"Strangers in Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Richard Smaby

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, sets out, according to the narrative of her book Strangers in Their Own Land, to discover how to scale the empathy wall between people like herself, West Coast liberals, and the Tea Party conservatives. She picks Tea Party advocates in the state of Louisiana, because she expects them to provide fertile ground for her research on how people make decisions when experiencing emotional dissonance. On the one hand, they see petrochemical corporations destroying their beloved environment and risking their health. On the other hand, they hate government regulation, (which could force those corporations into better practices and force them to clean up the damage they have caused).

She is interested in what they are feeling, what she calls 'the deep story.' Feeling research seems in vogue today in sociological research. You have probably encountered a version in George Lakoff’s (also at Berkeley) works, for example, Don’t Think of an Elephant. Hochschild also describes feeling research as hypothesis generation. Over a period of 5 years, she interviewed 40 Tea Party advocates, roughly half men and half women, all white, ages 45 to 85, by occupation middle, lower-middle, and working class.  Six of them form the cast of characters in her narrative, while she engaged them as a participant-observer. Each of the six has a different approach to dealing with their emotional dissonance. Theirs are engaging stories overall, even though they might be frustrating for progressives to read, since we generally react with "if they only knew the facts."

"If they only knew the facts." This is laudable sentiment, but informing them of the facts, as we know them, only makes matters worse for scaling the empathy wall. The Tea Party advocates Hochschild interviews feel angry about being looked down on by liberals who claim that they vote against their own interest because they don’t know any better. (I must note that Hochschild herself feels obliged to add an appendix that checks the facts asserted by the people she interviews.)

Hochschild uses another metaphor: the line. People feel they are standing in line to get to the American dream, just over the hill. This line has an emotional aspect: fairness. If someone cuts in line ahead of you, you are going to feel anger about the unfairness of it. They are making it harder for you to get to the dream. And it makes you even angrier that the government is orchestrating the line cutting. Equal opportunity doesn't feel anything like equal opportunity; it feels grossly unfair.

Most of us can empathize with people who want a job, a steady income. Sometimes if you want to keep your job, you may have to compromise other values, like enduring the destruction of the environment by the state’s largest industry, the petrochemical industry. You believe the politicians that say the tax breaks to large corporations are necessary to bring jobs to the state. (Hochschild’s fact checking shows that in Louisiana at least, the tax breaks don't pan out for the workers, since most of the jobs created go to technicians and other workers from out of state.)

One way some fundamentally religious Tea Party advocates resolve emotional and cognitive dissonance is through their belief in 'the rapture,' a belief that Jesus Christ will come again and set up a new government that will resolve all the problems we are now facing. So, we don’t really have to turn to earthly governments to make things better. We merely have to wait patiently for the rapture.

One of the principle characters in the narrative is an environmental activist. How can that be, you ask? We progressives are used to proposing of government regulation to ensure corporations and citizens follow sound practices of conservation. On government and taxes, Mike is 100% Louisiana Tea Party. But his environmental activism brings him into a liberal fold, which irks him. He agrees with his liberal friends that the environment needs protecting, but is opposed to the EPA, Obamacare, Pell Grants, Head Start, and Social Security. He wants to get the environment on the Tea Party platform. Mike comes up with an idea that he thinks would satisfy him and the Tea Party, Let the insurance companies be the regulators instead of the government. After all, they don't want the companies they insure to get sued.

I must admit Hochschild did not help me scale the empathy wall. I could relate to individual stories and maybe that is enough, but I was constantly thinking, as I read them, how to get the individuals to at least hear a different metaphor - a metaphor, not of a line, but of a network of people cooperating, with similar needs, but different resources, where we all understand that "it takes a village."