Arlie Russell Hochschild, a renowned progressive sociologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote this book in an attempt to understand the emotional underpinnings of right-wing politics in the United States. As political party affiliation has become the central dividing line in American society, Hochschild noticed that most liberal political analyses focus on people’s economic and political self-interest instead of the emotions that she argues fundamentally drive political behavior. Conventional analyses often conclude that conservatives’ behavior is contradictory, since red states have worse economic, health, environmental, and educational outcomes than blue states, and yet red state residents nevertheless tend to vote against public programs that would improve their quality of life (Hochschild calls this the Great Paradox).
In contrast, her research focuses on understanding the “deep story” that captures how conservatives feel about themselves, their place in contemporary American society, and their relationships with other groups. She aims both to write a version of this story and to demonstrate how empathy for those from the other party can help heal the American political divide. In order to do this, Hochschild spent five years interviewing predominantly older, white, middle- and working-class, Christian conservatives in an area of southwest Louisiana centered on the city of Lake Charles. She focused on environmental pollution as a “keyhole issue” through which to gain a broader understanding of the Great Paradox and discovered that, while white Louisianans’ overwhelming opposition to government regulation seems paradoxical from the standpoint of political self-interest, it is perfectly logical given the “deep story” of how they envision their honor, their dwindling opportunities in contemporary America, and the displacement of the traditional Southern endurance self by the liberal cosmopolitan concept of the self that increasingly dominates American culture.
In the first section of her book, Hochschild seeks to explain the Great Paradox by introducing some Louisianans who exemplify it. She meets Mike Schaff, a former oil industry worker whose entire town had to evacuate after a drilling accident created a huge sinkhole in the bayou. Although environmental regulations could have prevented the accident, Schaff opposes them—like many Tea Party voters, he wants to drastically cut the federal Environmental Protection Administration. Hochschild sees Mike’s attitude as a prime example of the Great Paradox and finds herself unable to understand why he rejects policies that would have saved his home; she believes that an “empathy wall” stands in the way of their mutual understanding but hopes that, over the course of her research, she can learn to overcome such walls.
In the next chapter, she meets Lee Sherman, who used to fit and repair pipes that transported lethal hydrocarbons for the petrochemical company Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG). PPG had little regard for safety and asked Lee to secretly dump toxic waste at night in the bayou before unceremoniously firing him when he got sick. Like Mike, Lee still rejects environmental regulation, which he sees as a dangerous form of governmental overstretch. Hochschild then profiles one of the families affected by PPG’s dumping: Harold and Annette Areno, who live on the Bayou d’Inde downstream from the spot where Lee dumped PPG’s toxic waste. Harold grew up just across the bayou, where his family had farmed the land and raised livestock for generations. But, after the illegal dumping, everything in the bayou suddenly started dying off and almost everyone in the Areno family got cancer. While they do favor environmental protections, the Arenos do not trust Democrats and instead vote Republican based on their deep faith in the Bible, even though they know that Republicans will probably do nothing to address their predicament.
Hochschild then investigates the political norms that have helped make Louisiana the heart of the Great Paradox. She follows a campaign between two pro-oil Republicans who see economic growth as incompatible with government regulations before meeting gubernatorial candidate, environmental activist, and Army General Russel Honoré, who suggests that these Republicans help enforce a “psychological program” that encourages Louisianans to see a forced choice between their jobs and their environment. As a result, Hochschild asks Dr. Paul Templet, a local scientist and former regulator, about oil’s true role in the Louisiana economy. He argues that the industry has done little to nothing for the state: Governor Bobby Jindal eviscerated Louisiana’s public sector in an attempt to cover a tax break for oil companies, but most oil jobs are either automated or filled by out-of-state workers, and a MIT study actually found a correlation between stronger regulations and economic growth.
Part Two of Hochschild’s book examines the “social terrain” that structures southwest Louisiana’s distinctive culture. First, she examines the oil industry’s hold over the town of Westlake by interviewing its loyal mayor, Bob Hardey. While Hardey is thrilled that South African petrochemical company Sasol plans to build an enormous complex in his town, Westlake actually does not stand to gain from the construction. Next, Hochschild returns to Mike Schaff’s story with an eye to the structure of regulation in Louisiana. Irresponsible practices by a drilling company called Texas Brine led to a sinkhole swallowing much of Bayou Corne. Louisiana’s culture of weak regulation contributed to the catastrophe, and Mike justifiably hates the regulators whom he sees as parasitic on hardworking citizens’ tax dollars.
Next, Hochschild looks at the church and media’s role in Louisianans’ political beliefs. Nearly everyone she meets regularly attends church and watches Fox News. Hochschild sees that, in Louisiana, churches perform many of the functions that the public sector fills in blue states, but in the face of hardship they often emphasize endurance and faith over action. Many Louisianans see Fox News as a familiar source of moral guidance, and Hochschild notices how it channels her acquaintances’ anxieties and defends their values against a growing liberal consensus that seems to look down on them. Conversely, Louisianans seldom read or watch media that covers environmental pollution, which might contribute to their general silence on the issue. Because social institutions in Louisiana contribute to a culture of inaction about pollution, Hochschild concludes, citizens have little to gain by thinking or talking about it.
The third part of Strangers in Their Own Land focuses on Louisianans’ deep story and the conflict between Louisianans’ “endurance self” and the liberal “cosmopolitan self.” Hochschild paints a portrait of this deep story: imagine waiting patiently in line for the American Dream, working hard for the promise of upward economic mobility, and discovering that other people—women, black and Latino Americans, immigrants and refugees, LGBT people, and government workers who live off others’ tax dollars—are being allowed to cut in line. Tea Party voters feel that affirmative action and welfare programs violate a basic principle of fairness. Hochschild sees the rise of identity politics since the 1960s, media stereotypes that portray African-Americans as either rich celebrities or ungrateful welfare recipients, and white Southerners’ declining economic opportunities as important contributors to this deep story. Hochschild argues that they see themselves as “makers” fighting the “takers”—whereas the left sees a class conflict between the ultra-rich 1% and the 99% whose incomes are increasingly precarious, the right sees deserving middle-class whites fighting with undeserving poor minorities over limited resources. As a result, many on the right look up to the ultra-rich as role models.
Hochschild’s sees this worldview as grounded in the distinctive “endurance self” that Southern conservatives maintain against the growing power of the liberal “cosmopolitan self” that values diversity and inclusion. She looks at three expressions of the “endurance self”: the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy. First, she explores the Team Loyalist, exemplified by staunch Republican Janice Areno, who has dedicated her life to supporting her extended family and defends her Party at any cost—including the cost of pollution, which she thinks is worth the economic benefits of oil and petrochemicals. Then, Hochschild looks at the Worshipper, exemplified by Jackie Tabor, who grew up in a poor and abusive family but learned to survive after realizing that she would get what she deserved by renouncing her desires and letting God take over. In adulthood, she has decided to subordinate her wishes to those of her husband, which she believes is necessary in a proper Christian marriage. Finally, Hochschild looks at a recurring dinner party debate between local marine biologist Mike Tritico and his lifelong friend Donny McCorquodale, who is a Cowboy: Donny always chose dangerous jobs and sees a willingness to endure risk as the sign of honor. In fact, he hates environmentalists and regulators because they try to tell people which risks are worth taking. Hochschild then shows how Mike Schaff’s combination of Tea Party politics and environmental activism is grounded in an endurance self that mixes the Team Loyalist, Worshipper, and Cowboy.
In her final three chapters, Hochschild looks at the national trends that have contributed to the rise of Tea Party conservatism in the South. She suggests that the history of Northern moral intervention in the South—particularly during the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movements—leads Southern whites to view the rise of the cosmopolitan self as yet another moral intrusion on their way of life. As they lost moral standing in the eyes of the rest of the country, Southern whites tried to reclaim their sense of honor by reinvesting in the endurance selves that they found threatened.
Hochschild then recounts the rise of Donald Trump, who launched his candidacy in her fifth and final year of research and was widely loved by her subjects. She argues that Trump’s persuasive style—which focuses on emotion instead of argument—uniquely appealed to a population of white conservatives who felt left behind and smothered by liberal “politically correct” feeling rules. She demonstrates that Trump appealed to people’s emotional self-interest and suggests that this is the true explanation for voting behavior that may seem paradoxical to scholars at first.
Hochschild’s concluding chapter returns to the differences between red and blue states; she offers heartfelt letters to the left and right alike that encourage them to see the resonances between liberal and conservative frustrations and values. Hochschild argues that each side is responding differently to the structural squeeze imposed by the changing structure of global capitalism: as opportunity stagnates for the vast majority of Americans, the left blames the concentration of wealth and invests in the public sphere, whereas the right blames competition over jobs and tries to stop government from interfering with the private sphere it trusts to bring prosperity. While empathy between liberals and conservatives may not change these underlying worldviews, Hochschild believes it can foster cooperation on a variety of issues where the key fault lines are not left versus right, but rather establishment versus anti-establishment, or global versus conventional capitalism.
In the Afterword to the Paperback Edition of Strangers in Their Own Land, written approximately a year after Donald Trump’s unexpected election, Hochschild focuses on Louisianans’ early responses to his presidency, as well as their ambivalent relationship to the racism that seemed to many liberals to define Trump’s campaign. Under Trump, the EPA has lost much of its funding and environmental problems in Louisiana seem unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. However, most of Hochschild’s friends there were nevertheless thrilled at Trump’s election. Many took issue with his abrasive personality, and most were quick to condemn his comments about the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hochschild argues that, while Louisianans are not racists in the “unitary” sense of explicit hatred for other groups, they nevertheless agree with many racist “subnarratives” about particular issues because they lack historical context and largely receive their images about black Americans from media stereotypes. The “real line cutters,” Hochschild concludes, are robots that promise to automate half of current jobs by 2055 (which threatens workers of all parties and races). More fundamentally, then, the United States needs “new ways to get acquainted across our differences”—new frontiers of intermixture—that can allow those who picture themselves on opposing sides to see the interests that they truly have in common.