The first edition of Strangers in Their Own Land was published in September 2016, just months before Donald Trump’s election. In the following year, Hochschild returned to Louisiana three times to check in on her friends and acquaintances there. Hochschild describes them as “ecstatic”; after all, everyone whose story she told ended up voting for Trump.
This book was much timelier than Hochschild ever could have anticipated—not only did Donald Trump launch his campaign many years into her research on the demographic that elected him, but (contrary to the vast majority of liberals’ expectations) he became President Trump just a few months after this book was published.
In September 2017, Trump stopped in Lake Charles during a trip to visit flooding victims in Houston. Although he was not planning a public appearance, a large crowd turned up, hoping he would decide to speak anyway. Berkeley, on the other hand, “was gloomy” after Trump’s election. Californians wondered how conservatives could support Trump despite Russian meddling in the election and his infidelity.
Berkeley and Lake Charles remain opposite universes within the same land, divided—perhaps more than ever and probably more than they were during Hochschild’s research—by a monumental empathy wall.
Hochschild wonders whether Trump’s policy agenda intentionally takes after Louisiana’s. Ultimately, Governor Jindal left the state devastated socially and economically—even Sasol, the South African petrochemical company, cancelled most of its enormous investment in Lake Charles. As director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Trump chose Scott Angelle, the official who okayed the drilling that led to the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. His pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has started slashing its budget. Louisiana polluters still go unpunished—for instance, a plant in Westlake exploded twice and 18 people ended up in the emergency room, but the company was never penalized.
Sasol’s worries about the “low road” strategy and preference to invest in areas with substantial government infrastructure played out in the worst possible way, but the people who piloted that strategy in Louisiana and refused to enforce environmental regulations are now the federal government’s model. Despite Lake Charles’s enthusiasm for Trump, the Westlake accident shows that the Great Paradox is stronger than ever.
Most of the mail Hochschild received after publishing Strangers in Their Own Land came from worried liberals who “despaired of developing empathy for the right” or wondered why conservatives do not reach out to them. The majority of conservatives who wrote to Hochschild “felt the book was a fair portrait” and particularly agreed with her picture of the deep story. Others outlined “postelection impasses with loved ones” and felt estranged from their former families and communities because of their political differences. Indeed, Hochschild feels that polarization has gotten noticeably worse since she started her research in 2011.
The letters from liberals show how hard overcoming empathy walls can be even for those who pride themselves on their acceptance and understanding of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The mail from conservatives testifies to the accuracy of Hochschild’s research and suggests that the conservative deep story is likely the same outside Louisiana. Hochschild confirms that her method is more needed now than ever, as politics increasingly divides the few communities, like families, that generally used to transcend it.
After the election, Hochschild repeatedly visited Sharon Galicia, who initially favored Ted Cruz but warmed up to Donald Trump during the campaign when he called for keeping jobs in the United States and keeping illegal immigrants out. Hochschild explains that Sharon’s feeling of being a “stranger in her own land” was a significant predictor of Trump support in postelection polls. Whereas Sharon used to obsess over the national debt, now her primary worry is that mainstream American media is unfairly biased against the president, which Hochschild explains was also a common shift in concern. Galicia’s eighteen-year-old son supported Bernie Sanders, and the whole family came to Berkeley for a college visit. Hochschild even set up a “right-meets-left ‘Living Room Conversation’” between the Galicia family and Berkeley liberals.
Sharon switched her vote, like many others, out of a hope that her national community would be defended against outsiders who wanted to erode its values and economy. But now, she sees a media assault on the president from inside the country—because his attitude and open disdain for certain citizens are so unprecedented, many news outlets have felt that covering him neutrally would mean condoning his bigotry. While Hochschild does not elaborate Sharon’s son’s views at length, their familial love clearly supersedes their political differences. Bernie Sanders also appealed to a similar sense of disillusionment as Donald Trump, although it is not clear if Sharon’s son felt like a stranger in his own land, too.
Mike Schaff was busy working on his new house, but he still visited his old one in Bayou Corne. He was also busy caring for his stepdaughter’s children, which gave him plenty of time to follow the news—but “mainly Fox.” He continued to lampoon the “donut-bloated overpaid useless ass bureaucrats” at the EPA for their tendency to side with polluters. Instead, Mike has his own master plan for fixing the environment: use digital environmental toxin monitors rather than bureaucracy to enforce environmental regulations and simply abolish state regulatory agencies. Hochschild sees this plan as “advocating for an honest, well-functioning federal government.”
Mike continues to sustain the memory of his dream house, and as a conservative, he continues to hate the EPA for the opposite reason as everyone else on his side: not only does the agency eat up too many resources, but they waste those resources because they fail to do their job and stop polluters. At the end of the day, Hochschild realizes, she and Mike both honestly want the same thing; many liberals could easily get on board with Mike’s plan if they agree that state regulators help industry rather than actually regulating it.
Hochschild brings her son David to meet Mike—the men “were polar opposites in nearly every way,” from their political beliefs to their regional heritage and family structures to their jobs: David oversees renewable energy for the California State Energy Commission. She asks the two to discuss environmental policy on tape. They agree that investors should prioritize renewable energy, but Mike recoils when David argues that California oil drilling is cleaner because of state regulations. Hochschild sees that “big differences remained, but palpable common moral ground had grown larger.” Despite this, when David brings up climate change, Mike tells him not to mention it if he wants “to sell solar panels to guys like me.”
After Mike’s latest rant against regulators, he actually gets to meet one. For Hochschild, Mike’s conversation with David is an experiment in finding common ground between people who seem to be polar opposites. Although the conversation goes awry when they get to climate change, Hochschild sees the experiment as an undeniable success.
Lee Sherman has stayed in touch with Hochschild by phone. Lee adores Donald Trump, watches 14 hours of Fox News a day, and defends the president’s “right to his own opinion.” Hochschild brings him a reader’s poem about the bird Lee had saved after dumping toxic waste in the bayou; Lee plans to frame it and hang it in his living room.
Lee’s delight when Hochschild brings the poem and insistence on staying in touch with her illustrates the power of the relationships she built across the political divide over her time in Louisiana.
A “lean, friendly man in his sixties” visits Annette Areno at her house and asks if she the is “the Annette Areno in that book.” She is; he asks her to sign it. The man was Ray Bowman, a former plant worker and union president who told Hochschild he was tasked with collecting dead fish when he worked for Citgo decades before. He explained that “they didn’t tell us why but I knew.”
Again, the book itself plays an important role in the afterword—it has taken on a cultural life of its own in Louisiana, it seems. Bowman empathized with what he read about the Arenos because he also had firsthand experience of pollution and felt deceived by the corporations responsible.
The Arenos now live between the polluted bayou and a huge Westlake Chemical processing plant under construction. Sometimes visitors cannot get to their house because “a company flagman could halt traffic for hours.” Hochschild followed them to church one Sunday, where the minister warned the congregation about communists and other “outside influences” before celebrating their aid to Houston hurricane victims, even across racial lines. The Arenos favor Trump’s policies and specifically worry about their town’s influx of Mexican construction workers, whom they accuse of taking locals’ jobs. They see world events —“talk of moving the capital [sic] of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, then the floods, and maybe nuclear war with North Korea”—as possible signs that the rapture is coming.
With the new plant, private interests are once again diverting public resources (here, the road) away from citizens. The minister’s sermon positions white Louisianans as potential saviors to people of other backgrounds outside their community while also accusing such outsiders of threatening them. Namely, they fear that jobs will go to Mexicans, which is a worry that Donald Trump echoed on a national stage. The Arenos’ interpretation of world events again gives them the capacity to endure the unjust burdens placed on them by pollution, the government, and the “line cutters” by giving them hope for a better life in the future, even if it not at the Bayou d’Inde.
Janice Areno wears a jersey reading “ADORABLE DEPLORABLES” to a dinner Hochschild hosts in Lake Charles and later mails one to her in Berkeley. (The line is a response to Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables” during the campaign.) Janice is “the staunchest of Trump fans,” alongside Lee Sherman, and she applauds his antagonism toward “line cutters.” She jokes that the Mexico border wall should extend to cut off California, too.
Janice’s provocative but friendly sense of humor shows her recognition that she and Hochschild are in one another’s good graces despite their extreme political differences. Her team loyalty to the Republican Party extends quite naturally to Donald Trump, whose unapologetic tone and willingness to antagonize the left resemble Janice’s own.
A year after Hochschild first published this book, white nationalists and neo-Nazis assembled for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; one of them drove his car into a liberal crowd and killed a woman. Some of these demonstrators belonged to “old-guard groups like the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan” while others saw themselves as “alt-right.” Trump openly equated the white nationalists with the liberals who protested them by suggesting that each side was partially to blame for the violence and had “very fine people.” Besides Fox News, national media responded with an appropriate scrutiny of his “reluctance to condemn” the demonstration; public opinion polls showed that the vast majority of Americans—but not most Republicans—disapproved of his comments.
One of liberals’ earliest significant worries about Donald Trump was that he would open the floodgates to explicit racism and especially white nationalism, and this has since come true. Hochschild knows that, accordingly, her subjects’ ambivalent racism takes on an entirely new set of connotations after the Charlottesville demonstrations and white nationalist domestic terrorist attack, so she carefully addresses her Louisiana friends’ race politics in the afterword.
Hochschild explains that the events in Charlottesville were “rekindling a nationwide racism that had never disappeared.” Racist movements have waxed and waned with the times, in the North as well as the South. After asking whether “white racism [is] the overriding source of support for Donald Trump” and the Tea Party, Hochschild suggests that many (but not all) of the people she interviewed in Louisiana “tacitly agreed” with a belief in natural racial hierarchy. The majority of those Hochschild asked about Charlottesville were disgusted by the violence and eager to condemn Nazis and the KKK. Ray Bowman shows her a dagger with a Nazi symbol on his wall, explaining that his uncle took it off a dead Nazi soldier during World War II.
Again, while Louisianans are racist in Hochschild’s sociological sense, they clearly do not believe they are racists—they do not hate any group like the white nationalists do, even if they stereotype others freely and seem to believe that other people are somehow naturally inferior to whites. When Hochschild asks whether racism accounts for people supporting Trump, this is as much in the sociological sense as the explicit one.
But Hochschild’s interviewees “also had feelings for which they found no place in the liberal world.” They do not believe they have systematic privileges because of their whiteness—a view Hochschild finds understandable, given their declining economic opportunities. Bowman simultaneously condemns the “idiots” who flew “the American, Confederate and Nazi flags all together” but also feels that the first two of those represent the honor of his Southern “homeland.”
Hochschild’s subjects cannot translate their feelings into language digestible for the left because they see only half the side of each issue: they certainly face severe economic struggles, so they cannot imagine that people of color might have it worse in America. Bowman feels attached to the heritage that the Confederate flag represents for him but thinks this can be separated from its racist connotations for other groups.
Hochschild concludes that Louisianans’ hostility to “unitary,” explicit racism is undermined by the racist “subnarratives” they still believe. They will condemn the KKK but hold onto “smaller stories” about Confederate pride, whites’ victimization by affirmative action, the black athletes who decide not to stand for the national anthem, and black Americans’ laziness or criminality. The underlying problem with these subnarratives is “the absence of historical context,” and while those who believe them disavow explicitly racist beliefs, these smaller stories may still “gather in some new way downstream.” This reflects what Hochschild calls “a powerful truth—life had been hard for them and it could get a lot worse.”In other words, Louisianans’ “economic anxieties exacerbated—and sometimes ran deeper than—purely racial ones.” And these racial anxieties aren’t just about Louisiana’s large black population—Hochschild’s acquaintances also worry as Muslims and Mexicans start moving into town.
Hochschild sees her subjects’ sociological (but not explicit) racism as a result of their limited perspectives, of the sort Bowman demonstrates in his comments about the Confederate flag. They cannot see how the Confederate flag, being silenced during protests against police brutality, and the accusation of laziness and criminality all carry the historical weight of slavery for black Americans and perpetuate white supremacy. In a sense, it is in conservatives’ emotional self-interest to reject this context: their worldview is so organized around their “gaze forward” that it is easier for them to avoid thinking about the millions of Americans who have had and continue to have it worse than them. At base, they hit an empathy wall and cannot understand minorities’ and liberals’ views on these issues, so they tacitly perpetuate white supremacy.
These Louisianans believe that liberal Americans’ “race consciousness was itself a form of racism” and feel that liberals define them by their whiteness. Ray Bowman worries that his son will have difficulty finding a job at Citgo due to affirmative action, which “doesn’t make Ray Bowman a ‘racist’” but still misrepresents the bigger picture that economic opportunities are dwindling for everyone besides the wealthiest Americans. Back in a wealthy residential section of Berkeley, Hochschild notes that property values have risen so sharply that “it would be impossible to afford a place nowadays” without a high-paying job, and so upper-middle class white and Asian liberals who wanted racial integration actually ended up self-segregating by income. This class status, Hochschild argues, blocks them from understanding Southern whites’ deep story. She concludes that class “loom[s] large” over political polarization in America today.
While they do not necessarily hate Americans of color, Louisianans see themselves on the receiving end of a different kind of racial discrimination because they lack the empathy for minorities and historical context to see that liberal race-consciousness is an attempt to address ongoing racial violence, hierarchy, and discrimination in the United States. Conversely, wealthy, race-conscious coastal liberals often cannot empathize with Louisianans because they miss the degree of economic desperation that leads Louisianans to see themselves as competing with minorities for scarce jobs. Both sides are blind to the other’s view on race because of empathy walls.
Hochschild’s interviewees also disagree about the Robert E. Lee statue that the Charlottesville protestors wanted to protect; some thought it should go in a museum, others agree with Hochschild that a statue of Frederick Douglass should be erected alongside it, and others—like Janice Areno—worry that taking down one statue would cause a slippery slope whereby liberals can “go for the next and the next.” While race “goes deep and looms large,” Hochschild argues that “economic anxieties” and moral values compound its effects, even though both are problems black Southerners also tend to face.
The debate over the statue recalls Hochschild’s realization at the beginning of the book that Confederate iconography is embedded throughout the Louisiana landscape, but it continues to mean different things to white and black Louisianans. Many of Hochschild’s friends now understand what the statue means to people who are not white Southerners. However, the pivotal question of what to do with identifiably racist monuments—whether they should become reminders of the dangerous way people previously extolled racist figures, for instance, or just one half of a visual conflict with Fredrick Douglass—is still a complex and contested one.
Louisiana conservatives also see women as “line cutters”—men tend to place them in the “separate mental categories” of daughters, wives, or competitors at work. And they worry about Mexican immigrant workers and “Muslims building local mosques that would teach sharia law.” But Hochschild notes that Mitt Romney and Donald Trump won the same proportion of the white vote and she concludes that “Trump’s election did not hinge on a new appeal to extreme racist groups.”
Beyond the pivotal question of Southern anti-black racism, these further anxieties about gender and race show how stereotypes define the parameters of white Southerners’ racial politics: they cannot imagine someone who is Mexican, Muslim, or a woman but otherwise just like them.
Hochschild mentions a few other letters she received: a man from rural Virginia who stumbled on a Confederate grave while hunting wondered whether he was really any different from the soldier “except for the time in which fate placed us,” and a Kansas woman noted the declining number of dairy jobs in her area. A student who was the first in her family to attend college wrote Hochschild that she felt “strong differences” from her family that grew up “seared by a fear of poverty.” To Hochschild, all these stories reflect the belief that “a precious way of life, like the nation itself, was being left behind.” And this is not just in the United States—around the world, right-wing movements blame outsiders for their “feeling of being strangers in their own land.”
For Hochschild, it is undeniable that small-scale, rural life grounded in local, homogeneous communities is decreasingly common around the globe, and that this shift creates emotional conflicts for the people undergoing it. Their deep stories are parallel, although locally inflected, and all struggle with the question of how to assert their values and identities before a world that increasingly views them as backward. For Hochschild, it seems, the options are a populist backlash to these shifts or an attempt to preserve their memory and values within the new mode of life, which requires a receptive audience that is empathetic to people’s stories rather than the often antagonistic ones they so often face.
Hochschild asks why, according to her interviewees’ deep story, the line for the American Dream has “stalled or moved back.” Whereas Louisianans who increasingly see black celebrities and athletes in the public eye may conclude that “blacks have enjoyed spectacular success, leaving whites behind,” these public images are misleading. Hochschild explains that “average blacks have not gained relative to average whites in education, jobs, or wealth.” Black representation at universities has actually declined, the black-white income gap has not changed, and black families suffered significantly more than whites during the Great Recession. And it is important to remember that “the history of the United States has been the history of whites cutting ahead of blacks” through slavery, Jim Crow laws, the New Deal and even the GI Bill, which disproportionately excluded African Americans. Today, systematic hiring discrimination continues—a 2003 study found that whites with prison records were more likely to get a callback than blacks without them.
Louisianans’ belief that black Americans are catching up to (or even surpassing) them in the market is based less on fact than on selective media selective coverage—and, more fundamentally, the fact that most conservative Louisianans have few black friends or acquaintances to counteract stereotypes or offer a basis for them to relate to black people. Even though black Americans still have it far tougher than whites economically, Southern white conservatives never see, read, or hear much of anything from black perspectives and accordingly never learn about the systematic discrimination that their own lack of knowledge helps perpetuate.
Women have seen measurable gains in education and income over the last 35 years, but they continue to make far less than men for the same work. And, despite Louisianans’ fears, “between 2009 and 2014 more Mexicans left the United States than entered it.”
Louisianans seem to be prejudiced against working women because of their increased visibility rather than wage parity, and their alarm at Mexican immigration is almost certainly a response to the alarmism in media and politics (especially from Trump), rather than the product of firsthand experience or fact.
Who, Hochschild asks, are “the real line cutters”? She concludes that they are robots. Automation disproportionately threatens the unskilled oil jobs on which Louisianans largely rely, and a McKinsey study suggests that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055.” Automation is the leading job killer in manufacturing, and men who get displaced from that industry can often only find new work in lower-paid service jobs traditionally held by women and black Americans. Robots eliminate ongoing labor costs, increase productivity, and never sue their employers—so businesses increasingly turn to them, but their negative effect on American livelihoods is largely overshadowed by their status “as a sign of progress, growth, greatness.”
Automation poses a severe threat to the kinds of middle-class jobs that many white Louisiana men work, but it is a largely invisible threat because the public tends to associate robots with technological progress rather than economic competition. It is a much less satisfying and politically actionable answer to the question “who are the real line cutters?” In other words, it is not in Southern whites’ emotional self-interest to antagonize robots because they cannot really be fought or stopped, whereas other humans can.
The year after Strangers in Their Own Land was published, all the incoming students at Louisiana State University’s Honor College were assigned the book as summer reading. Hochschild spoke to the students at the beginning of their first semester and knew that many grew up in the conservative communities she had researched, with parents who worked in petrochemical industries. She wondered what she could say to them and decided to tell them what she would do in their shoes.
Hochschild earned the opportunity to offer her message to her dream audience: the college students who will likely shape Louisiana’s social terrain for years to come. She recognizes that they come from the communities she studied but also have the opportunity to change those communities and address many of their state’s issues through education, so she tells them from experience how to navigate between those two worlds.
As a student interested in the government, Hochschild said, she would try to understand Americans’ distrust in government and compare the American government’s failures with other countries’ successes in the same realms. As a student interested in business, she would ask whether there is truly a trade-off between cleaning up the environment and continuing to expand industry. As a student interested in protecting the environment, she would study the current EPA cuts; as a student interested in psychology, she would investigate why oil workers reject climate science while their CEOs acknowledge it; and, as a student interested in law, she would try to work with the judge who blocked further drilling in Lake Peigneur after 2016.
Hochschild suggests that the students try to build connections between their existing academic interests and the issues their local Louisiana communities are facing. This would allow them to gain the historical context and abstract theoretical knowledge necessary to understand how politics, oil, and the environment interact to shape Louisiana’s social terrain but also the practical, on-the-ground knowledge necessary to meaningfully act as change agents in the long term.
In her speeches to other audiences, Hochschild emphasizes the “four pillars of activism” that liberals can use to help heal the current political divide: fighting to preserve the institutional checks and balances in American government; encouraging Democrats to address “people like those in this book” as well as those already on the left; making an effort to build relationships with people from other regional, religious or class backgrounds, who are so often disparaged in liberal circles; and talking with Republicans “about race, robots, government and more.” In fact, Democrats’ “political bubbles” are actually more insular than Republican ones: more Trump supporters have friends who supported Clinton than vice-versa.
These “pillars” call liberal readers to action. Hochschild thinks, and has clearly demonstrated through her research, that reaching out with empathy and the desire for understanding can be a powerful way to address political polarization. Democrats’ tendency to passive-aggressively judge conservative viewpoints does little to help them empathize with those conservatives.
One complication is that some liberals, like pundit Frank Rich, have tried to shut down this kind of dialogue since the election. Hochschild argues that “Rich confuses talk with surrender and empathy with weakness.” In fact, many voters went for Obama and then Trump; many Trump supporters—a quarter—felt positively about Bernie Sanders and some initial Sanders supporters even switched to Trump. Hochschild sees a handful of “potential crossover topics,” including “getting money out of politics, rebuilding our infrastructure, avoiding nuclear war,” that could form the basis of relationships across partisan lines. There are many grassroots cross-partisan groups, and Hochschild has worked with one in particular: Living Room Conversations.
Frank Rich underestimates the amount of fluidity and overlap between what are conventionally labeled the political left and right. By recognizing their mutual interests, people who disagree on most everything can nevertheless make valuable political progress and, more importantly, learn to better relate to those from different backgrounds in the future. The notion that liberals have nothing to learn from conservatives (and vice versa) leads to fragmentation and extremism—a little curiosity and humility can go a long way and cultivate unlikely friendships like the ones that make up this book.
Hochschild sees a recent decline in intermixture among “Americans who differ by class, race, and region.” Whereas the draft, labor unions, and public schools offered this mixture in the past, she argues that “today we need to find new ways to get acquainted across our differences,” perhaps through national service or domestic high school exchange programs. She admits that this may be an unlikely dream, but by putting those from differing backgrounds into touch, Hochschild thinks America can confront “the questions that so bitterly divide us” in order to “begin to slowly rebuild a nation in which no American—right or left—need ever feel like a stranger in our own land.”
The kind of intermixture Hochschild seeks is crucial to making relationships possible across political difference; paradoxically, the digital nature of much contemporary political discourse tends to exacerbate partyism rather than fostering middle ground. Hochschild thinks institutions are uniquely able to provide such intermixture, since it requires mobilizing people from different social terrains who would likely never meet otherwise.