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

Wow wow wow. Arlie Russell Hochschild leads the pack of authors helping to explain the unexplainable—namely, why those poor folks on the Right who are directly impacted by pollution and income equality are supporting candidates looking out for big business and small government. I’ve been reading a lot of sociologists lately for their take on this issue, but Hochschild is the clear winner. From my safe perch in San Francisco, she can actually make me scale the empathy wall and, if I squint, see things from the perspective of the other side, mired in sink holes in the Louisiana swamp she spends five years studying. At no point does she pander to them or to us, her readers. In fact, the book is a marvel in terms of balanced, respectful writing—if she gave every one of her interview subjects a copy of it, none should be offended.

One thing that struck me early as I was reading was the connection between money and religion. Both of these concepts make people feel comfortable; with money, you buy leisure, with religion, you buy afterlife. Several of the folks she interviews belong to a Pentecostal church—the type that believe in The Rapture and speaking in tongues. With this in mind, their carelessness about the environment makes perfect sense. They actually believe themselves to be living in End Times (and who knows! maybe we are! sure feels like it), so the earth will purge itself for 1,000 years and then come back a paradise. “The earth will burn with fervent heat,” is one quote from the book of Revelation.

The marriage of the 1% ultra rich Republicans who run for office with religion was super smart. This is one aspect that these people will not compromise on. “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs,” says one.

The people scoff at environmental regulations and simply endure pollution. The Louisiana Dept of Health printed instructions on how to prepare contaminated fish to eat. I found a copy online (image below from page 24). “You got a problem? Get used to it.” & “Sometimes you had to endure bad news for a higher good, like jobs in oil.” & worst of all: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

Fox News comes in for scrutiny, and Hochschild rightly takes them to task for fear-mongering. One of the ladies says she listens to Fox throughout the day. “Fox is like family to me. Bill O’Reilly is like a steady reliable dad…” (albeit one that sexually harasses ladies.)

The part of the book that struck me most was her exploration of everyone’s “deep story”—everyone’s waiting in line for the American Dream and they are patiently waiting, it’s hot out, the sun is beating down, and the line’s not moving. Sometimes it seems they’re going backwards. And then, a group of people cut in line (e.g. woman, blacks, immigrants). And it seems like Obama is encouraging them to cut in line, and isn’t he a line cutter also? (How else did he get into Harvard).

“The year when the Dream stopped working for the 90 percent was 1950. If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, it did not.”

But this craving to earn lots of money lingers, and there is worship of successful businessmen. With lots of the men Hochschild spoke with, “the repeated term ‘millionaire’ floated around conversations like a ghost.” Identifying with the 1% was a source of pride for Tea Partiers, showing that you were optimistic, that you tried.

On the problem of Toxic T (our Cheeto in Chief), Hochschild wrote this before he was elected, but she sees all the signs that led to his selection. He released the crowds from the obligation to care about anyone but themselves, no longer required to be p.c., able to trashtalk women/minorities/disabled and feel good about it. “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.”

The Tea Party has a long history of electing people who do exactly what they say, shrink government, and ravage the land. They don’t like the results, so they vote him (usually a him) out, and elect a Democrat who hikes taxes and then start to complain about that, with a short memory of the terrible things that happened without government spending.

This is probably the first book where I’ve eagerly devoured the Appendices. Appendix B contains fascinating data which interrelated political choice, attitudes about the environment, with actual risk of toxic releases. Most interesting: “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement People worry too much about human progress harming the environment. So the higher the exposure to environmental pollution, the less worried the individual was about it—and the more likely that person was to define himself as a strong Republican.”

We blue states benefit from this attitude. We get less pollution but still reap the benefits of the products coming out of red states.

This is a tremendous book. Highly recommended.

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

Another great book helping to explain the unexplainable—why people will vote against their best interest (rural folks voting against the social safety net that helps them). Cramer spends years in the field infiltrating a few dozen small groups around the state, mostly of old men. She develops a theory of rural consciousness as a lens through which to view everything from non-urbanites. Diving into the numbers, she shows that rural displeasure in having to pay more than they get back is misplaced—rural areas skew towards getting more per capita than they put in. There’s a deep-seated feeling of resentment, the idea that urbanites are getting more than they deserve and not working hard. The idea that manual labor is more deserving than white collar labor is pervasive. Very readable recap of several years of research with great bits of conversation recorded. Rural denizens feel left out, abandoned, ignored, and as if they are stupid.

Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Extremely interesting sociological study of a handful of suburban groups in the late 1980s to understand why people avoid speaking about political issues. Eliasoph did her fieldwork over two and a half years, going to country and western dance halls, parent volunteer groups, anti-nuke activist meetings, and anti-drug volunteering. She shows the great lengths that each group goes to to avoid talking about the wider world and to avoid showing that they care about politics.

There’s a “spiral of silence” where people don’t express what could be an unpopular viewpoint to strangers, “sucking unpopular viewpoints out of circulation by making them embarrassing to hold publicly.” She points to other studies that show avoidance of disagreement is not universal. Israelis “use political talk the way Americans use talk about sports: to create common ground, with political disagreements only adding to the entertainment value.” This leads to political evaporation, and average Americans not knowing nearly enough about what’s going on in the world.

In group after group, she found conditions where as soon as discussion might spring up that would be enlightening, it was squashed. “One of the most important things that freely organized citizens’ groups can do that social service bureaucrats cannot do…is engage in imaginative, improvisational, creative political conversation.” But, it’s discouraged by the very fabric of engagement set up in these groups.

“Silencing public-spirited political conversation was, paradoxically, volunteers’ way of looking out for the common good… In their effort to be open and inclusive, to appeal to regular, unpretentious fellow citizens without discouraging them, they silenced public-spirited deliberation, working hard to keep public-spirited conversation backstage – though open political conversation was just what someone like Charles thought the group need to hold, in order to involve new members and address community problems.”

Discovered by way of the author’s great article about the rural whites.