Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land

by

Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Louisiana native Mike Schaff drives Hochschild around the old plantation where he grew up, showing her where his family and community members used to live. Schaff tells Hochschild about Louisiana’s shift from “an era of sugar, cotton, and mule-drawn plows” to an economy dominated by oil. In the past, he explains, his community was tight-knit; even though they were often needy, nobody needed government help to survive because everyone could rely on one another. But now, Schaff feels like “big government” has gotten in the way.
Again, Hochschild puts people before their politics: she introduces Mike’s sense of loss and nostalgia in order to show why he disdains government. Mike believes that the public sphere has destroyed the private sphere by replacing the close, empathetic, trusting bonds of local communities with the expectation that the state will provide for people in need. However, Hochschild also highlights that the economic opportunities available to Louisianans have completely changed since Mike’s childhood, which foreshadows her argument that economic transformations are the real cause behind the disappearance of Louisianans’ old ways of life.
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Mike Schaff proclaims his loyalty to the Tea Party. Hochschild first met him at an environmental rally where he was speaking. A few years before, a huge sinkhole “robbed” him of his new home, and a “lightly regulated drilling company” caused the catastrophe. Despite this, Mike still favors “drastic cuts” in environmental protection spending, and Hochschild is “puzzled” by his beliefs.
Hochschild’s “puzzled” reaction shows that she considers Mike’s Tea Party politics and environmentalist activism as a contradiction, and perhaps an example of the Great Paradox: he appears to be fighting against solutions to a problem that he cares deeply about. Hochschild’s reaction also demonstrates that she cannot yet see past her own biases and assumptions about what government can and should do.
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Hochschild suggests that her confusion might stem from an “empathy wall” between her and Mike. (An empathy wall is “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person” that prevents people from challenging their existing beliefs and relating meaningfully with the other side.) They come from opposite political bubbles: Hochschild is a liberal professor from Berkeley and, when she told Schaff about her background, he responded that people from Berkeley “must be communist!” But Mike’s welcoming, “soulful” demeanor made conversation easy, even though neither of them had ever really known people from the other party.
Hochschild and Mike each come from one of America’s two disconnected political bubbles, and his joke that her town is full of communists reflects the colossal empathy wall between the two sides. Despite this, Hochschild notes that their political differences do not get in the way of a genuine personal connection—Mike’s soulfulness reflects his sincere desire for dialogue, and the two discover that they have more in common than either of them previously expected.
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Hochschild notes that “partyism” (prejudice based on political party) is now the greatest dividing line in American society. Americans from each side increasingly move to the same places and follow separate news media; even belief in climate change is now determined by politics more than anything else.
Hochschild illustrates how “partyism” prevents each side of the political spectrum from interacting with one another as anything expect for political enemies. Hochschild’s explanation of partyism seems to align it with groupthink—a term in social psychology that refers to the way that groups tend to (unknowingly) make ill-informed decisions for the sake of preserving homogeneity.
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But Hochschild argues that “this split has widened because the right has moved right, not because the left has moved left.” She cites historical examples of previous Republican administrations that favored more infrastructure spending, higher tax rates, and closer relationships with labor unions than today’s Republicans would ever accept. Now, Republicans want to cut entire federal agencies because they no longer trust the government to help improve their lives. Hochschild wants to connect with members of this “more rapidly shifting and ever stronger right.”
Here, as throughout her book, Hochschild is careful to center the historical context behind her subjects’ beliefs in order to demonstrate how they are representative of larger trends and are influenced by forces beyond their control on a national scale. The Republican Party’s accelerating rightward shift particularly demonstrates its increasing reluctance to involve the government in the free market.
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Hochschild sees Louisiana as an “extreme example” of the phenomenon she calls the Great Paradox: although conservative “red states” have “more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment” than liberal blue states, conservative states tend to reject government programs to address those issues. Louisiana is one of the worst offenders—it ranks second-to-last in health and child well-being, and quality of life is lower there than elsewhere in the country for black and white Americans alike.
Louisianans’ behavior appears to be contradictory because they reject solutions to their social problems, even as those problems continue to get worse. This “Great Paradox” is the central phenomenon Hochschild’s book seeks to explain—so far, Sharon Galicia and Mike Schaff’s rejection of government help suggests that they exemplify this paradox in their individual lives, just as Louisiana exemplifies it on a statewide level.
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Red (Republican) states like Louisiana also receive more money from the federal government than blue (Democratic) states, but many Louisianans Hochschild meets—including Mike Schaff—want to keep that federal money away. Like Schaff, many Louisianans deny climate change science even as their state loses coastline and defend the Wall Street-backed corporate monopolies that are increasingly outcompeting their own small businesses.
It also seems paradoxical that Louisianans do not want federal money but get so much of it. Both Mike’s climate change denial and his pro-business stance are rooted more in anti-government principles than an attention to policies’ practical effects.
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Hochschild considers Alec MacGillis’s popular explanation for the Great Paradox: MacGillis thinks that everyone votes in their political self-interest, but poor conservatives who need social programs vote less often than wealthier ones who truly benefit from shrinking the government. Hochschild wants to disprove this thesis by showing that affluent whites in red states still vote against their political interests. She wants to “pick out a problem that affluent voters in poor red states do have, and to show they don’t want government help for that either.” She chooses environmental pollution as this “keyhole issue”—a lens through which she can come to understand the Great Paradox from the viewpoint of conservatives.
MacGillis’s explanation suggests that some poorer conservatives really do want government help. Hochschild is suspicious of this because she thinks that people actually vote based on deeper principles and feelings rather than self-interest. Her approach to studying pollution seeks to show that conservatives of all income levels exhibit the Great Paradox by rejecting government help, consequently proving that there is a more complex game of identity at work than MacGillis thinks.
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Hochschild explains how the growth of Southern conservatism since the 1970s has made the region “the geographic heart of the right.” The rightward trend has been especially strong among white Southerners; in Louisiana, only 14% of whites voted for Obama and more congressional representatives have joined the Tea Party Caucus than any other state.
Hochschild, who was born in 1940, sees that the Republican Party’s new form of conservatism is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, and Louisiana displays an extreme version of it. Hochschild’s book focuses on white Southerners because they have undergone the strongest rightward shift—she later attributes this change to whites’ reaction to liberal identity politics.
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Hochschild was lucky to find a contact in the southwest Louisiana town of Lake Charles: Sally Cappel, a Democrat whose lifelong friend Shirley Slack is a Tea Party supporter. Sally and Shirley keep keys to each other’s houses, but they watch different news channels, married “like-minded” men, and seem to have little interest in changing each other’s minds. To Hochschild, their friendship “models what our country itself needs to forge: the capacity to connect across difference.” 
Hochschild is careful to build her contacts in Louisiana through a network of personal relationships, which she believes will offer her a more complete and in-depth picture of the actual lives, values, and cultural practices of Louisiana residents. Sally and Shirley’s relationship, like those Hochschild develops with the people she profiles in this book, demonstrates how polarized contemporary American life can be, but that deep, trusting personal relationships are possible despite that polarization.
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Hochschild examines common theories about “the rise of the right.” Liberal scholars suspect that corporate donors are orchestrating grassroots Tea Party activism, and while Hochschild agrees that “purchased political influence is real,” she believes that it is too convenient an explanation for the political beliefs of individuals like Mike.
Unlike liberal scholars who blame national political conspiracies for all Tea Party activism, Hochschild insists on getting up close to actual Tea Party activists and hearing them out—these liberal scholars start from suspicion, whereas Hochschild starts from empathy.
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Other scholars believe that the Tea Party emerged from specific Southern regional traditions and cultural values. Hochschild agrees that the South prides itself on resistance to the federal government and that its voters worry about the country moving away from traditional Christian morality, but she finds these theories insufficient to explain the Tea Party’s rise without “a full understanding of emotion in politics.”
These cultural explanations are closer to what Hochschild is looking for, but they simply link current political behavior to historical beliefs without explaining how or why people continue to believe them. Instead of painting a whole region with such a broad brush, Hochschild wants to learn why individual Southerners choose to resist the government and what emotions underpin that stance.
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More fundamental than geography or culture are liberals’ and conservatives’ competing “feeling rules.” Liberals think people should feel “happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes,” but conservatives resent these expectations, which seem to attack their own notions of how they should feel about other groups. By seeking the “deep stories” behind people’s political beliefs—the “story that feels as if it were true” on each side of the aisle—Hochschild believes she can understand “the shoulds and shouldn’ts of feeling,” as well as Republican politicians’ powerful appeals to conservatives’ feeling rules.
Hochschild first started writing about “feeling rules” in the 1970s, and the concept has been deeply influential in sociology ever since. She highlights that people in differing cultural contexts are conditioned to respond to events and information by expressing different emotions in different ways. She suggests that a conflict in these feeling rules might be the real underlying cause of political polarization in the United States. The deep story narrates how people feel about themselves amidst a broader political context and helps explain why people follow different sets of feeling rules.
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Hochschild’s research started with focus groups in Sally Cappel’s kitchen, which built into a broader network of relationships with Louisianans from every walk of life who invited her to come visit their churches, homes, and community gatherings. Ultimately, her five years of research resulted in “4,690 pages of transcripts based on interviews with a core of forty Tea Party advocates and twenty others from various walks of life,” some of whom Hochschild chose to follow more closely.
Hochschild spent an extraordinary amount of time and emotional energy getting up close to the sixty people she studied. Fittingly, her research was more about building deep relationships and trust with Louisianans than simply asking them what they believe and why they believe it. If she merely conducted traditional surveys, she probably would have failed to overcome the empathy wall separating her from the conservatives she wanted to study.
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Hochschild’s subjects varied widely in areas like their commitment to church, adherence to mainline Tea Party views, and suspicion of the poor and President Obama. But Louisiana was still a world apart from Berkeley, from the aisles of Bibles in its bookstores to its lack of foreign films and recycling bins to its residents’ prayers before dinner. She came to see the Tea Party as a culture: “a way of seeing and feeling about a place and its people.”
While Louisiana conservatives have many unifying cultural features, like Berkeley liberals, they are still fundamentally diverse in their views. Hochschild points out this diversity in order to warn against treating conservatives as a monolith, which is a mistake that many of the other scholars she examines in this chapter seem to make.
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Hochschild compares the list of registered student organizations at Louisiana State University—which focus on religion, agriculture, the military, and conservative politics—to the left-wing activist groups at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches. She notes that conservative iconography is everywhere in Lake Charles—most striking are the numerous memorials to the Confederacy. Race pops up “everywhere in the physical surroundings, but almost nowhere in spontaneous direct talk.”
Hochschild looks at student life, a slice of culture that she is intimately familiar with as a professor, to demonstrate how people in Louisiana and California tend to care about different kinds of political issues altogether. In the South, locals’ silence about race suggests that Louisiana’s distinctive cultural features also include what its people chose not to do and talk about.
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Before setting off for Louisiana, Hochschild re-read the “Tea Party bible,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand argued that “greed is good” and helping the poor is morally wrong. From her reading, Hochschild expected Tea Party conservatives to have a “selfish, tough, cold” worldview like Rand’s—instead, she discovered “warm, open people who were deeply charitable to those around them, including an older, white liberal stranger writing a book.”
Hochschild reveals her own prejudices before setting off for Louisiana. The expectations she derived about Tea Party voters from reading Atlas Shrugged were just as far from reality as many conservatives’ distorted views of liberals and minorities.
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Hochschild remembers meeting gospel singer Madonna Massey at a Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting. Madonna proclaimed her love for conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh (who is best known for his fiery rants against the left) because he criticizes “femi-nazis” and other liberal groups that tend to look down on the South. Hochschild realized that Madonna, who is “a gifted singer, beloved by a large congregation, a graduate of a two-year Bible college, and a caring mother of two,” saw Limbaugh more as a “firewall against liberal insults” than a role model. While Hochschild had found “good people at the center of this Great Paradox,” she still could not understand how they would vote for a harsher government and more pollution in their own backyards.
Again, Hochschild discovers a wide gulf between political discourse and personal reality. She realizes that she was projecting the political tone of Ayn Rand and Rush Limbaugh onto the “good people” she met, which suggests that liberals and conservatives might misconstrue one another in this way because they learn about each other secondhand rather than through firsthand experience and personal relationships. Limbaugh’s function for conservatives is primarily emotional: he validates Madonna Massey’s feeling of being attacked by liberals and defends her own feeling rules against this perceived assault from the other side.
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