A Response to William Davies’ “A Review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016: New York: New Press, 351 pp).”
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In his highly thoughtful review, Davies invites a comparison between British “leavers” and American Trump voters, one we might extend these days across much of the globe. British leavers (although it includes other groups, here I am imagining the British Defense League as nicely described by Hilary Pilkington in Loud and Proud) and American populists may share what I call a “deep story.” In each version of the deep story, a “good citizen” is “waiting in line” for a coveted reward—financial means and honored identity. In each, other people “cut in line,” moving that person backward. As the story goes, a person standing ahead of them—more urbane and educated—turns around to insult them for being backward, ill-educated, prejudiced—or in the case of the Louisianans I studied, a “redneck.” Both groups fear becoming “strangers in their own land.”
But in given different contexts, distinct versions of that story come to resonate. In the American case, many of the “imposters” appear to them falsely entitled insiders—blacks and women who share their cultural and national identity but may come from a higher social class and benefit from Affirmative Action programs of the federal government. For the BDL line-stander, those who are cutting the line are national or cultural outsiders—immigrants and Muslims. In both cases, the stander-in-line feels wronged. While partly overlapping, the objects of blame, frustration, and resentment differ. In both cases, the line cutters threaten not only the secure social standing of the good citizen but also the stability of the surrounding culture through which the waiting, the line, the prize come to hold meaning. In both cases, we are led to add questions about what Davies rightly calls a “fierce sense of identity.”
Davies also raises a fascinating question about capitalism and the moral discourse through which it legitimates itself. The company is seen, he writes, as “punitive, selfish but honest. It delivers the goods and the occasional harms you expect.” Indeed, Louisianans often told me that while they welcomed the jobs companies gave them, that was pretty much all you could ask from them. At the same time, Davies notes that government seems to them, “kind, altruistic but dishonest.”
I was long baffled by this distain for the federal government until I came to understand that my Tea Party Louisiana informants saw (a) the federal government as a bigger, badder version of state government and (b) their state government as doing the moral dirty work of the petrochemical industry. It was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, for example, that by its very existence promised to implement the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. But employees of that agency also gave out permits to pollute, as one Trump supporter told me, “like candy.” “Why should I pay that guy’s salary,” he asked, “when he’s not protecting me from hazardous waste?” While influencing the permitting process, companies also routinely reassured a wary public that they were “in compliance” with state law. Meanwhile, with 1.6 billion dollar “incentive money” given to them by the governor and drawn from public coffers for the purpose of luring them to come to the state, companies could burnish their image. Dow Chemical gave to the Audubon Nature Institute. Shell Oil Gave to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Pittsburgh Plate Glass paid for a Nature lab-Classroom in the Woods. The Louisiana Chemical Association gave to the Louisiana Tumor Registry. In essence, such companies pursued, through their brand management, brilliant emotional strategies to avert public ire and inspire gratitude. They got themselves liked and the state disliked. In essence, they used the state government as a human shield against blame and anger about company-caused pollution and illness.
Let me end with a word about crossing the fraught American political divide. Nearly all of us live in cultural and political bubbles. And the more we are insulated by them, the more extreme our political views become. Seventy-seven percent of Americans, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, agree that “Americans today are less tolerant of each other’s political opinions than they were in the past”—up from 70% in November. Over half of Trump’s critics and a third of his supporters said the election campaign had “hurt a personal relationship.”
Hillary and Trump voters in the USA are not just different in “attitude.” They are largely shaped by class and industrial geography. In the USA, it is the rust belt towns, depleted hinterlands, and poor South that voted Trump, and the prosperous centers of high finance, high tech, and high culture voted for Clinton. So, a visit across the great divide is a visit across a land of the “haves” of globalization to a land of the “have-nots.” The two political poles are not simply like two boxers in an attitudinal ring. Contestants are recruited to the ring from these different sectors—one being lifted by automation and globalization and the other being dropped.
Given the split between sectors and classes, it is all the more important to try to heal the political breach, especially given a president who has shown himself to be both divisive and volatile. (In one early morning tweet, Trump declared the mainstream media—including the New York Times and CNN—as “enemies of the American people.”) Almost as if in answer to all this, a grassroots nationwide movement is on the rise. A Google search for “talking across the Red Blue Divide” gets 2,180,000 results. If you substitute “communicating” for “talking,” you get 1,300,000 results. The Bridge Alliance, an umbrella organization based in State College, Pennsylvania, lists 70 groups facilitating such talks, with names such as Common Ground Committee, Big Tent Nation, Better Angels, American Public Square, Bring It To the Table, Coffee Party USA, Common Ground Committee, and Hi from the Other Side.
Some groups focus on a specific issue that might unite left and right, such as cattle grazing on public lands (Oregon-focused Cranes, Curlews, and Cows) or gender equity (All In Together) or voter registration (All In Campus Democracy Challenge) or economic prosperity (Big Tent Nation). For still others, the focus is on fellow feeling itself. “Make American Dinner Again” proposes hosting “small dinners” with “respectful conversation, guided activities and delicious food.” Beginning on July 4th, Better Angels is planning a One America bus tour to visit some 30 towns and cities, with 10 Trump supporters and 10 critics aboard to “clarify disagreements, reduce rancor and stereotyped thinking and search for common good.” “Dinner at the Square” offers on site fact-checkers during panel discussions and a “civility bell” to ring if talk gets too heated.
After publishing the book, I returned to Louisiana to speak with those I wrote about. A while later, a parishioner from the Episcopal Church, The Parish of Epiphany in Winchester, Massachusetts, emailed me asking to put her in contact with a church in Lake Charles, and plans are afoot to visit. Sharon Galicia, a single mom and Trump supporter whom I describe in Strangers, came to stay with my husband and I in Berkeley with her 14-year-old daughter Alyson and 18-year-old son Bailey. We held a “Living Room Conversation” with them and others, left and right, to discuss pollution control. It was guided by Joan Blades, a mediation lawyer and co-founder of MoveOn.Org, who has helped guide some hundred such conversations across the country. I have taken three members of my family on trips to Louisiana so far and have plans for more. Deep political differences remain, of course, but efforts in this nationwide, grassroots movement to heal the rift have revealed a series of specific “cross-over” issues—the reduction of prison populations, the importance of clean energy, peace.
We have much to discover about the emotional and economic geography beneath the political divide and many bridges to build in the USA and Britain both. As for the USA, should the grievous day arrive when President Trump declares progressive and liberal citizens as “enemies of the American people,” let it fall on the deaf ears of those who have already broken bread with them.