Alarmed at the increasing political hostility between the American left and right, liberal sociologist Arlie Hochschild started researching this book in an attempt to understand conservatives. While most researchers approach polarization from a “political perspective,” Hochschild sought to capture “how life feels to people on the right—that is, the emotion that underlies politics.” To truly understand how contemporary conservatives feel, she had to “imagine [herself] into their shoes.”
Although Hochschild has been a firsthand observer to most of the last half-century’s major political events and transformations, she finds America’s current degree of political polarization uniquely alarming because it has started to break down the relationships between people on the left and right. Each side of the political spectrum tells a different story about a different United States, and Hochschild recognizes that understanding the current divide requires not merely studying conservatives from her outside perspective but rather learning how they see the world by empathizing with their perspective.
This is Hochschild’s first book about politics, but she has used the same “close-up approach” in the past. Her previous research focused on how changing gender roles and family dynamics feel to Americans, and Hochschild spent decades interviewing working parents who struggle to make time for family life and the people to whom they increasingly outsource parental duties like childcare and pregnancy. This research led Hochschild to strongly support paid parental leave, a policy that the United States (unlike the rest of the world’s major industrialized nations) does not offer. Paid parental leave would benefit Americans across the political spectrum, but many conservatives continue to oppose it. Wanting to understand the Americans “who see government more as problem than solution,” she set out on a “journey to the heart of the American right.”
Like this book, Hochschild’s past work also highlighted the way that a free market indifferent to people’s feelings created miserable lose-lose situations for working people of all income levels. Hochschild sees government intervention as the right way to fix such a mutually-detrimental situation, but she wonders why so many American conservatives would rather deal with such problems than have the government address them. She later explains this through a concept that she calls the “endurance self.”
One of the people Hochschild followed on her journey was Sharon Galicia, a boisterous single mother who sold medical insurance to industrial laborers as she traveled around southern Louisiana. Galicia was “unfazed” by the tough workmen and their heavy machinery; she chatted with them about hunting and football while they signed up for insurance. She told Hochschild about her troubled upbringing, which inspired many questions—including why Sharon, “an enthusiastic member” of the Tea Party, found paid parental leave “unthinkable,” even though she would benefit from it.
Hochschild is careful to introduce Sharon’s personality and life story before discussing her politics, which reflects Hochschild’s strategy of empathizing with conservatives despite her profound disagreements with them. Sharon’s story also introduces some distinctive features of Louisiana life that will resonate throughout the book, like hunting, industrial labor, and an emphasis on inward toughness but outward hospitality. Sharon’s opposition to paid parental leave, even though she would benefit greatly from it, makes her Hochschild’s first example of the Great Paradox, a concept that will be introduced in chapter one.
Hochschild thanked Sharon as much for the window into her life as for her precious “gift of trust and outreach.” Whereas most Americans worry that building an “empathy bridge” with someone from the opposing side means giving up on “clearheaded analysis,” Hochschild argues that “it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.” Hochschild sees “reaching out to someone from another world” and “having that interest welcomed” as a “gift” in a time when polarization “makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.”
Hochschild explicitly introduces her argument that empathy is the key to political understanding. By emphasizing that her relationship with Sharon is precious, Hochschild demonstrates that political differences do not need to get in the way of valuable personal relationships. She mentions her lifelong interest in and respect for diversity, which suggests that she may express a “cosmopolitan self,” which is another concept that will be introduced later in the book.