Nathaniel Rich reviews Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land in the NYRB. Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, examined theories about the rise of the Tea Party and Trumpism, but, she writes, “I found one thing missing in them all—a full understanding of emotion in politics. What, I wanted to know, did people want to feel, think they should or shouldn’t feel, and what do they feel about a range of issues? This is politics as advertising: emotion over common sense. Such an analysis is overdue at a time when questions of policy and legislation and even fact have all but vanished from the public discourse, replaced by debates about the candidate’s character, ‘temperament,’ and brand.”
She found that the people she interviewed and listened to in southwest Louisiana felt “angry, bitter, resentful” but Hochschild traced their feelings to a “deep story” about America and their place in it. In Rich’s summary, “It begins with an image of a long line of people marching across a vast landscape. The Tea Partiers—white, older, Christian, predominantly male, many lacking college degrees—are somewhere in the middle of the line. They trudge wearily, but with resolve, up a hill. Ahead, beyond the ridge, lies wealth, success, dignity. Far behind them the line is composed of people of color, women, immigrants, refugees. As pensions are reduced and layoffs absorbed, the line slows, then stalls. An even greater indignity follows: people begin cutting them in line. Many are those who had long stood behind them—blacks, women, immigrants, even Syrian refugees, all now aided by the federal government. Next an even more astonishing figure jumps ahead of them: a brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird, ‘fluttering its long, oil-drenched wings.’ Thanks to environmental protections, it is granted higher social status than, say, an oil rig worker.” The result is that “Tea Partiers are made to feel less than human. They find themselves reviled for their Christian morality and the ‘traditional’ values they have been taught to honor from birth. Many speak of ‘sympathy fatigue,’ the sense that every demographic group but theirs receives sympathy from liberals.”
The deep story hit home with the Louisianians that Hochschild spoke to: “‘You’ve read my mind,’ says one. ‘I live your analogy,’ says Mike Schaff.”
Rich concludes that “Their suffering is not merely a personal or demographic crisis but a national tragedy.” He seems to think the tragedy is that they elected Trump and will “capsize the entire republic.” The tragedy goes deeper: How did a sizable segment of the America—a country whose founding documents speak of the dignity of every citizen—come to feel this? And, what are the prospects for a country where a sizable proportion of citizens feels dehumanized by the system?