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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land

In her wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild asks us to imagine waiting in a line at the end of which lies the American Dream. However, not only are we waiting in line, but we've been waiting in line for a very long time. And while we've been waiting, people have been cutting (unfairly) into the line ahead of us, and they aren't doing it by themselves. They're getting help. In particular, they're getting help from the government, usually the federal government. Moreover, there are others (many of whom have already reached the end of the line and are openly contemptuous of how we live and what we believe), who think it's just fine for the government to help the line-cutters.

Although with far more detail and nuance than I do here, Hochschild crafted this imaginary scenario in order to illustrate what she calls the "deep story" of the Louisiana Tea Party supporters she got to know after spending five years (2011-2016) interviewing and living among them. She believes it helps explain why many of those who live in one of our nation's poorest and most polluted states vote for candidates who resist the federal government's help and oppose regulating industries such oil and gas. She argues that over the years they have come to distrust the federal government and are more inclined to place their faith in capitalism and the free market. While the former gives away jobs to others (i.e., the line-cutters), jobs which they believe rightfully belong to them, the latter does not. Instead, capitalism and the free market promises them employment, and if pollution is one of the costs, so be it.

All this leads her to conclude that to understand the appeal of someone like Donald Trump, we need to pay more attention to how emotions inform the political choices that people make. She argues that many of the people she met vote for their emotional, rather than economic, self-interest because they've grown tired over feeling marginalized, left behind, and mocked by liberal elites who typically support big government. And they see Donald Trump as someone who is willing to put an end to the line-cutting and defend their way of life.

All this sounds right to me. Elsewhere, I've argued that folks on the left need to stop mocking the beliefs of blue collar individuals ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion" "Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start"). Merely advocating for policies that will benefit them economically is not enough. Some empathy for their way of life needs to be demonstrated ("Two Cheers for Conservative Religion"). That doesn't mean that we have to agree with all that they believe and practice, but there's a difference between civilly disagreeing with someone and making fun of what they've always believe to be true. A very big difference.

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