Books

book review

Why do so many in red states back politics contrary to their own self interest?

Gerald Herbert/Associated press

Perhaps the best way to describe Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book is to tell you what it isn’t.

“Strangers in Their Own Land’’ is not a liberal screed.

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It is not condescending.

It does not confirm your liberal beliefs about right-wingers in the South — or your conservative stereotypes of lefties from California.

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Hochschild, an influential sociologist, spent five years researching one of the most vexing questions of our time: Why are Americans so polarized? More specifically, why do the deeply conservative residents of Red State America — less wealthy, less educated, in poorer health, living amid more industrial pollution — resent the help of the federal government and support political candidates and positions that would seem to run contrary to their own interests? Even more specifically, why would Tea Party enthusiasts in southern Louisiana — whose environment, health, and very way of life have been harmed by the petrochemical industry — oppose federal environmental protection?

Hochschild made 10 trips to southern Louisiana between 2011 and 2016. She interviewed 60 people, including 40 Tea Party backers. She visited political rallies, church services, and residents in their homes. The book focuses on portraits of six subjects but gives a broad sense of the community.

Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and has taught at the University of California there since 1971, acknowledges her own liberal outlook from the get-go.

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If we want government to protect the environment, avert global warming, end homelessness, she writes, it’s important to understand the thinking of those who oppose a government role in those efforts — and many others.

“[A] healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out,” she writes. “And to get there, we need to figure out what’s going on — especially on the more rapidly shifting and ever stronger right.”

In the age of Trump — and amid yet another natural disaster in Louisiana that cries out for urgent federal relief — her book could not be more timely.

In her travels, Hochschild met Harold Areno, “a gentle Cajun pipefitter,’’ whose family has suffered from cancer caused by petrochemical plants but has no interest in enlisting government help in seeking justice. She spoke to residents who saw the devastating effects of the 2010 BP oil-rig explosion but opposed President Obama’s temporary moratorium on deep-sea drilling, seeing it as government overreach. (“The spill makes us sad, but the moratorium makes us mad,’’ one woman said.)

Why would these people consistently vote for politicians who favor big business over environmental regulation, even when oversight could literally clean up their own backyards?

Previous examinations have posited a dark explanation: Such voters are ill-informed, bamboozled by cynical politicians and their corporate enablers, not to mention right-wing talkers on echo-chamber TV and radio. But Hochschild finds something different: people who have, firsthand, found legitimate reason to distrust an indifferent government; people who care more about conservative social issues (fighting abortion and gay marriage, for example) than economic or environmental justice; and, most of all, people for whom a deep feeling of being left behind — strangers in their own land — is more important than the paradoxes Hochschild set out to explore. The importance of emotion in politics, not just facts and figures, she writes convincingly, is critical to understand.

And in Tea Party America, what she found was this: white Americans who have worked hard and believe themselves to be waiting in a long line for their chance at the American Dream, only to see others — African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, gays — cutting ahead of them. And, the line-cutting, they believe, is enabled — encouraged! — by the government, the very government they support through their too-high taxes. To add insult to injury, the cheaters consider them ignorant and backward.

At wit’s end, Hochschild’s subjects tell her, those waiting in line give up and create their own line, separate and detached.

There are a thousand quick, liberal rebuttals to such a formulation. But that’s not where Hochschild heads. Instead, she encourages readers to scale the “empathy wall,” to understand where such feelings might come from. Indeed, Hochschild considers those she meets friends, many of whom are so endearing — funny, gracious, resourceful, generous — that she makes it easy to see them as more than just a summation of self-defeating, right-wing political beliefs.

Toward the end of her research, Hochschild attends a Donald Trump rally in the run-up to Louisiana’s Republican presidential primary. The mood, she reports, is giddy, as Trump validates the crowd’s sense of grievance, and as their own numbers show they’re a force to be reckoned with — perhaps not strangers after all.

Hochschild started her project wondering about the disconnect between conservative voters and their economic self-interest. Equally important, she found, is their emotional self-interest. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election in November, it’s a point politicians of all stripes would be smart to remember.

STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND:

Anger and Mourning on the American Right

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

New Press, 351 pp., $27.95

Felice Belman can be reached at felice.belman@globe.com.
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