Strangers in Their Own Land

Anger and Mourning on the American Right

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Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • New York, NY: 
    The New Press
    , February
     2018.
     368 pages.
     $17.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781620973493.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Given that Republicans have disproportionate power in the US ruling class, and white Christians account for the majority of their voter base, it is no surprise that many scholars of religion have tried to understand what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “The Great Paradox.” Republican leaders, such as Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, are patently absurd or offensive if considered as exemplars of “Christian values,” at least as perceived by the majority of world Christians. So how can it be that they have garnered support from a white Christian base that, one assumes, is more-or-less sincere? Moreover, why do working-class Republicans sustain their support for policies that severely damage their material lives?

With Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right Hochschild joins this analytical tradition—updating books like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? (Holt, 2005)—by attempting to climb over what she calls an “empathy wall” between her leftish friends in California and the Tea Party members she interviews in Southwestern Louisiana. Hochschild recounts vivid stories of people’s lives blighted by the one-two punch of neoliberal austerity politics and environmental pollution. For example, one interviewee saw much of his town sucked into a sinkhole as a result of oil industry negligence. Another was fired for getting sick after being ordered to dump toxic chemicals into a bayou, and their friends are getting cancer from eating poisoned fish from this same bayou. Others watched a horse die after being covered in a rubber film, simply from wading across a stream near their house, downstream from a rubber plant. Many are aware that a bridge they use may collapse due to a chemical pipeline leak. Yet with very few exceptions they oppose “government regulation,” and vote repeatedly for Republicans.

Hochschild patiently considers and carefully refutes justifications for this situation based on the supposed benefits of trickle-down economics and job creation (clearly policies aligned with a Green New Deal are a better way to create jobs), as well as government overreach. One consideration is that her informants rarely hear the evidence informing her policy analysis on FOX News. Still, one must explain why they watch FOX in the first place. Hochschild’s core explanation is that they are oriented by a “deep story” and its associated emotions—a narrative in which they are working hard, playing by the rules, and waiting patiently in an all-too-slow-moving line for their shot at the American Dream—only to see lazy, undeserving, and/or racially different people cut in line ahead of them. Central to this narrative is a perception that liberal elites encourage these line-cutters—then, adding insult to injury, they accuse the (self-understood) victims, not the line-cutters, of being ignorant and callous.   

Hochschild briefly but eloquently offers an alternative deep story, in which greedy entitled people trash and loot a public square that has been lovingly built by the whole community. However, if we solely consider what her interviewees hear from their neighbors, churches, and FOX-centric media, their story resonates as “just making sense.” 

Religion is not Hochschild’s main focus (unless we stipulate that her deep story is its own religious myth, which neither she nor I suggest), and she is grounded, not in religious studies, but rather in a blend of sociology and ethnography. Still, religion is salient throughout. Some of her informants lead reasonably affluent middle-class lives (albeit with cancer and pollution as constant companions) and use Christian ideas to articulate their sense of defending morality and/or feeling blessed by a system that largely works for them. Others are struggling and religion is part of their everyday coping. Affluent or not, many explain their failure to address environmental issues—whether due to passivity or defeated efforts—in relation to end-times theologies. A follow-up study to explore how end-times and prosperity theologies work together and/or come apart would be fascinating. 

In one illuminating passage, Hochschild notes interviewees taking pride in a gym and childcare center at their megachurch, open to a wide range of users—funded cheerfully by tithes from people who are enraged by the idea of taxation for the common good. She compares this to Berkeley liberals take pride in their public parks and recreation programs. However, this is a rare place in the book where religion appears as a social force she admires, at least as it operates above the level of strengthening families. She is aware that liberal pro-environmental forms of evangelicalism and Catholicism exist, but she hears almost nothing about them in Louisiana. 

Hochschild’s stated goal is to understand white conservatives, who in turn understand many line-cutters as black or Latinx. In this sense, race is central—yet race sometimes feels curiously decentered or underplayed, especially as approached from black points of view. Meanwhile, more troubling to her internal logic (since a delimited focus is not all bad) many interviewees are female, yet her master argument includes “women” as line-cutters. In both cases, the analysis privileges (one kind of) white male perspective, and we should notice the resulting limitations. 

Insofar as we climb with Hochschild over her empathy wall and accept her analysis, it is not entirely clear what practical consequences follow. Should we try harder to conciliate, compromise, and triangulate, in the style of so-called moderate Democrats? Or will we come away more inclined to fight—in the style of Bernie Sanders or those further to the left—but now equipped with better tools to debate persuasively and widen cracks in a conservative coalition? Hochschild definitely advises against demonizing her subjects, but beyond this the implications are open-ended. Sometimes she seems to be writing for her Berkeley friends to “explain conservatives” while at other times she seems to frame Bernie-style arguments in a way that she hopes her Louisiana friends can hear. 

I teach my students that they owe people with opposing perspectives a good faith effort to understand their positions in their strongest light before moving to critique—but this by no means precludes critique. Hochschild’s efforts are in a similar spirit, whether or not we ultimately find her too soft on her subjects or too circumscribed in her analysis of race and gender. In analyzing one of the most consequential sociopolitical issues facing our world—the future of the Republican coalition—Hochschild’s is one of the most valuable recent analyses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religioius Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Date of Review: 
May 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arlie Russell Hochschild is the author of nine books, including The Second ShiftThe Time BindThe Managed HeartThe Outsourced Self, and Strangers in Their Own Land (The New Press). Three of her books have been named as New York TimesNotable Books of the Year and her work appears in sixteen languages. The winner of the Ulysses Medal as well as Guggenheim and Mellon grants, she lives in Berkeley, California.

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