The “Deep Story” of the White American South, or Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Part II)

By Michaela Keck

After the general introduction to Hochschild’s treatise last week, let us now pursue a deeper analysis. The “deep story” of the Tea Party movement in red states is a story through which its advocates pursue an “emotional self-interest” (in addition to an economic self-interest) as Hochschild emphasizes. Ironically, while her interviewees adamantly refuse to participate in what they consider a culture of victimization – meaning a culture that seeks to remedy systemic inequalities – populist white male politicians, such as Donald Trump, nevertheless provide them exactly with those empowering moments of identity politics that they reject in women, minorities, or refugees. As Hochschild puts it in her conclusion, although “victims” would be “the last word my Louisiana Tea Party friends would apply to themselves,” they are “sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system.” Hochschild’s use of quasi-religious terms is telling. She ascribes to Trump’s rallies a religious, cultic quality which, through invocations of “dominance, bravado, clarity, national pride, and personal uplift,” transforms the crowd’s sense of shame and alienation into feelings of elation and belonging. These concluding observations of Strangers in Their Own Land show the deeply troubling aspects of the Tea Party, most of all the manipulation of the masses through the promise of uplift, unity, and power in a way that uncannily resembles extremist, fascist ideologies.

Still, I applaud Hochschild for revealing the American (post)industrial system as one for which states like Louisiana pay a much higher price in human and nonhuman lives than blue states. Even more so, she persuasively shows that they are pockets of environmental crisis and poverty within a first world country without, however, simplifying the manifold causes and complex relations behind what sounds like a rather straightforward “deep story.”

More specifically, she shows – without condescension or contempt – their partial complicity “through their own votes for easier regulation and […] through their exposure to a social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so.” Hochschild’s choice of making the environment “the keyhole issue” of her book is indeed a powerful means of highlighting people’s losses in regions, such as Louisiana: be it the loss of their favorite outdoor haunts, clean air and water, or be it the loss of their homes, health, and loved ones due to environmental hazards. Not only do their stories resonate strongly with our current environmental crisis, but they also emphatically humanize the people involved.

There is, for instance, the story of Mike Schaff, whose old home is threatened to be sucked into the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Consisting of methane gas and oil, the giant hole is the result of longtime drilling and fracking enterprises into underground salt domes in the southern coastal regions. In this area, underground caverns are generally used by various companies for the storage of chemicals. The Bayou Corne Sinkhole disaster from 2012 effectively destroyed the homes of the entire neighborhood, not to speak of the contamination of water, soil, and the biodiversity in the entire region. Mike’s home is similarly threatened by the waste disposal of fracking which has been imported from the – by now – blue state of Pennsylvania.

Then there is the story of Lee Sherman whose work for Pittsburgh Plate Glass exposed him to dangerous chemicals until he got sick and was fired by the company. Part of his work for PPG was to dump chemicals into Bayou d’Inde, which not only resulted in the mass extinction of fish but also caused illnesses in many of his co-workers (all of whom have died early). Other interviewees, who have not undergone or witnessed such tragic experiences of loss themselves, are nevertheless familiar with them through hearsay. In this context, the fundamentalist belief in ‘the rapture,’ or judgment day, strangely resonates with these radical social and environmental transformations. Yet, being the rigorous sociologist she is, Hochschild at no time allows these stories of individual loss and struggle to get the upper hand over providing the necessary contexts of the “deep story.” Hence, while humanizing Tea Party voters through their individual stories, Hochschild at the same time relativizes their impact. She also adds a “Fact-Checking” appendix that reveals the biases in the “deep story” she uncovers, showing that it is indeed based on felt experiences rather than facts.

Although Hochschild conducted altogether 40 interviews, her book only features six which she singled out for their “clearly and richly exemplified patterns of thinking and feeling.” Appendix A reveals that she conducted interviews with an equal number of Democrats – the ‘other camp’ – in the Lake Charles area. Hence, Hochschild’s repeated comments that liberals have their “deep story” as well should not be dismissed as mere common sense remarks.

Strangers in Their Own Land does not offer solutions for the existing great divide between America’s left and right, at least not explicitly. I consider her refusal to participate in the characteristic judgmental polemics between the two camps a gesture well worth remembering in these times of a growing international anti-democratic populism. Otherwise, one may indeed be next in line as another stranger in one’s own land.