Talking with Strangers: A Journey to the Heart of the Right

Attendees of the Gulf Coast Tax Day Tea Party at the Gulfport SportsPlex in 2009. (Photo: Amanda McCoy/ Sun Herald)

Talking with Strangers: A Journey to the Heart of the Right

A new book encourages us to scale the “empathy wall” to understand a segment of Trump supporters

There are many theories and explanations for the rise of Donald Trump and the current incarnation of white right-wing populism.

A deeper understanding--and an invitation to scale the "empathy wall"--comes from veteran sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her new book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The book is, as its second subtitle suggests, "A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide."

"An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances."
--Arlie Hochschild, sociologist and author

In Strangers, Hochschild spends over five years embedded with Louisiana Tea Party activists, including families that have suffered from environmental disasters at the hands of chemical and petroleum companies. As she builds relationships with her subjects, Hochschild goes to meetings, shares meals, goes on local driving tours, attends church, samples food at Cajun cook-offs, and goes to a Trump rally. Her intention is to build the "scaffolding of an empathy bridge." As Hochschild writes,

An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.

Hochschild focuses on what she calls the "Great Paradox:" Why is it that people whose communities have been devastated by greedy and unregulated chemical and oil companies enthusiastically support politicians who advocate for further corporate deregulation? In Hochschild's words, why is there both "great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters."

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New Press, 2016)
The quick explanation is that people's concerns about unresponsive government, high taxes, disrespect for religious and cultural alienation override environmental concerns, even when a sinkhole caused by corporate pillage literally sinks your neighborhood. And the "rift between deserving taxpayers and undeserving tax money takers, those in a class below them" continues to fester. Two decades after welfare reform reduced the number of aid recipients by 80 percent, Hochschild hears the timeless resentments about mothers having children out of wedlock and driving fancy cars to drop their kids at Head Start.

Hochschild formulates a "deep story" to explain the worldview of her tea party neighbors. Imagine that you are standing in a line of people that rises up over a hillside. On the other side of the hill is the American Dream. You work hard, sometimes in dangerous work. You lead a moral life, honoring family, country, community and God and make sacrifices, such as serving in the military. You are waiting patiently, but the line is stalling, even moving backward at times. When you look forward, you see people cutting in line. Some of them are new immigrants and people of color.

At the head of line, waving in the line-cutters, is Barack Obama and the liberal coastal elites. While calling you a racist, they side with the line-cutters. Heck, they even appear to value the lives of pelicans higher than your life and livelihood in the name of abstract environmentalism.

You are not a racist--you have worked all your life along side African-Americans and Latinos. But you resent it when people cut in line. And you don't like it when liberals insult you because of your Christianity, commitment to marriage, and Southern culture. All this makes you feel like you are a stranger in your own land.

What the Tea Party and Donald Trump have to offer is they at least see you. You are not invisible. And they invoke memories of a time when you weren't a stranger in your own land. They don't dismiss you as racists and rednecks.

When Hillary Clinton calls you a "deplorable," you know that's what the liberal elites secretly say behind closed doors. As Joe Bageant wrote in his marvelous book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, most liberals don't have a clue how to engage with white working class communities. They presume people are too racist, dumb or manipulated by the Koch brothers to vote for their real economic class interests, rather than understand the economic, cultural and identity reasons why people might distrust the Democratic party establishment and liberal agenda.

Over three decades of stagnant wages and sluggish growth in rural and small town America have fueled the regressive populist moment. One solution is to get the stalled-out line moving again by raising wages, expanding opportunities, savings, wealth creation, and homeownership.

Change will require building progressive populist coalitions between rural and urban workers to press for investment and fair trade policies that don't further undercut wage growth. But the Tea Party folks need to see that they aren't the only ones waiting in line. There are millions of Black, Latino and Native American workers who have also waiting patiently for the line to move (some for centuries) who share their values and aspirations, but have been similarly betrayed by three decades of neoliberal economic policies that have inflated the wealth of the 1 percent and undercut wages.

The resentments about "line-cutters" won't entirely disappear, but most will evaporate if prosperity is better shared. Racist attitudes are part of the equation, fueled by immigration and cultural changes that will not go away. But as long as people rightfully feel the economy is a rigged game and they are the losers, the scapegoating will continue to focus on the "line cutters" instead of the rule riggers in the powerful 1 percent.

A missing piece of the work is empathy, of listening and building relationships, and affirming that everyone is valued in this country, including those who are white working class and Christian. Coastal liberals need to leave their smug bubbles and make friends across the empathy wall.

For decades, Hochschild has chronicled the social forces shaping our daily lived experience, such as women's work-home imbalances (The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home), the commodification of relationships (The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times), and the plight of immigrant women workers (Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy). She is a compassionate and curious listener, probing for insight and meaning, founded on authentic relationships.

As writer Margaret Wheatley wisely said, "You can't hate someone whose story you know."Strangers in their Own Land greatly expands our stories.

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