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

strangersLike many of you, to say I was surprised by the results of the November election is a profound understatement.  What kept echoing through my mind the next day was this: why did so many people vote for a man whose policies will not benefit them?  I thought women wouldn’t vote for Trump because of his sexism, not to mention the GOP’s positions on women’s health.  I thought people of color wouldn’t vote for him because of his racism and fear-mongering.  And despite all evidence to the contrary, I thought the poor wouldn’t vote for a man whose policies will only benefit the very rich.

Our democracy is based on the idea that the populace will vote for the person that best represents their interests.  Except the poor, especially in rural areas, have been voting GOP in growing numbers, and this means they are voting for people in direct opposition to their best interests.  The GOP has no interest in supporting social services like education and job training programs, and it has no interest in making health care accessible.  The GOP motto seems to be “make it on your own” while at the same time supporting huge benefits for corporations and the very rich.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a researcher, decided to investigate why rural populations were voting so decidedly on the right.  Her purpose in doing this study was to get a clearer look at what rural populations are thinking about when they vote, and why they are supporting ever more extreme candidates, when those candidates don’t propose policies that benefit them. She refers to this as “The Great Paradox.”

I’ll be honest here – I’m one of those people who think most Trump voters are 1) racist; and 2) ignorant of facts and public policy.  I appreciate that Hochschild wants to give us a bigger picture, because I don’t want to feel so divided from half of my country.  I don’t want to, but I do.  I read this book hoping she could help me understand, and empathize with, this population.

She conducted her study in rural Louisiana over about five years, developing a qualitative study that consists of focus groups, interviews, and observing people to get a better understanding of their views.  She then decided to focus her study on a single issue, rather than confronting all the issues facing voters.  The issue she chose is environmental damage.  Louisiana is a state that faces more severe environmental problems than other states, due to the large concentration of oil and petrochemical companies working there.  Louisiana, under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, instituted many corporate-friendly policies to incentivize companies to work in the State.  Since the GOP is firmly in favor of deregulation and many GOP candidates propose eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, Hochschild wanted to explore how environmental issues have affected voters.

I was surprised to learn that the redder the state, the more environmental damage its people are experiencing.  Louisiana, for example, went through a huge oil spill and explosion, as well as Hurricane Katrina.  Its rural people have seen the land go from lush and bountiful to polluted and toxic.  People who grew up fishing can no longer eat fish from Louisiana’s waters, and others have seen rates of cancer skyrocket among their families.

Yet these same people overwhelmingly reject all forms of government regulation.  Why?

Throughout the book she profiles about 5 or 6 people who she gets to know fairly well.  She also hypothesizes an overarching viewpoint that explains the voting patterns of the people she studied.

In the end, she did help me to understand several non-racist factors that seem to be driving the poor and rural Trump voter.  They feel they’ve worked and waited their turn for a better life, and no one should get to “cut in line” ahead of them (though this ignores the realities of institutional and every day discrimination).  They believe party loyalty comes first, even at the cost of their own family’s health.  They believe supporting the party that is on God’s side is more important than any public policies.  They feel God will provide, and that virtue is enduring quietly rather than asking for handouts.  They believe government workers are simply living a cushy life off of their own hard-earned tax dollars.

Most importantly, they believe jobs come first, and they’ve been told (incorrectly) that corporate incentives and deregulation are necessary to provide working class people with jobs.  They’ve been told the environment is out of their hands but they can affirmatively choose jobs for their communities.

As strangers in their own land, Lee, Mike, and Jackie wanted their homeland back, and the pledges of the Tea Party offered them that.  It offered them financial freedom from taxes, and emotional freedom from the strictures of liberal philosophy and its rules of feeling.  Liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the downtrodden in the back of the line, the “slaves” of society.  They didn’t want to; they felt downtrodden themselves and wanted only to look “up” to the elite.  What was wrong with aspiring high?  That was the bigger virtue, they though.

Hochschild’s book gave me a lot to think about, and I found myself talking about it often with my friends and family.  The book is very readable and a nice combination of personal insight and statistical evidence.  And yet, I can’t say in the end that she ever changed her place on the political spectrum, nor did she affect my own.  She hasn’t made it more likely that I will reach across the aisle.  In fact, I end up feeling more discouraged.  The overwhelming message of this book is that “these people” will vote GOP no matter how much a Democrat appeals to their most essential needs.

As I finished the book, I had to wonder how her new Republican “friends” will feel about the way they are portrayed.  A friend of mine felt that Hochschild was condescending, and I can see her point.  Maybe they aren’t all racist, but they do think that special populations (racial, ethnic, immigrant, and LGBTQ, for example) haven’t been injured in any way and don’t deserve any extra help.  They aren’t all ignorant, but they do view the people at Fox News as “family” and the rest of the media as biased.

I think Hochschild wants to have it both ways.  She wants to extol the virtues of these people she studied, but she also points out again and again how misguided they are.  She even includes an appendix rebutting all the “facts” that these GOP voters get wrong.  She wants us to believe they are more complex than the racist, ignorant mob they appear to be, but I’m not sure she got me there.

Still, there are a few things in her book that resonated, and here’s one example.  The rural white population hears what we educated democrats think about them, and that has contributed to their mistrust of us.  They hear that we fight against racial and anti-LGBT slurs, but have no problem using terms like “cracker” and “redneck”.  Our political correctness has a side, and it isn’t theirs.

My husband said after the election that things like “the bathroom issue” contributed to the Democrats’ losses.  In other words, too much identity politics.  I don’t want to believe that Dems should stop fighting for disadvantaged populations, and I don’t plan to stop supporting causes I believe in.  But this book at least helped me to see how we look in the eyes of the people on the other side of the political divide.

Note: I read this book for a challenge by Hibernator’s Library to read the six books identified by the New York Times that explain Trump’s win.

  20 comments for “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

  1. May 5, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    There are plenty of trump supporters who are doing fine and are not rural. I live in a democratic state and in my city and here are plenty of trump supporters. They are not all rural by any means.

    • May 6, 2017 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks for the comment Valorie! I hope I haven’t given the impression that all Trump supporters are poor or rural. But that is the population this book focuses on, and there’s no question that rural districts are more red than blue. I can understand wealthy conservatives supporting Trump, but it’s harder to see why the “working class” loves him so much.

      • May 7, 2017 at 11:58 am

        Thanks for writing about this important book – you’re right.

  2. May 5, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    This is a good overview — I’m not sure I would describe Hochschild as being “condescending,” but she definitely did not win me over to admire her subjects as she said she did. I felt sorry for them, and could see some ways that liberals should be held responsible for their own kind of insensitivity, but still found them incredibly misguided. Their story was so sad and hopeless, their trust in industry and conservative politicians so tragically misplaced. I can’t help shaking my head at some of the lies they are being fed by self-serving people and corporations, and swallowing because those lies reflect and feed their own unconscious egotism.

    Is that a condescending attitude? I don’t mean it to be, but I can’t say that I think this is a healthy trend. It’s something we all have to fight with all our might (liberals are not immune to egotism either!) or our society will self-destruct.

    To me the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer helped to supply some of the missing pieces…it’s not just chance that Tea Party voters have acquired this mindset, it’s the result of a decades-long campaign by libertarians to curve the conservative agenda their way. Though it’s not on the NYT list, I highly recommend it for anyone trying to understand the Trump phenomenon.

    • Gwen
      May 6, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      I agree; I read Dark Money a few months ago and couldn’t stop thinking that it explained so much about where we are right now. Most of the books on the NYT list seem to focus on the voters themselves, but I thought it was so important to see this angle of it—because so many people don’t realize there IS a behind-the-scenes element, much less such a significant one.

      • May 6, 2017 at 1:17 pm

        It’s incredibly important, and after reading it I thought that getting big money out of politics is THE issue to focus on. Surely that’s something that a majority of voters of different ideological stripes can agree on? It’s the plutocrats who want to keep us divided and misinformed so we don’t gang up against them (and again, Dark Money shows how cleverly they have done that).

      • Gwen
        May 6, 2017 at 1:41 pm

        Absolutely. That’s exactly how I feel, and I can’t understand why it isn’t everyone’s primary concern. There is so much we need to work on, but this one issue would probably go further than any other toward fixing the entire system. Yet now we have people like Betsy DeVos, who co-founded an entire organization with the sole purpose of eradicating all legal restrictions on money in politics, actually in the president’s cabinet. It is very frustrating.

      • May 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm

        Thanks for the great discussion; I will definitely be putting Dark Money on my reading list.

    • May 6, 2017 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks Lory for the thoughtful comments! I think the question of condescension is an interesting one, and I wrestle with it. I went back and forth in this book from sympathizing, to feeling sorry for them, to being annoyed by their willful blindness. I think when people only listen to Fox News, I can understand that’s what they believe. Then I think about whether I’m the same way with the media I read/listen to. If nothing else, this book holds up a bit of a mirror to liberals so we can see how we’re perceived.

  3. May 6, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Great review. I read an article a while back that discussed why folks voted for Trump and it made similar points about people being misled and voting due to party loyalty. I wasn’t too surprised when Trump won because I reasoned that there are a lot of unheard opinions about government and social issues today and there are hardly any discussions to inform people and debate and dismantle ideas that aren’t beneficial rather than simply force people to believe differently. There’s much that goes unheard because of the huge backlash, that’re sometimes violent, these days for sharing unpopular opinions.
    I don’t believe the Trump supporters are all racist (though I was tempted to during the election period). I think they are deeply misinformed. During the election, I’d try to listen to programs that featured Trump supporters sharing why they chose to support Trump, but it was hard to find a program (even a news program) that did so without criticism or being sarcastic. I’m not a Trump supporter, but I was upset that sometimes news sources weren’t entirely objective when presenting party supporters’ opinions. Because of that, I stuck to NPR, which I think did a great job, and it’s then that I realized how misinformed some Trump supporters are. Others supported him because of party alliance or because they were upset with Obama’s policies and decided to take a chance with Trump.

    • May 6, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks Zezee — I worry a lot about the lack of thoughtful debate. Everything is about emotions rather than people taking reasonable positions for different reasons. I tried to discuss this with my sister and we both ended up becoming upset and barely talking to each other!
      I think one thing that sets Trump apart from the rest of the GOP is how worked up he was able to get people — which was partly about his personal style (he talks to people like he’s one of them) and partly about racism and building up fear and anger.
      A big question for me is whether Trump voters will at some point blame him or the GOP when promises aren’t met and their lives don’t become better. I don’t think so.

      • May 8, 2017 at 8:30 am

        I wonder that too; but with the prevalence of misinformation this days, I suspect that they won’t and will probably blame someone else for what Trump is at fault for.
        It’s hard for me to be optimistic when it comes to government.

  4. Gwen
    May 6, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    There’s probably nothing that’s true of ALL Trump supporters, but I do believe that most of them are fairly racist, because I think most of the U.S. is unable to acknowledge what modern racism looks like. We’re all racist, because it’s impossible not to be when you grow up in a culture like ours. That’s not our fault, but how we choose to deal with it is (and whether we choose to deal with it at all).

    I do appreciate all these books that are trying to help us understand the people who voted for Trump, though it seems that in the end, it comes down to pretty irreconcilable differences. She makes an excellent point, though, about political correctness having a side. It’s very hypocritical to care only about the slurs used against the groups you support. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being angry with, or even disliking, people who voted for Trump, but that doesn’t mean personal insults and slurs against them are okay.

  5. May 6, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    I found that even the most sympathetic people in this book were racist, IF racism means not acknowledging the realities of discrimination and institutional racism. They want to go back to a time when their work meant they got ahead, but they don’t see that wasn’t true for other populations, and maybe they got ahead because other populations were held back. But I can see that they feel their own suffering is not valued by liberals, and that’s a problem.

    • May 6, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      One of the statements in the book that made my jaw drop was to the effect of, “Hey, I’m a good person, so what I think and do is good.” This attitude can be used to justify all kinds of evil, including racism, and it is definitely NOT Christian. (Christ himself said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.)

      On the other hand, some liberal self-examination is due here as well How do we know what is good? How do we justify imposing our will on others? May we in fact be doing evil in the name of goodness? There are huge moral quandaries that we all need to grapple with, and that’s not something Americans are very good at. We prefer living in our personal dreams to the difficult task of waking up to a higher reality.

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