of deserving. You’ve done everything right: you’ve followed the rules and worked hard. But the line is not moving. And then you begin to see some people cutting in line, ahead of you. Who are they? Well, they’re blacks who now have access to jobs that used to be reserved for whites. Even worse, there’s women who now have access to jobs that used to be reserved for men. And there are immigrants and refugees. Even the oil-soaked brown pelican, an endangered species, gets to cut in line before you – I heard a lot of people saying: ‘Oh, now the liberals are putting animals over humans.’ And then, you see Obama in this deep story, waving to the line cutters – in fact, he’s sponsoring them. Isn’t he a line-cutter, too? How did he get to Harvard? How did he get to Columbia? He’s the son of a single mother. Something is rigged here. And so the federal government came to seem to them like an instrument of their own marginalisation. Then, in this deep story, someone who is ahead of you in line, turns around and says: ‘You backward rednecks.’ I often heard people being very incensed about this.
And so, they felt estranged from their own country. This is why the book is called Strangers in Their Own Land. That came from those I lived with and talked to. They’re looking for someone to lead them back out of the wilderness. Trump, with his great promises and his grandiosity, has offered them a kind of a secular rapture – you will rise up to the top with the winners. So that’s the deep story. It’s what TS Eliot called an objective relative, with a core set of feelings, and it accounts for your sense of being cut out, your fear, anxiety, anger, and your sense of betrayal.
review: What do you feel did motivate those who voted for Trump? So many of the people you spoke to in the book talked about wanting to find honour and pride in themselves through their political affiliations. Trump used this sentiment in his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogans, which became brash and comical in places, but do you think there was a genuine attempt to revive the American dream? Was the Trump vote a defence of being great, and achieving, rather than just getting by?
Hochschild: You’ve put it beautifully. These people felt a bit in an honour squeeze. When they looked around for what to be proud of, they turned to work but work was not what it had once been, but it was never the entirety of one’s basis for honour anyway. Then they turned to region: ‘I’m proud to be a Southerner.’ Well, the more the internet puts them in touch with how the whole nation feels, they see how they’re viewed. So you can’t be proud of that. ‘Okay, so we’re proud to be Christian.’ Well, you know, it’s an increasingly secular culture, church is associated with being misinformed about evolution and other things. So they think, ‘at least I’m white’, but they can’t think that, that’s a racist thing. So they think, ‘at least I’m male’, but they can’t think that either. These are the rules – the feeling rules – that have been established. So what can you claim as the basis of honour? How about your values? Well those values are now against the national law – gay marriage is now legal and the right to abortion is legal also. So they feel marginalised on a number of grounds. And it isn’t reducible to any one thing, but it creates in some gestalt way, a kind of crisis in honour. So to become an American, that becomes hugely important, that looms large, because it’s filling a vacuum of pride.
review: In Strangers in Their Own Land, you talk of right-wing figures using the sentiments and concerns, voiced by the people you spoke to, to further their own political agenda. And much of the criticism of the vote for Trump – and the vote for Brexit here in the UK – was that people were manipulated, that the media promoted a kind of dog-whistle politics and that people were swept along on a wave of populism. Doesn’t this seem like a low view of people to you? When you went and talked to these people, were they upset at being painted as stupid?
Hochschild: I see it through more emotional eyes. I think Fox News is important for reaffirming what these people already feel and for giving legitimation to what they feel. I think Donald Trump has come in as an antidepressant. A lot of people in the blue-collar world of America are in mourning. You don’t see it because what you see is anger and racial outbursts. I think that’s disguising a sense of loss and mourning. It makes them extremely hungry for an affirmation – they found it in Reagan also, you know, ‘a new morning in America’. And I think that the liberal side of the US political register doesn’t understand that – we don’t empathise with it. If you look at blue-collar males, they have higher rates of depression, addiction and suicide. Something’s going on there, and yet we haven’t related it to politics, because we haven’t been thinking about feelings.
review: Do you think a large part of Trump’s win was down to the fact that so many people hated Hillary Clinton? How she failed to put forward a truly progressive politics, with substance, and failed to win people over? You describe yourself as someone on the left – do you think that this tendency not to engage with right-wing political opinions has meant that the left has largely failed? Is that why so many are, as you say, voting against their interests?
Hochschild: Exactly. Hillary represented, to many people, a kind of toxic neoliberalism, with all of these transpacific trade agreements that were unsettling the economic prospects of blue-collar America. Her neoliberalism, together with identity politics, put people off. She’d say, ‘I’m there with the transsexuals and the women and the blacks’, sort of naming categories of people, rather than addressing conditions that exacerbate the pain of these groups. She talked about the glass ceiling for women – well that’s kind of a 1970s call for equality without a sense of the structure within in which you would be equal.
I think identity politics really is getting in our way. You see it here at Berkeley, out in the plaza on campus, there is the Filipino Business Association and then next to that is the Samoan Women’s Group. It’s funny, you know – there’s so much focus on where you came from, rather than the circumstances which unite us all. So there’s a paradox here – identity politics is supposed to be about inclusion, but it loses focuses of what it should be that you are included in. So, Hillary’s unpopularity had to do with those two quite basic things. And she didn’t catch that. She also looked down on Trump supporters, calling half of them ‘a basket of deplorables’. She didn’t have the vision, I’m sorry to say.
review: It seems like a lot of the reasons working-class white voters give for their political affiliations are grounded in material problems: jobs are scarce, wages are low, towns are stagnating, education is poor. So when Trump says he’s going to produce jobs and kickstart economic growth and greatness, it sounds much more appealing than Clinton’s soundbites about the glass ceiling. Do you think this is part of the problem for middle-class liberals in the US? That they don’t realise that many people feel that identity must be grounded in a tangible reality, rather than fluctuating with the changes of identity politics or PC culture?
Hochschild: Yes, and their identity must also be something that is a source of honour. I think that it’s time for left-liberals to realise that we are the strangers in our own land. And that we are, to some degree, responsible for becoming that. Because, we have not made the Democratic Party an engine of change for the majority of US citizens. There are many wonderful things that the Democratic Party has done (for the minimum wage, and the right to form unions), but there are fundamental things it hasn’t done, and its rhetoric has very limited appeal. So I think it’s time for people on the left to realise that we’ve been self-marginalising. We need to get out of our corners to get to know people who disagree with us.
And there is common ground in doing so. I met a lot of people in Louisiana who said ‘Oh Bernie Sanders, good old Uncle Bernie’. I said, ‘what? Good old Uncle Bernie? Great! I thought the Tea Party was about getting rid of government rather than it being an instrument for transformation.’ So, there’s common ground that we don’t even know is there because we’re turning our nose up at it. There’s a job to do here.
review: You began the conversation by describing the current moment as a grim time. Do you think there is anything positive in how the Trump vote has broken the silence of those you got to know in Louisiana? Is the black eye the establishment received at the ballot box a positive from which we can draw a new kind of politics?
Hochschild: Yes, I do think so. When I got to know a lot of right-wingers that I thought I had nothing in common with, I found that I had quite a bit of common ground. One time, I went out on a fishing trip with a man I feature in the book, who’d worked in oil all his life and grown up on a sugar plantation – he was a big Trump enthusiast. And he said to me: ‘You know we’ve gotta get money out of politics.’ And I thought, you know what? People that I hang out with are campaigning for finance reform. Good idea. That’s common ground. He said: ‘You know, we really need to reduce prison numbers. Too many people are stuck in these prisons for minor drug use.’ I said, you know what? Liberals believe that too, so let’s see what we can do. How to do this? How to work out this common ground? These are questions you can come to in good conversations.
The common ground is possibly there, but if we’re not looking to offer something fundamental and not looking for common ground, we’re not going to find it.
Louisiana was a state which had a progressive, socialist leader in the 1930s, Huey Pierce Long Jr, who offered a chicken in every pot – in every white pot and in every black pot. And when I asked this man on the fishing trip, ‘who is the best governor you ever had here in Louisiansa?’, he said, ‘Oh, Huey Long’. So, there’s lost ground. And we need to find it and take it back.
Arlie Hochschild is professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her latest book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, is published by the New Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))
Arlie was talking to Ella Whelan.
Picture by: Paige Parsons, The New Press.