In Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild—a progressive sociologist from Berkeley—attempts to understand American political polarization by studying a community politically opposite from her own: conservative Christian whites in southwestern Louisiana. Although she is initially puzzled by many Louisianans’ political beliefs, as she gradually formulates a picture of their worldview, Hochschild learns that conservatives want many of the same things as liberals, such as effective government, a healthy economy, and “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Because many Americans lack trust in members of the other party, Hochschild concludes, they fail to empathize across the political aisle and come to see those others as enemies rather than fellow citizens. Ultimately, she argues that political polarization and partyism stem less from liberals and conservatives’ differing political goals than from their inability to empathize with one another and communicate about the goals that they actually share. Hochschild aims to build this empathy for conservatives and encourages her readers to follow the same path, because she believes that empathy can heal the American political divide by enabling people to work collaboratively toward their mutual interests.
For Hochschild, distrust contributes to American political polarization by blocking empathy. Louisianans distrust the North, which they feel has historically imposed its own morality on them, particularly during the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. In the 21st century, they do not trust President Obama, because they think he rewards “line cutters” with unfair social and economic advantages like affirmative action, a Northern moral agenda. And this attitude of distrust extends to liberals more generally: Harold and Annette Areno, for instance, live on the polluted Bayou d’Inde and care deeply about cleaning up the water, but they nevertheless vote for anti-regulation Republicans instead of pro-regulation Democrats because they find it hard to trust those who do not share their faith in the Bible and deep connection to a tight-knit local community; like many Louisianans, they find it “very hard to trust those far away.” However, Louisianans still trust that their local communities—even locals who passionately disagree about politics, like Mike Tritico and Donny McCorquodale, or Sally Cappel and Shirley Slack, remain friends because of their roots in the same communities and local culture.
Hochschild’s approach to research demonstrates how trust creates a path to empathy. By highlighting her subjects’ humanity, taking an interest in their lives beyond politics, and building genuine long-term relationships with a select few, Hochschild demonstrates that she can be trusted, which allows her to come to understand and care for people whose politics she once found incomprehensible and abhorrent. The way she recounts these Louisianans’ stories in turn encourages her readers to view Louisianans with the same trust and empathy. For example, when she introduces Louisianans like Sharon Galicia and Lee Sherman, Hochschild focuses on their personalities, life stories, and willingness to open up to “an older, white liberal stranger writing a book.” Before even mentioning their political beliefs, Hochschlid tells the reader how Sharon is “unfazed by a deafening buzz saw” at an industrial plant and notes Lee’s “welcoming smile” as he greets her on his front porch. By building trust with and telling the stories of the people behind right-wing politics, Hochschild gains access to their “deep story”—the story of how they feel, told from their own perspective. And her ability to capture this deep story by “imagin[ing herself] into their shoes” demonstrates how she learned to empathize with her political opposites.
Hochschild foregrounds empathy because she sees it as the key to political progress; she believes that empathy’s failure has turned America’s political differences into an all-or-nothing political divide. In other words, without empathy, opposing sides fail to see themselves as members of the same political community with shared interests. Many of her subjects see politics as an all-out war for survival—white men in Louisiana feel that they must now compete with immigrants, minorities, and women for jobs, so they vote against policies that benefit those groups because they see affirmative action as “violating rules of fairness.” But they lack the historical context and personal connections necessary to understand what other groups have experienced. These basic differences in life experience and political orientation lead people to hit empathy walls when they try to relate to those on the other side. For instance, Hochschild suggests one cause behind Louisianans’ disdain for minorities on welfare is that they don’t interact with African-Americans beyond the images of welfare fraud they see on Fox News. But they see exceptions in people with whom they can relate—Jackie Tabor grew up on welfare but opposes it in most cases because she assumes that welfare recipients do not work as hard to support their families as her mother did.
Hochschild closes her book with two letters she has written, one to liberals and one to conservatives, explaining the other side’s deep story. While she could have just as easily defended certain policies or principles through rational argument, Hochschild instead decided to offer an inside view of the human beings across the aisle and their feelings about politics in order to foster understanding and goodwill. She wants liberals and conservatives to see each other as they see themselves: as complex people trying their best to cope with difficult circumstances. At the end of her first letter, she asks liberals to “consider the possibility that in [Louisiana conservatives’] situation, you might end up closer to their perspective,” and her second closes by telling conservatives that “ironically, you may have more in common with the left than you imagine.” Here, Hochschild demonstrates why she takes trust and empathy as the true sources of political unity: by trusting conservatives’ intentions, she learned to empathize with them, understand the values they share with liberals, and consider policy solutions that make sense for each side’s deep story. Indeed, Hochschild’s radical empathy is itself a form of activism, and she suggests that the empathy she built is a necessary precursor to any progress on policy.
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress ThemeTracker
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Quotes in Strangers in Their Own Land
As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlies politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.
We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of the bridge that the most important analysis can begin.
Looking out the window of the truck, it’s clear that Mike and I see different things. Mike sees a busy, beloved, bygone world. I see a field of green.
The Arenos didn't simply remember the good old days of a clean Bayou d'Inde. They remembered against the great forgetting of industry and state government. This institutional forgetting altered the private act of mourning. And not just that. It altered the Arenos’ very identity. They had not left Bayou d'Inde. They were stayers. They didn't want to leave, and even if they had wanted to, they couldn't afford to. The polluting companies had given them no money to enable them to move. And the value of their house had now fallen, for who would want to live on Bayou d'Inde Pass Road, even in a home as beautifully kept up as theirs? The Arenos had become stay-at-home migrants. They had stayed. The environment had left.
Churches typically ask parishioners to tithe—to give 10 percent of their income. For many this is a large sum, but it is considered an honor to give it. They pay taxes, but they give at church.
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.
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.”
Without a national vision based on the common good, none of us could leave a natural heritage to our children, or, as the General said, be “free.” A free market didn't make us a free people, I thought. But I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again.
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.