“I was definitely not in Berkeley, California,” writes sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild of the Louisiana bayou country where she spent five years researching “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
There was no New York Times at the newsstand, no organic produce or foreign films, three aisles of the bookstore devoted to Bibles. Even the dogs were different: “There were fewer yellow Labradors and more pit bulls and bulldogs.”
Hochschild traveled to this corner of America to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox: the fact that people in the poorest states who most need federal programs consistently vote for candidates who oppose those programs. In Louisiana, where the most brutal crimes against the environment have been committed, the very people who have watched birds, animals, trees and their own relatives die from industrial pollution, who have seen their homes fall into sinkholes caused by toxic waste, support deregulation of industry and cuts in federal aid.
To understand this, says Hochschild, we must scale an “empathy wall” and understand the “deep story” shared by these people. She takes us with her on this journey as she meets and spends time with 40 proud Tea Party members. Over coffee, cookies and photo albums, she hears their stories and comes to understand how a system once run by Democrats failed its citizens so terribly that they have turned against the whole idea of government itself. It is a story of blind turtles, dead bullfrogs and 9-year-olds with cancer, of unswimmable waters and inedible seafood.
“Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” explains a homemaker named Jackie, who opposes regulation because she feels the government uses it as an excuse to expand.
Hochschild’s research shows, person by person, how “the scene [was] set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit.” It is because these Louisianans feel like a besieged minority, economically, culturally and demographically marginalized. Donald Trump sounds as angry as they feel.
Hochschild is a brilliant sociologist and a great teacher, able to explain complex ideas in lucid, logical prose. But to get alienated parties over this very high empathy wall, she has to be a great human being, too. Her connection and kindness to the people she meets is what makes this book so powerful.
Marion Winik wrote “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead.”
Strangers in Their Own Land
By: Arlie Russell Hochschild.
Publisher: The New Press, 351 pages, $27.95.