Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land

by

Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Behind the stories she is hearing, Hochschild sees a deep story. A deep story is a “feels-as-if story” rather than a story about facts or judgments. Hochschild argues that only a deep story can offer a picture of how “the party on the other side sees the world.” Deep stories come in many varieties and they matter in many contexts: for instance, lovers seek to understand each other’s perspectives on the world and diplomats try to understand how other leaders imagine their national stories. Hochschild’s version of the Tea Party’s deep story “focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders.”
Deep stories are particularly powerful political tools for Hochschild because, as tales of feeling, they open the door to understanding through empathy. This story forms the core of Hochschild’s explanation for the Great Paradox because it describes the theory of self that underlies conservatives’ votes against government intervention.
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Hochschild likens this deep story to waiting in line for the American Dream that lies just over a hill on the horizon. For older white Christian men, the line seems to be barely moving or even moving backwards. Many of the people behind them in line are “people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees.” The American Dream is about progress—economic progress as well as social status and security—but it is “so hard to see” from where white conservatives stand. This community has seen its economic opportunities dwindle, and although Louisianans refuse to complain about their fate, they are “beginning to feel stuck.” Much of the country has abandoned their Christian moral values, and hard work no longer seems to guarantee success.
The setup of a line for the American Dream reflects conservatives’ belief that patience and hard work pave a road to upward economic mobility. This is a fundamentally individualistic and meritocratic worldview because it suggests that all people should have access to the American Dream, regardless of identity, so long as they follow the rules. This view is also decreasingly realistic because, for Hochschild, American capitalism no longer provides many people with significant opportunities to advance—endurance no longer automatically translates into success.
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The line is not necessarily fair—in fact, people seem to be cutting in line, breaking the rules, and taking advantage of affirmative action. It seems to Louisiana conservatives that even Barack and Michelle Obama rose up the ranks unfairly, overtaking the whites who were “supposed to be so much more privileged.” Some even think that the Obamas “must have” gotten federal money but show no gratitude for their success and  have “no right to feel mad” about minorities’ disadvantages in America.
Conservatives feel that minorities have changed the rules of the American Dream: the line is no longer meritocratic because people can now advance based solely on identities that they did not choose or earn. The deep story’s assumption that the Obamas must have cheated illustrates how the fact that some minorities benefit from affirmative action leads conservatives to see all minorities’ achievements as fraudulent—they seem to believe that, in a race-blind meritocracy, minorities would naturally do worse than whites.
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It feels like women are “demanding the right to the men’s jobs” and “overpaid public sector employees” get better job security, pay, and pensions for their easy, unnecessary work in the government. Immigrants cut ahead, too, whether they got a “special visa” to enter the country or “snuck in” illegally, and their cheap labor lowers American wages. Obama is letting refugees in, but most are young men—maybe even terrorists—who are “poised to get in line ahead of you and get their hands on your tax money.” And the government even protects animals like the brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird that nearly went extinct because of pollution—even this bird is “in line ahead of you.” While these groups are unfairly cutting in line, it feels like “it’s people like you who have made this country great.” Despite the line cutters’ complaints of discrimination and oppression, white Christian men resent them and eventually “close the borders to human sympathy.”
By refusing to sympathize (let alone empathize) with “line cutters,” conservatives draw a sharp, identity-based line around their community of political interests: hard work under capitalism and investment in Christian morality—key features of the Southern endurance self—are figured as the neutral, natural, or truly “fair” rules of the game. In contrast, people from diverse groups who value different traits are considered distorted and undeserving in relation to this ideal. Line cutters’ unfamiliar cultural values and emphasis on identity lead white Christian men to set up an empathy wall and indulge their suspicions about other groups.
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How are these groups getting ahead? It appears that “President Barack Hussein Obama” is on the line cutters’ side, waving to them and “telling you that these line cutters deserve special treatment,” something “the real story” on Fox News disproves. Obama “is their president, not your president”—he “seems ‘fishy,’” as though “secret strings were pulled” by the government to help him succeed. Perhaps he is even a Muslim. Can white Southerners feel pride in America if its president is against them, if they feel like “strangers in their own land”?
Tea Party voters’ cannot imagine how an African-American would rise to the presidency on his own merits. Their initial suspicion of Obama leads them to see him not only as an example of line cutting, but also as the architect of an elaborate, expanding line-cutting conspiracy designed to overtake white men.
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Hochschild sees this deep story as a “response to a real squeeze,” namely the tension between the ideal of progress and that progress’s increasing difficulty. On the one hand, the American Dream encourages people to feel “hopeful, energetic, focused, mobilized” about their chance at progress. But, on the other, “the Dream Machine” has ground to a halt for the bottom 90 percent because of “automation, off-shoring, and the growing power of multinationals.” White men born before 1950 are “the first generation in American history” to see “lifetime downward mobility,” and many even give up and stop looking for work. Aging Southern conservatives start to realize their American Dream may not come true—and they can only blame themselves, even though they also face discrimination due to their age.
Crucially, the deep story is an indirect response to the structural squeeze: it is not a response to the bare fact of lower wages but rather an emotional response to the emotional contradiction between the feeling rules prescribed by the ideal of the American Dream and the despair conservatives actually see. Conservatives’ desire to return to a time when white men had abundant job opportunities reflects a nostalgia similar to how Mike Schaff and Harold Areno (among others) feel about the social, cultural, and natural worlds that have disappeared in their lifetimes.
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Hochschild met a 63-year-old man with a “cherubic smile” whom she calls Bill Beatifo. Beatifo was a successful salesman for 16 years, but got then fired because, as a long term employee, he was making more than his company would have to pay a new hire. He found that other sales firms refused to hire him at his age and turned to other options, ultimately going on unemployment for the maximum 99 week period before finding a job that paid $10 an hour—the same wage he made as a college student 40 years before. He is still looking for other part-time jobs and has tried side projects from “non-FDA-approved magnetic shoe inserts” to investing in “a company that was ‘about to produce’ a medical device he hoped to sell to hospitals.” But Beatifo remains convinced that his investment in the medical devices will eventually make him a millionaire.
Beatifo exemplifies downward mobility despite hard work. Like many conservatives, as he grows increasingly desperate for a decent job, he develops a blind faith that his American Dream will suddenly materialize, much like Mike Schaff believes he would be a millionaire if he invested the money he instead had to put into social security or Madonna Massey’s faith that the rapture will save her community of believers. Instead of giving up on the ideal of the American Dream as it begins to crumble for him, Beatifo redoubles his emotional investment in it.
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Beyond economic opportunities, “cultural honor” is also in short supply for older white Louisiana men: “cultural doors” started opening for line-cutting minorities during the 1960s and 1970s, even while those minorities seemed to be taking whites’ jobs. Since the Recession, it looks like the government is giving minorities even more undeserved opportunities. In response, conservatives moved right.
These transformations of the 1960s and 1970s (which Hochschild’s later discusses in more depth) introduced competing concepts of fairness and identity narratives that dislodged white Protestant culture from its position as the American norm.
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Southern white conservatives also find themselves disparaged in the national media, called names like “‘Crazy redneck.’ ‘White trash.’ ‘Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.’” Movie and television characters represent them “in unflattering ways,” recycling many of the same stereotypes used against blacks in the early 1900s. Where can white Southerners find a sense of honor to hang their hat on? Work is paying less and less; they get no “points” for their race, gender, or sexuality; Southern “regional honor” is disparaged in the national eye, which also looks down on church, and the aging are neglected as “attention is trained on the young” in America. Southern Christian conservative whites feel like a minority group, too, but “dread at joining the parade of ‘poor me’s” who proclaim their victimhood.
Just as Fox News selectively portrays government policies and liberal beliefs to conservatives, liberal media tends to recycle harmful stereotypes against conservatives, which makes them feel like all liberals are launching an assault on their collective character and values. The new dominant narrative centers cosmopolitan and liberal values—media discourse is so powerful that a its abrupt shift has made conservatives feel suddenly disparaged on a national scale. Conservatives’ traditional values are displaced by a value system that not only differs from theirs but is in fact the opposite: faith, patience, and respect for authority seem to now signify closed-mindedness instead of conferring honor.
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Hochschild sends her story to the people she has met, and they strongly affirm her picture of their predicament. Mike Schaff says, “I live your analogy,” and Lee Sherman tells Hochschild that she has “read my mind.” Some add to the picture: minorities are cutting because of whites’ tax dollars; perhaps whites should band together and form their own line. Other academics who interviewed Tea Party voters also found similar attitudes.
Louisianans’ consensus that the deep story truly describes their predicament reveals that Hochschild has successfully used empathy to illustrate an inside perspective on conservatives’ feelings about politics.
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Many of Hochschild’s Louisiana acquaintances feel sympathy fatigue. At first, they are sympathetic to marginalized groups, but they soon begin to think they are “being had.” They give charitably, but the needy do not appreciate them and are not even “trying to better themselves.”
When conservatives try to be charitable on their own terms, they rediscover the cultural differences between minorities and themselves: they expect people to treat their charity as an opportunity to advance and display virtues (of the traditional Christian sort). But, when their expectations are not met, the empathy wall goes back up, and these Louisianans give up on the whole lot of “line cutters.”
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Hochschild sees race as a critical undertone to the Tea Party’s resentment. Many of her acquaintances explicitly talked about Muslims and Mexicans but refused to discuss the black communities that make up 26% of Louisiana’s population. They feel they are accused of being racists even though, “by their own definition, they clearly were not.” They think of racism as explicit hatred for blacks—Mike Schaff even admits to being a “former bigot” who “used to use the ‘N’ word” but stopped in 1968.
Hochschild stops short of calling her Tea Party friends racists here because it would likely contribute to the misunderstanding that already puts them on the defensive. However, Southerners seem to lack the historical and cultural context necessary to see the systematic elements of racism—rather, they assume that racism (much like merit) is a wholly individual matter.
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Hochschild offers a different, sociological definition of racism as “the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom.” This means racism is not just about “personal attitudes,” but it also lies in “structural arrangements—as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white.”
From Hochschild’s professional standpoint, it is clear how people can be racist in practice without holding explicitly racist beliefs. For instance, conservatives take pride in not needing help from government programs and also associate such programs with black Americans—they express their pride in part by distancing themselves from blackness.
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Hochschild explains that many of her older white Tea Party interviewees only encountered black people through media representations that hide the complexity of black life. They see the “rich mega-stars of music, film, and sports” but also the image of blacks as “a disproportionate part of the criminal class” and the image that “blacks were living on welfare.” But they never see black people “standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward.”
As Hochschild has held since the beginning, without forming empathetic personal relationships across dividing lines like race, class, and political affiliation, it is very difficult for people to develop accurate pictures of the people on the other side. Here, media representations only focus on African-Americans who are at the top and the bottom of the income ladder. Of course, media could link the same extreme stereotypes to any group, whites included, by selectively portraying a few group members who exemplify those stereotypes.
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Gender also plays a key role in the Tea Party’s deep story—every woman Hochschild interviewed had needed to work at some point in their lives, but most would have preferred to become homemakers and they base their political beliefs on their desire to do so. While they form a minority of the Tea Party movement, the women Hochschild interviewed were much more likely than the men to see the benefits of government social programs. They “seemed to sense that if we chop away large parts of the government, women stand to lose far more than men” and they were less likely to think welfare recipients were “gaming the system.”
While Tea Party men see work as a source of pride, Tea Party women seem to see it as a source of shame: it signifies that their household needs two income earners because their husbands have not yet achieved the American Dream. In the Tea Party, women seem to be more sympathetic to outside groups and “line cutters” than men, which may reflect their investment in traditional Christian narratives of femininity as emotional and caring—they view themselves as workers second, wives and mothers first.
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Although Hochschild recognizes that the right seldom uses the term, she conceives the feeling of being cut in line as “an expression of class conflict.” In the past, she notes, such conflicts were usually between management and workers—both black and white—who would strike together for better wages and working conditions. Today, while the American left sees the 99% fighting the 1% over wages and tax policy, the right sees a fight between “‘makers’ and ‘takers’” over social services.
The political left and the right both see class conflicts over economic opportunities in the United States, but their pictures are inverted: for the left, the wealthy are the undeserving beneficiaries of inequality, while for the right, the poor are the undeserving beneficiaries of welfare. For Hochschild, the conflict the right sees is actually between two groups that both lack economic opportunities.
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Tea Party members “thought about the government and the market in the same way others think of separate nations,” seeing the free market as holding the promise of the American Dream and the government as interfering with that promise. But, in reality, they miss the way corporations are gaining more power and paying workers less. Hochschild thinks this explains why conservative small business owners support policies like new bankruptcy and contract laws that actually help big corporations outcompete small ones. But the people Hochschild met believe they are siding with big businesses against the government—even Lee Sherman still holds stock in PPG. Finally, Hochschild wonders what kind of “deep story self” sustains the Tea Party’s “extraordinary determination” to fight the government on the market’s behalf.
Conservatives’ view that government competes with the free market for resources and power seems to forget that the free market is actually about competition. For Hochschild, the largest multinational corporations’ disproportionate power allows them to crush small businesses, which means the government should actually facilitate more effective markets by ensuring fair competition and protecting citizens against market externalities like pollution. One reason the Tea Party defends big businesses that outcompete their own is that conservatives look up to wealthy businesspeople as exemplars of the American Dream. The assumption that the wealthy deserve and have worked for their wealth eventually informs Louisianans’ support for Donald Trump.
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