As governor, Bobby Jindal cut over 30,000 state government jobs, and social services crumbled in Louisiana. Social workers could not keep up with child abuse cases, universities could not afford to keep many campus offices open more than three days a week, and waiting lists for public defenders were thousands of names long. But the state still ended up $1.6 billion over budget, which is the same amount Jindal gave to oil companies in tax exemptions. He cut corporate taxes, transferred state-owned property and hospitals into private hands, and ultimately put “the entire state of Louisiana […] into a sinkhole.”
Hochschild’s indictment of Bobby Jindal’s governorship demonstrates the concrete effects of conservatives’ desire to slash government budgets (and particularly social spending), but also the way his policies’ benefits disproportionately flowed to the top while failing to actually help working Louisianans. This sets up the first half of the Great Paradox: conservative policies make working people’s lives worse and freedoms dwindle.
But Hochschild’s acquaintances in the Louisiana Tea Party still voted for him and opposed his successor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, who raised taxes to cover the budget shortfall. This is while Louisiana ranks second to last among the 50 states in “general well-being” and receives 44% of its state funding from the federal government. Hochschild knows that Louisianans do not want to be “victims,” but they clearly are; in fact, they are “sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system” that makes plastic products for the whole country yet disproportionally burdens red states with the resulting pollution. And this happens largely because Southerners vote against government regulation and live in a “social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so.”
Jindal’s policy failures did nothing to influence conservatives’ votes, which are expressions of their deep stories rather than rational choices among competing policy agendas. This reflects the second half of the Great Paradox: working people vote for conservatives, and therefore against their interests, because they vote based on emotional (more than political) self-interest. In terms of environmental pollution, Louisiana’s social terrain reinforces its people’s deep stories. They vote to accept industry, which fits their deep story, rather than reject pollution, which their endurance selves are ready to deal with.
Hochschild sees the left and right, as well as urban blue areas and rural red ones, as fundamentally interdependent on one another. Red states produce the energy that blue states need to run, and blue states have the technology and labor markets that red state industries need to grow.
Hochschild wants readers to see the interconnection rather than the polarization in contemporary American life: although partyism leads people to disconnect from the other side’s bubble beyond the empathy wall, in reality both sides need one another to sustain their way of life.
Despite this interdependence, Hochschild remarks that she “was humbled by the complexity and height of the empathy wall” throughout her research. However, she notes that Louisianans’ “teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley” showed her how easy it can be to overcome that empathy wall. Opposing sides can also easily cooperate on particular issues—Mike Schaff, for instance, recently adopted a conventionally liberal disdain for “big money” in politics.
Although political disagreements and visible cultural differences set up the empathy wall, everyday personal interactions can swiftly knock it down. Instead of seeing others through political affiliations and disagreements, Hochschild suggests that healing the American political divide requires setting politics aside, viewing others as people first and political actors second, and focusing on the resonances, however minor, between otherwise discordant views.
Back in California, Hochschild looks out on the San Francisco Bay and remembers that there are environmental problems in blue states, too—like the 1969 Union Oil spill near Santa Barbara. She sees the “keyhole issue” of environmental pollution as demonstrating the ultimate human stakes and effects of politics. She includes two letters she has written, one explaining the Tea Party’s viewpoint to her own progressive community and the other explaining progressives’ viewpoint to her Louisiana friends.
While blue state oil spills are rarer and get more attention from media and activists, they still tend to recede into history in people’s minds while their concrete effects can continue for decades. Broadly, then, Hochschild’s keyhole issue demonstrates private interests’ long-lasting, often invisible effects on public freedoms. Her letters are a pithy attempt to help each side overcome the empathy wall and experience the other’s viewpoint, however partially and momentarily.
The first letter encourages liberals to see the strength and resilience in conservative communities that sustain their values and work patiently for a better future, even as they have been left behind. She suggests that the conservative donors who largely fund right-wing grassroots activism are appealing to people’s deeply-held values rather than the “bad angels of their nature,” as liberals might expect. Hochschild concludes the short letter by asking liberals to “consider the possibility that in their situation, you might end up closer to their perspective.”
Hochschild wants liberals to move past their surface-level image of conservatives by recognizing the animating values behind their decisions. She wants coastal liberals to see principled but downwardly mobile people trying desperately to save their communities and ways of life, rather than the spiteful, prejudiced people like Rush Limbaugh they see in the media. Hochschild’s book is essentially an extended version of this call for liberal empathy, so she keeps this particular letter rather short.
In her letter to right-wing Louisianans, Hochschild explains that many progressives are just as disgruntled with American government as they are, and progressives also share their basic values of freedom, economic security, and fairness. But she notes that, as hard as it may be for conservatives to hear, “historically the Democrats have done better” at creating jobs, raising the middle classes, and defending workers. And, in the past, the line between Democrats and Republicans has not been as defined as it is today: for instance, President Clinton “ushered in an era of deregulation,” and President Nixon passed many environmental regulations.
Hochschild first wants conservatives to understand that left versus right does not mean and has never necessarily meant government versus private sector. In fact, government regulation can facilitate rather than stymie an effective private sector, and especially improve the lives of workers like them. She hopes the right-wing Louisianans can come to see the public sector as defending workers and their communities rather than attacking businesses and the free market.
In the same letter, Hochschild compares Louisiana to Norway, which has a similar population and also runs on an oil-based economy, but guarantees nearly all its citizens comfortable lives, in part through its sovereign wealth fund. She explains that progressives “have their own deep story, one parallel to yours, one they feel you may misunderstand.” Liberals are “fiercely proud” of their robust public infrastructure and value the “incorporation and acceptance of difference” symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. But progressives fear that private industry is trying to “recklessly dismantle” their “hard-won public sphere.” Conservatives and progressives might share more than they think, Hochschild explains, “for many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.”
Liberals and conservatives are both mired in fear that the government will dismantle the world they have built by regulating too little and too much, respectively. By showing how public infrastructure can create rather than fragment community, Hochschild encourages conservatives to look beyond states like Louisiana, where government often does little beside collect taxes and green-light pollution (and so citizens appropriately dislike it). Instead, she wants them to see places where the government actually carries out its goals of facilitating opportunity and meeting basic needs for all without preventing the wealthy from enjoying the fruits of their success.
Hochschild explains that the left and right focus on different class conflicts that follow from their different deep stories. For the left, the conflict is the 1% versus the 99%, and for the right it is the “makers” versus the “takers.” But Hochschild agrees with economist Robert Reich that the new conflicts in the 21st century are actually “between main street capitalism and global capitalism” and “anti-establishment versus establishment” politicians. In fact, both sides are responding to the global capitalism from which 90% of citizens do not stand to profit. The right reinvests in family and church while giving businesses incentives to relocate; the left invests in public infrastructure to spur the growth of new industry. And these are both calls for an “activist government.”
The populist wings of the left and right both want better wages for American workers, but neither has fully come to terms with the way that corporations now often have more power than governments because they transcend national borders, decreasingly rely on American labor, and buy government loyalty when they can (as much in the United States as anywhere). Hochschild thinks that businesses will never consistently put their workers’ wellbeing over profit unless they are forced to answer to the public good, which means that governments need to find ways to bring businesses’ profit motive in line with that public good. This is why, notably, the left’s “high road” proposal is not actually about regulating away options and opportunities, as the right seems to think; rather, it is about giving people and businesses the resources to innovate.
Hochschild walks around Berkeley, wondering what her Louisiana friends would think of her liberal enclave. Would Janice Areno see a vegan restaurant with a monthly pay-what-you-want day as “hippy-dippy or as a business with a touch of church?” Are recycling bins wasteful regulation? What would Sharon Galicia’s left-leaning son think of Berkeley? Hochschild realizes that “our deep stories differ, of course, anchored as they are in biography, class, culture, and region” but she still admires the conservatives she met and emphasizes that “I wish them well.”
In trying to view Berkeley from Louisianans’ eyes, Hochschild wonders whether they would focus on the differences that confirm their stereotypes or see the city’s similarities with their own communities. Would they see the progressive Berkeley city government as a caring institution that looks out for its citizens like a church does or a nightmarishly authoritarian regime forcing people to be “green?”
Harold and Annette Areno open their front door in October 2014: Mike Tritico stands on their porch and explains that their class-action lawsuit was thrown out after eighteen years due to a “lack of evidence” that the pollution in the Bayou d’Inde could harm humans. A cleanup crew finally came to the bayou in early 2015, but they relocated the toxic waste to a pool that was in danger of overflowing, and they did not completely seal the waste they left behind. Plus, Axiall—the newest iteration of PPG—is building a new factory on the other side of the Arenos’ house. The noise has kept them up at night and they sometimes have to stay inside due to the smell.
Although the Arenos feel they are living evidence of the pollution’s health impacts (they both survived cancer, and many of their relatives died), they are not surprised when the government sides with polluters yet again. The same untrustworthy government managed to botch the cleanup effort, and even if the lawsuit had succeeded, there is nothing the Arenos can do about the private chemical industry’s continual expansion around them.
Lee Sherman continues to maintain his old racecars and campaign for anti-EPA Tea Party candidates. Mike Tritico and Donny McCorquodale continue their lively discussions over dinner at Brother Cappy and Sister Fay’s—now, they are arguing about Trump, whom Donny supports and Mike opposes. And Madonna Massey throws a fit when her daughter watches Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video, frightened about “the culture we’ve got to protect our kids from.”
Life goes on for the other Louisianans—Hochschild emphasizes that they are more than just characters in a story, but people living only half a world away from her readers.
Jackie Tabor took a trip to Israel and opened a stationary bicycle gym in Lake Charles. On Hochschild’s last visit, Janice Areno joked that she was “a green person” when her air conditioner clicked off. The last Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting was a shotgun raffle to benefit the troops, but the group saw some tension “between those who would vote for Donald Trump gleefully and those who would do so reluctantly.” Sally Cappel and Shirley Slack are still close friends but no longer live in the same town and avoid talking about the presidential election. And the I-10 bridge is still “spooky,” even though most residents don’t blame the Condea Vista leak.
By giving these updates at the end of her book, Hochschild also shows that her relationships with the people she met in Louisiana endure, exceeding their original premise of research. In a sense, she also challenges the traditional academic image of an impartial scholarly observer who treats their subjects as part of a bounded “field” separate from their own everyday life; rather, the field of American politics is part of Hochschild’s everyday life, as well as the lives of most of her readers.
Bayou Corne’s community dispersed—some former residents still live nearby, others moved to larger Louisiana cities, and many are still nostalgic for their old town. Mike Schaff’s old house there fell into disrepair, but he recently bought a beautiful new one. It is on the water, near his childhood home and the enormous Atchafalaya Basin National Wildlife Refuge, where he took Hochschild out fishing. But he has “gone from the frying pan to the fire”—a fracking company was about to start dumping imported wastewater nearby. While Mike’s preferred presidential candidate was Ted Cruz—who got $15 million in campaign money from “fracking billionaires,” wants to slash environmental protections, and rejects climate change—Mike was willing to vote for Donald Trump if he were to win the Republican nomination.
No matter how hard Mike Schaff fights for his ideal retirement home on the water, pollution seems to keep catching up with him. No matter how much he cares about the environment, his political party seem to offer him no choice but a vote against regulation. The Great Paradox continues—not because Mike doesn’t care about pollution or even want some sort of regulations, but because the only candidates who match the rest of his views have financial interests in extractive industries.
The last time Hochschild visited the Arenos, Harold told her that the water may be getting clearer. He gazed out over the Bayou d’Inde, and Hochschild thought of the photographs he had shown her. He tells her that he knows they will meet once again “up there. And they say there are beautiful trees in Heaven.”
The poignant image that closes Strangers in Their Own Land shows Harold Areno gesturing to a past he treasures and a future he earnestly anticipates. He continues to remember and hope for a clean environment, even if he is denied one in the present. Meanwhile, his confidence that he will meet Hochschild in heaven demonstrates that her quest to build empathetic, trusting, meaningful, and enduring relationships with people like Harold, whom she has little in common with, has been a resounding success.