Many Louisianans feel left behind by a federal government that has increasingly recognized the pleas of historically marginalized groups. Hochschild argues that, although Louisianans correctly recognize that their economic opportunities are dwindling, their downward mobility is the result of broader trends in global capitalism, rather than direct competition with affirmative action beneficiaries in the labor market. One important reason Louisianans resent minorities is that their understanding of these groups is based largely on media misinformation rather than personal experience. By examining how these media stereotypes help consolidate class identities and pit classes against one another, Hochschild shows how wealthy business owners encourage working-class whites to identify with the rich and protect elite interests, rather than collaborating with other workers to fight the increasing concentration of wealth that 21st century monopoly capitalism has fostered.
Many of the people Hochschild interviews “spoke of their love of capitalism.” Bill Beatifo, for instance, believes that his side project selling medical devices will make him a millionaire, and Janice Areno “felt loyal to capitalism” because it taught her the value of work and allowed her to support herself. But wages for the bottom 90% of American workers have not increased since 1980. For white men without a college degree—including many of the workers Hochschild interviewed—wages have actually declined. And Hochschild argues that this is precisely due to certain features of 21st century globalized capitalism. She cites three crucial mechanisms: offshoring, in which companies move labor-intensive work to other countries where they can pay workers less; automation, which makes many forms of work obsolete; and the rise of multinational corporations, which let business leaders more easily dodge taxes and pressure governments into treating them favorably.
Louisianans blame their lack of opportunity not on these causes, but rather on “line cutters,” which includes groups that have gained political recognition and civil rights since the 1960s, as well as others who benefit from government programs and work in public sector jobs. Whereas Hochschild sees the dominant American class conflict as that between the working class and the capitalist class of corporate executives, Louisianans see “line cutters” taking their jobs. They tend to view racism as an issue of the past rather than a continuing structural problem, so they see minorities who claim to suffer from discrimination as simply playing “victim” to get special protections that they neither need nor deserve. Ironically, Southern whites have developed a collective identity largely through their feeling of exclusion from identity politics—they see themselves as a distinct social class championing fairness and traditional moral values, in part by fighting off lazy minorities who want special treatment. This is why Hochschild sees the conservative, working- to middle-class whites she met in Louisiana as fighting a hidden class war against impoverished minority groups. In reality, as she explains in the Afterword, “the real line cutters” are actually robots, which promise to eliminate many of the manual labor jobs—especially in the oil industry—that Louisianans expect will bring them prosperity.
Hochschild argues that Louisianans’ animosity toward “line cutters” stems from images they receive from the media rather than firsthand knowledge about what minorities have experienced. Media representations of African-Americans, in particular, are prejudicial and split: on the one hand, images of wealthy black celebrities and athletes lead working whites to feel that minorities are taking all the wealth; on the other, stereotypes that paint African-Americans as criminals and welfare recipients who refuse to work make whites feel that undeserving, immoral minorities are taking advantage of the system, or even that the system is designed to be taken advantage of by these groups. Together, these two images lead whites to suspect that their tax dollars are being redirected through welfare to make black Americans rich. In reality, the missing tax dollars are funneled to business owners who get enormous incentives from politicians like Bobby Jindal; indeed, black Americans suffered much more during the financial crisis than whites did, and the majority of welfare recipients’ income actually comes from work. These harmful images largely come from Fox News, which has a veritable monopoly on conservative American news media—nearly all of Hochschild’s interviewees watch it primarily or exclusively, and one even holds Fox anchors as dear as her family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, corporate-owned Fox also consistently defends the interests of business owners. By turning white workers against “line cutters,” it redirects class animosity away from itself and the inflating wealth of corporate executives.
Yet, on some level, Southern whites realize that media traffics in stereotypes: they are dismayed at the way the liberal media portrays them, which leads them to think that the country at large looks down on them as racists and “rednecks” who need to modernize. In other words, their reaction to media images is as influential in their development of a class identity as their belief in Fox News images of the “line cutters.” Ultimately, the combination of such images and white identity politics (defined as the opposition to identity politics) leads Louisianans to protect the very transformations in contemporary capitalism that are eviscerating their access to the American Dream of economic progress.
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict ThemeTracker
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict Quotes in Strangers in Their Own Land
How can a system both create pain and deflect blame for that pain?
As a powerful influence over the views of the people I came to know, Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own.
The Tea Party listener felt Christiane Amanpour was implicitly scolding her. The woman didn't want to be told she should feel sorry for, or responsible for, the fate of the [sick or starving] child. Amanpour was overstepping her role as a commentator by suggesting how to feel. The woman had her feeling guard up.
As an ideal, the American Dream proposed a right way of feeling. You should feel hopeful, energetic, focused, mobilized. Progress—its core idea—didn't go with feeling confused or mournful.
You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are moving backward.
Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward.
“I don't mind somebody being gay if they want to be gay. Just be a regular person, go to work, mow the lawn, fish. You don't have to be shouting it from the mountaintops. Don't make me change and don't call me a bigot if I don't.”
The “federal government” filled a mental space in Mike's mind—and the minds of all those on the right I came to know—associated with a financial sinkhole.
How do you join the identity politics parade and also bring it to a halt?
For the Tea Party around the country, the shifting moral qualifications for the American Dream had turned them into strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced, and dismissed by the very people who were, they felt, cutting in line. The undeclared class war transpiring on a different stage, with different actors, and evoking a different notion of fairness was leading those engaged in it to blame the “supplier” of the impostors—the federal government.
While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.
Disaggregated, such smaller narratives hung free, maybe to gather in some new way downstream. And to all this was the background presence of a powerful truth—life had been hard for them and it could get a lot worse.
The history of the United States has been the history of whites cutting ahead of blacks, first of all through slavery, and later through Jim Crow laws and then through New Deal legislation and the post-World War II GI Bill, which offered help to millions of Americans with the exception of those in farm and domestic work, occupations in which blacks were overrepresented. And racial discrimination continues today.
For the most part, the real line cutters are not people one can blame or politicians [one] can thunder against. That’s because they’re not people. They’re robots. Nothing is changing the face of American industry faster than automation, and nowhere is that change more stark than in the cornerstone of Louisiana’s industrial wealth, oil.