The ‘Deep Story’ of the White American South, or Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Part I)

By Michaela Keck

In Jan­u­ary 2017, I lis­tened to an inter­view with UC Berke­ley soci­ol­o­gist Arlie Rus­sell Hochschild on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio about her New York Times best­seller. But it was not until a friend of mine rec­om­mend­ed Strangers in Their Own Land that I actu­al­ly read it. My friend com­mend­ed the book less for a more informed under­stand­ing of the rise of the Tea Par­ty and – by impli­ca­tion Trump – but rather for pro­vid­ing an empa­thet­ic, humane per­spec­tive of the sup­port­ers of the Amer­i­can con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty, espe­cial­ly its pop­ulist right wing.

By focus­ing on the envi­ron­ment, Hochschild elu­ci­dates the emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence behind the unprece­dent­ed split of America’s polit­i­cal camps, more specif­i­cal­ly, of those vot­ers that the Tea Par­ty move­ment has so suc­cess­ful­ly mobi­lized in the last elec­tion. This “deep sto­ry,” as Hochschild calls it, is not gen­uine to Tea Par­ty vot­ers alone. Nei­ther does hav­ing a “deep sto­ry” mean that mem­bers of one polit­i­cal camp share the same expe­ri­ence. Accord­ing to Hochschild, how­ev­er, there is a sig­nif­i­cant over­lap regard­ing major argu­ments, val­ues, and implic­it assump­tions that make up these felt expe­ri­ences. Often, these have lit­tle, if noth­ing, to do with facts and are, instead, con­tra­dic­to­ry, heart­felt matters.

The author finds that the “deep sto­ry” of red states, such as Louisiana – the state in which she con­duct­ed her inter­views – runs along the fol­low­ing lines: Despite years and years of hard work, patient and order­ly ‘wait­ing in line,’ and great per­son­al sac­ri­fice, the rewards promised by the gov­ern­ment were bypass­ing peo­ple, espe­cial­ly old­er white male blue-col­lar work­ers. For decades, they had been patient­ly wait­ing for a rise in their pay­checks and bet­ter life   oppor­tu­ni­ties. They now feel that oth­ers (such as blacks, women, and immi­grants) are cut­ting in line and receiv­ing rewards with­out either the same work per­for­mance or the same patient and order­ly con­duct. As a result, the major­i­ty of white Louisianans has lost trust in the gov­ern­ment and now turns to either cor­po­rate busi­ness­es or their pri­vate cir­cles, includ­ing church com­mu­ni­ties. Fur­ther­more, acute­ly aware of lib­er­al per­cep­tions of them as back­wards, une­d­u­cat­ed, homo­pho­bic, racist, and sex­ist, white South­ern men and women feel not only mis­rep­re­sent­ed but also deeply humil­i­at­ed. It is this sense of being treat­ed unfair­ly and open­ly shamed that leads them to feel­ing like strangers in their own land.

Hochschild divides her book into four parts, each of which unfolds through the sto­ries of indi­vid­ual res­i­dents – white men and women – in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “Part One: The Great Para­dox” explains the con­tra­dic­to­ry fact that states like Louisiana – with low eco­nom­ic, health, edu­ca­tion­al, and envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards – object to the help and reg­u­la­tion by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and, instead, open their doors to big inter­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions. This pol­i­cy, Hochschild main­tains, will inevitably result in the severe exploita­tion of the state, its res­i­dents, resources, and environment.

“Part Two: The Social Ter­rain” sounds out the rela­tion­ships between state and fed­er­al pol­i­tics, busi­ness, and the indi­vid­ual work­ers. Here, all sto­ries embrace a free-mar­ket and small gov­ern­ment atmos­phere as well as the notion that less gov­ern­men­tal sup­port equals a high­er social stand­ing. While indi­vid­u­als and the state of Louisiana are seen as hon­or­able due to their endurance in the face of con­tin­u­ing reces­sion and envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, gov­ern­men­tal sup­port becomes tan­ta­mount to the hand­ing out of favors in a cul­ture of vic­tim­iza­tion that orig­i­nat­ed in the social tur­moil of the 1960s. Hochschild’s inter­vie­wees unan­i­mous­ly refuse to be victims.

“Part Three: The Deep Sto­ry and the Peo­ple in It” trans­lates the implic­it fac­tors and tac­it assump­tions of Part Two into a more stream­lined and per­haps sim­pli­fied ver­sion of the “deep sto­ry” of the right while at the same time illu­mi­nat­ing the actu­al con­texts, name­ly the dire eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, class con­flicts, and sys­temic racism and sex­ism. In the par­lance and ide­ol­o­gy of the con­ser­v­a­tives, how­ev­er, class con­flicts are notably absent where­as sys­temic inequal­i­ties are broached in terms of favoritism and wel­fare – top­ics often dis­cussed in con­nec­tion with the decline of morals and val­ues, such as hard work, fam­i­ly val­ues, and codes of honor.

In “Part Four: Going Nation­al,” Hochschild relates the “deep sto­ry” of present-day white Louisianans to their cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. She specif­i­cal­ly con­sid­ers the 1860s and 1960s with their lega­cies of a cul­ture of seces­sion and the planter and oil elites, which still pow­er­ful­ly shape the “deep sto­ry” of Tea Par­ty enthu­si­asts, whether they reject the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or aspire to the sta­tus, pride, and wealth of the “plan­ta­tion elites.”

Hochschild’s book cer­tain­ly acquaints read­ers with less­er-known per­spec­tives, but is it con­vinc­ing? For an answer to that ques­tion, you’ll have to stay tuned until next week. Until then, why not famil­iar­ize your­self with an excerpt.

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Michaela Keck teach­es Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg. Among her major research inter­ests are eco­crit­i­cism and nature writ­ing, women’s lit­er­a­ture, and visu­al cul­ture. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.