Hochschild wonders about the historical influences that have led to the Tea Party’s rise. Clearly, it takes from a long tradition of American populism, but it is unique in advocating “reversing progressive reform and dismantling the federal government.” Hochschild sees these unique threads in the Tea Party’s political program as a distinct response to the conservative deep story and argues that understanding them requires examining the South in the 1860s and the 1960s. She is interested in how these periods left “emotional grooves, as we might call them, carved into the minds and hearts” of middle-class Southerners. In particular, the class distinctions formed during these periods of conflict continue to influence contemporary Southern whites’ class identities.
In an attempt to show the deeper context behind Louisiana’s issues and test political solutions, Hochschild has repeatedly looked back to history where Louisiana’s government and people choose to systematically forget it through structural amnesia. Here, she argues that emotions are historically influenced in the same way—feeling rules, models of the self, and political affiliations can be passed down generationally just like wealth and property.
By the early 1860s, the South was defined by the plantation system, which left whites who ran small farms—in the words of seminal Southern historian W.J. Cash—“locked into a marginal life.” They were caught economically and psychologically between the ostentatiously rich plantation owners they could theoretically become, who conceived themselves “not as wicked oppressors but as generous benefactors” of poor whites, and the violently oppressed slaves whose trauma they were lucky not to suffer. This gave poor whites “a picture of the best and worst fates in life” and “suggested its own metaphoric line waiting for the American Dream,” which was equated with getting one’s own plantation.
As in today’s structural squeeze, poor whites in the 1860s were promised a kind of economic progress that very few of them ever actually achieved. As today, working whites’ desire for wealth created an emotional self-interest in identifying with the wealthy, which led them to empathize with and trust the wealthy class while turning against people much more oppressed than themselves.
As the plantation system expanded, poorer farmers were crowded out of the best farmland and forced into what Cash called “all the marginal lands of the South.” Cash argued that, by destroying the forest ecosystems that supported diverse wildlife and plants, plantation owners destroyed “the old abundant variety” poor white farmers were used to living on. This class had a long way to go toward the American Dream and faced little interference by government of any sort—until the Civil War.
Just as oil destroys the environment and forces Louisianans like the Areno family to stop living off the land and work for the industry instead, the plantation system deliberately created economic precarity in order to tighten its grasp on the South.
The Civil War devastated the region’s economy, black Southerners suddenly started competing with poor whites economically, and the moralizing North condemned poor whites at the same time as its “carpetbaggers” moved South to profit from Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Movement and Obama’s presidency seemed like new iterations of the same pattern of domination by the North.
When government did enter the picture for Southern whites, it figured as a distant enemy force that descended on the region to destroy communities and livelihoods. This intervention crushed poor whites’ unlikely faith that they would advance economically in the existing system. Similarly, the present government’s promise of economic assistance conflicts with Louisianans’ absolute faith that the free market will lead them to the American Dream.
Hochschild sees oil as “the new cotton.” Oil barons have even bought old cotton plantations, and they also crowd out other industries and require enormous investment to bring their business to scale. Oil also promises to restore the wealth that the South lost after the plantation system collapsed. In fact, while the plantation system left 19th-century working whites poor, oil now promises their descendants honorable jobs that pay decent wages.
Oil dominates the Southern economy (if in perception more than in reality), as much as cotton used to. Like cotton, the oil industry has created a wealthy minority with disproportionate power in Louisiana. Oil has also created a convergent system of values in which the route to success is clear, but opportunities for that success are competitive.
Hochschild meets a period actor who plays a Confederate soldier at the Oak Alley Plantation, which has been restored as a tourist attraction; he agrees with her characterization of oil as “the new cotton” and explains that an oil company built a huge storage facility a few hundred yards from his house, which he can no longer sell because the property value has declined so severely ever since. He explains that, while Confederates like the soldier he portrays wanted to secede from federal control, “you can’t secede from oil. And you can’t secede from a mentality.”
Even though the actor appears to empathize with Confederate secessionism, even he cannot defend oil. Secession from a political body involves laying claim to a distinct public interest that the national government does not represent, but the oil industry only represents its own private interest. It gains power by recruiting people to the oil “mindset,” making them believe they will strike it rich. That mindset comes to determine how people feel and vote, but those who do not share it can do little to tamper oil’s political domination.
Hochschild next argues that, amid the cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s, “a long parade of the underprivileged came forward to talk of their mistreatment”—including minorities, immigrants, women seeking equal work, LGBT Americans, and environmentalists. As personal identity increasingly became an important rallying cry for politics, old white men felt left out and blamed. Indeed, they felt like victims, but their complaint was precisely that everyone else was claiming to victimhood and the special status it accorded.
By vocalizing their own deep story of cultural marginalization during the 1960s and 1970s, minorities began shifting the terms of national discourse and pushing a cosmopolitan attitude as the solution systematic oppression. To fix the system, Americans had to first find empathy for the oppressed and trust in the veracity of their lived experience. These demands made acceptance and intercultural fluency key values of the cosmopolitan self. But Louisianans felt that the system wasn’t broken—indeed, it promised them the American Dream—and so declarations of “victimhood” started to look like a refusal to follow the established, ostensibly fair rules.
“The defining moment” of this period was the 1964 Freedom Summer, when students and civil rights workers—including Hochschild and her husband—traveled South to register voters, teach informal classes, and otherwise help advance black Americans’ struggle for civil rights. This was a dangerous mission—three voter registration workers were murdered by the KKK, and various black churches, businesses, and homes were bombed. This made the “white, blue-collar Southern men” who were “the most visible resisters to civil rights” dramatically lose their sense of honor in the national eye. Many Tea Party members were teenagers at the time and felt that the moralizing North was intervening again and making “Southern whites [bear] the mark of shame,” even when they did not directly participate in violence.
Hochschild’s personal memory of the Freedom Summer reminds the reader that she, like many of the Tea Partiers she interviews, observed these historical transformations in public discourse firsthand. Working-class Southern whites became the face of racism because they saw an economic trade-off between their own interests and those of minorities. Again, media exported this image to a national stage and decided which narratives of self were politically salient.
From 1948 through the 1960s, the federal government gradually passed a series of protections for African-Americans, most notably President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. The feminist and gay rights movements took a similar course in the 1960s and 1970s, and other groups continued to join suit through the present day. Ultimately, the 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of the “culture of victimization” that Tea Partiers continue to decry as getting in the way of fairness.
As politicians began systematically protecting certain rights and establishing anti-discrimination protections for certain marginalized groups, conservatives saw the “line cutters” winning special privileges by claiming a victimhood that white men could never experience. To conservatives, the left’s call to break down empathy walls for minorities was actually setting up an empathy wall between minorities and women on one side and white men on the other.
Hochschild’s friends in the Tea Party adopted parts of this 1960s and 1970s culture while rejecting others. One appreciated “feminist” Sarah Palin and another admired Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership style, but others thought people should not benefit from affirmative action if, say, they have one Native American ancestor. Pride in their whiteness, maleness, or age would have made them seem chauvinistic. But they felt they had “lived through one long deep story of being shoved back in line,” even as their economic opportunities dwindle. They “were beginning to feel like victims,” even as they hated when people flaunted their victimhood.
Conservatives dismissed such progressive policies outright, without looking at their overall costs and benefits or even the principles behind them. However, if conservatives did look at the principles behind identity-sensitive progressive reforms, they would perhaps find that they empathize with marginalized groups’ sense of desperation and lack of opportunities.
Hochschild asks where this population of Southern whites could find another source of pride. Their work was insecure as wages fell; they felt like the rest of the country saw their region as backwards. Family values became one consistent source of pride, and so a commitment to heterosexual monogamous marriages became a cornerstone of Southern politics. This led Southern conservatives to oppose same-sex marriage, favor practices like covenant marriages that carry extra legal requirements, and reject abortion as dishonorable. Church and the moral codes that accompanied faith were another source of honor; even though much of liberal America saw religious doctrines like the idea that the earth was created in seven days as “signs of a poor education,” Christians could trust that other Christians would be morally upstanding people.
Pride in Christian morality allows conservatives to rally around church as a site of community, reject the left’s arguments when they are based in empirical scientific evidence that conflicts with religious teachings, and enforce a code of behavior that tells them who to trust. Just as Janice Areno claimed to feel no sympathy for anyone who does not work (she wanted to “let them starve”), Southern Christians also set up sympathy conditions that implicitly exclude those who don’t share their same values.
The core of this newfound honor “was pride in the self of the deep story,” the self that had made enormous sacrifices to survive and care for large Southern families and local communities. Southerners idolize rather than demonize the rich through a “gaze forward” that liberals see as a denial of their own class status. But this kind of endurance self is threatened by the less rooted, more liberal “upper-middle-class cosmopolitan self” that is “directed to the task of cracking into the global elite.” People with cosmopolitan selves are more willing to move far away and fight for liberal causes like human rights, but think of emphasis on local community as signifying “insularity and closed-mindedness rather than as a source of belonging and honor.” The cosmopolitan self’s threat to the endurance self led many Southerners to blame the federal government that was increasingly rewarding the former.
The endurance self underlies all these various expressions of conservative pride. This self sees community as a bounded entity: one’s town, family, company, and church, which must be defended from assaults by outsiders. Conversely, the cosmopolitan self sees community as open-ended, willing to adopt new members and cultures so long as they share the values of tolerance and equality, but this community is imagined and abstract rather than concrete and localized. Because conservatives experience the federal government as an abstract, faraway, often amorphous entity that can nevertheless show up at their doorsteps to knock down their hard-won communities, conservatives unsurprisingly tend to associate it with the cosmopolitan self.
Many of Hochschild’s friends in Louisiana worried about Syrian refugees coming to the United States after 2015. Lee Sherman suggested incarcerating them in Guantánamo Bay, Mike Schaff thinks they should have stayed and fought in their own country (as he says the South did during the Civil War), and Jackie Tabor felt that Islam was a threat to American culture. The Tea Party allowed its members to forget the pleas of other downtrodden groups, shed liberal feeling rules and instead focus on “aspiring high.” Hochschild sees this attitude as continuing the legacy of Southern secession, and specifically hoping to become the rich who would secede from the poor by eliminating taxation and social services. Now, even Northern conservatives are following suit, hoping that “the richer around the nation will become free of the poorer.”
Louisianans are so suspicious of religious outsiders that they conflate a few thousand refugees with criminals and cultural invaders who threaten hundreds of millions of Americans’ ways of life. Tea Partiers’ aspiration to wealth, or “gaze forward,” leads them to think of themselves like wealthy people even if they are not. This is why so many Louisianans, like Bill Beatifo and Mike Schaff, believe that they would or should be millionaires, if only the government had not gotten in the way. Ultimately, Tea Partiers believe the rich deserve their wealth and should have no obligations to the poor, but they forget that profit for the rich requires labor from the poor. The rich need the freedom to employ the poor but want the freedom from caring for the poor. They want to treat the poor as laborers, but not as people.