Louisiana Blues

Trump’s election so surprised and confused me that I have undertaken some political soul-searching. How could a loudmouth, fibbing, narcissistic, fear-mongerer have been preferred by enough Americans to get elected for the most powerful job in the world? Was Neil Gorsuch really worth that price? Am I that out of touch? Does the liberal Seattle cocoon deafen me from how most Americans think and feel?

Since November I have made a concerted effort to unplug my ears and listen more to differing points of view. One action was to subscribe to the neoconservative magazine Commentary. I figured it could serve as counterweight to my New Yorker. No, I have not started watching Fox but then I rarely watch any television, period.

As part of this perspective-expanding campaign, I just read the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist on the faculty of U.C.-Berkeley. Water went to visit oil (in some of the book’s chapters, literally). Published last year before the election, the book entailed research over five years, much of it conducted on the ground in Louisiana. Hochschild wanted to understand the increasing polarization in the U.S., which often leads to dislike and contempt. Her strategy was understanding through in-person communication and empathy. Her focus was the Tea Party’s popularity, and while we now think more in terms of Trump’s base than Tea Party, her insights remain valid as there is little daylight between Tea Party members and Trump loyalists.

Hochschild’s mission was to explore what she calls The Great Paradox. The majority of Louisiana residents would agree with the Cajun who told Hochschild: “I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-freedom to live our own lives as we see fit so long as we don’t hurt others. And I’m anti-big government. Our government is way too big, too greedy, too incompetent, too bought, and it’s not ours anymore. We need to get back to our local communities.” On the other hand, the state this man resides in ranks 49th in “human development,” which is based on life expectancy, school enrollment, educational degree attainment, and median personal earnings, as measured by the Social Science Research Council. Out of the 50 states, Louisiana residents come in last for overall health. Only eight out of ten Louisianans have graduated from high school, and only 7% have graduate or professional degrees.

About the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a woman said, “The spill makes us sad, but the moratorium [Obama’s 6-month halt to deep sea drilling] makes us mad.” Government was the target of her anger, not BP. Another woman told Hochschild, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.” The Paradox can also be seen with guns. Louisiana has some of the most lax gun control laws in the country. It also has the country’s highest rate of death by gunfire, nearly double the national average.

These are easy targets for a liberal to set sights on. But a virtue of Strangers in Their Own Land is that Hochschild checks liberal condescension at the door. She works to get at what she calls the “deep story.” And as is almost always the case in human affairs, the deep story is found in emotion, not intellect.  She spends time with a wide range of individuals, expressing sincere interest and empathy. She attends gumbo cook-offs, Pentecostal church services, and Trump rallies. She has long conversations over cookies at kitchen tables and while poring over photo albums. We only start to know an individual when we scrap the stereotypes and get under the skin.

One Louisiana man had his home on a bayou destroyed by a polluting energy company and he received no compensation for his losses. He was hurt and angry. He has been pushed into a financial hole with no way out. But it is government he was angry at, not the rule-skirting polluting corporation. Hochschild writes: “It wasn’t the simple absence of government he wanted, it was the feeling of being inside a warm, cooperative group. He thought the government replaced that.” Community has been weakened if not destroyed, and the easiest thing to blame is “government.” Another man remarks, “[Back then] we had community. You know what’s undercut all that? Big government.” It all starts to sound like a form of xenophobia, but with “government” rather than some “other” ethnic or religious group getting blamed for our fears and economic decline. The role that Fox News plays in reinforcing antipathy to government cannot be overestimated.

Hochschild found a deep-seated grievance that “others” are gaining benefits of American society without earning them. A trope she often encountered was “line-cutting”: You are following the rules, others are cheating and getting in line ahead of you, and that means you are pushed back, falling further away from the American Dream. Those she met questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s success, suspecting he was one of those who had cut in line. No wonder the “birther” controversy, fanned by our current president, found fertile soil in Tea Party territory. Welfare recipients are the easiest target for this suspicion. Left unsaid are the racial assumptions that often accompany hostility toward welfare.

How popular culture portrays poor white southerners causes shame and anger. One woman told Hochschild that Rush Limbaugh defends her against the insults liberals lob at her: “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” If you were regularly on the receiving end of those attitudes, someone like Limbaugh might begin to resemble a knight in shining armor.

To buttress antipathy toward government, its size gets exaggerated. When Hochschild asked one person to estimate how many people worked for the government, he told her, “A lot – maybe 40% – work for the federal and state government.” Hochschild, who didn’t know the answer either, later looked it up. According to figures from Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.9% of the 143 million American non-farm workers were employed in the civilian sector of the federal government in 2014. When you add together all military and civilian workers at the federal, state, and local levels, less than 17% of Americans worked for government at all levels.”

Much of the conflict and resentment that Hochschild observed is class-based, a tension that is rarely given its true name in America. That conflict is real. If you were born before 1950 (the year I showed up on this planet), the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, that has not been the case. The economist Phillip Longman has argued that the post-1950 generations were the first in American history to experience lifetime downward mobility “in which at every stage of adult life, they have less income and less net wealth than people their age ten years before.” Some became so discouraged they stopped looking for work; since the 1960s, the share of men ages 25 to 54 no longer in the workforce has tripled. Most men caught in this squeeze have moved to the right politically, as have the women associated with them.

One insight Strangers offers is that this class-conflict looks different depending on political leaning. The left sees the problem up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is a zero-sum struggle between the middle class and the poor. The poor grasping for more than they’ve earned or deserve make it harder for others to hold their grip on the middle class or ever even get there despite working hard and living by the rules.

American society is in a fraught condition. I write this during the week when white supremacists sparked a conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia that left three dead. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists see themselves as victims, as men forced into loser-hood by government, minorities and immigrants. They feel aggrieved because the American Dream has eluded their grasp. Their empty hands seek something to blame the emptiness on.

Can we find ways to unite rather than keep fragmenting? To remember that we have much in common? To remember that our country was founded by people of differing creeds who didn’t always agree, including about the optimal size of government. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s well-researched and empathetic book renders a valuable service by helping us better understand each other.

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