Hochschild initially expected that people who live in more polluted places would be more worried about pollution and concerned with cleaning it up. But Louisiana seemed the opposite: it was highly polluted, and its residents opposed environmental regulations. More polluted states are more Republican, but Hochschild wonders whether Alex MacGillis’s argument—that people facing social problems in red states choose not to vote, while well-off conservatives do vote—is sufficient to explain this trend. If this argument is true, then poorer people who live near pollution should be less conservative (but less likely to vote) and wealthier people who live further from pollution should be more conservative (but more likely to vote).
Although the body of Hochschild’s book focuses on the feelings behind conservatism, she also wants to know whether the Great Paradox is actually true beyond Louisiana. MacGillis’s explanation is based on the concept of political self-interest, so he thinks that living near pollution should correlate with wanting environmental restrictions. Logically, this would make plenty of sense—the people who suffer pollution should be more attuned to its dangers.
The “more puzzling” alternative is that the same people who had to deal with pollution were actually the ones voting against regulations. Hochschild and her research assistant compared the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, “widely regarded by social scientists as one of the best datasets on social trends in the country,” with the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which measures the amount of toxic pollution in an area.
The other possibility is that people do not vote on political self-interest, as MacGillis expects—rather, some feeling or belief gets in the way of them rejecting the pollution that harms them. If this is the case, then conservative attitudes from the Social Survey should correlate with higher scores on the Toxics Release Inventory.
They found that, “the higher the exposure to environmental pollution, the less worried the individual was about it.” Those identifying as “strong Republican,” male, Christian, and high income were also less likely to worry about pollution. Hochschild describes these findings as “a paradox, but not one born of ignorance” because those more exposed to pollution were still more likely to understand its dangers and think humans can stop it. She concludes that Louisiana is “an extreme example of the politics-and-environment paradox seen across the nation.”
Strikingly, Hochschild found precisely a correlation between conservatism and pollution. In the body of the book, she suggests a number of possible, interlocking causes behind this correlation, including the possibility that companies deliberately locate in areas where people are conservative and have the “least resistant personality,” and the possibility that these people work for and feel loyal to the polluting companies in their areas. Regardless, this is sufficient to refute MacGillis’s claim that people near pollution simply do not vote: rather, they actually are more conservative.