Reaching Out, Not Backing Down: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild




THE MORNING AFTER Trump’s victory, The New York Times recommended “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” Number two on the list was Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. The book takes us to Louisiana, where Hochschild spent five years among Tea Party voters who have suffered at the hands of the oil industry. It’s people like these that have become Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. Hochschild explores the emotional logic behind what she calls their “deep story”: they believe that the government helps minorities “cut ahead of them in line,” while liberal America mocks their values. 

Hochschild writes with kindness and intimate knowledge about her subjects. I felt changed by reading her book, as though I had gotten to know her cast of real-life Tea Partiers alongside her. In the interview that follows, Hochschild addresses two questions on many of our minds these days: “How did this happen?” and “Where should we go from here?”

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MARY NOBLE: I turned to Strangers in Their Own Land on November 9, the day after the election.

ARLIE RUSSELL HOCHSCHILD: Oh, what a day.

Many people, including me, were shocked that most white women voted for Trump instead of Clinton.

I’ve heard non-Trump voters wonder, “Are Trump’s female supporters aware of wage inequity? Are they aware of workplace discrimination?” And yes, the women Trump supporters I got to know in southwest Louisiana are well aware of gender inequality. They all work, too. But inequality was not the main thing on their minds.

They felt ignored by the Democratic Party. That loomed larger. And I believe there was a hidden factor: sympathy for “their” men. The men in their circle have higher rates of depression, higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, higher rates of divorce and separation from their children. They are mostly high school educated. Trump’s women voters were saying to themselves, “the men I could marry, the men I have married, my brother, my father — they’re caught in a downward spiral. I’ll vote for what’s good for them.”

Empathy is a huge topic in Strangers in Their Own Land, and it’s also the book’s goal: to help liberals empathize with Tea Party conservatives. For most of the book, I felt a great deal of empathy. But then there were moments when I felt angry instead.

Yes, yes, me too.

Like when you interviewed Janice Areno, and she told you that she didn’t want to hear about transgender and gay rights. She wants LGBT people to be quiet and “live their lives and mow their lawns.”

This is a book about reaching out, but it isn’t about backing down. My morals say that something’s missing from Janice Areno’s worldview, that she lacks compassion for LGBT people. And I stick by that. But I don’t say, “Oh, Janice Areno is a terrible person because she doesn’t agree with me.” What I say to myself is, “I’m talking to a person with a very different emotional geography from mine.” My project was to understand these people’s moral code and the cultural premises on which it’s built, and thereby shed some light on my own. But this isn’t about backing down. You can be your fully morally committed self and still reach out to the other.

I’ve met people who think that reaching out is dangerous and that it means compromising your own personal values. They think, “We’re facing Hitler, and you’re making nice to the Gestapo.” But reaching out can be one part of an overall strategy. You’re reaching out to fellow citizens with whom you might find common moral ground. You can’t just dismiss 60 million Trump voters as “deplorable” and think you’re going to win their hearts and minds.

What would you say to people of color reading your book, who might be thinking, “I don’t want to try and empathize with these white people who seem quite racist.”

I completely understand that and sympathize with that. I mean, who wants to confront people who hate you in an unreasonable and unfair way? I completely understand that.

But empathy can be useful for pragmatic reasons. Reaching out to the other side can be a way of checking false rumors. For example, the son of our proposed national security advisor, Michael Flynn, circulated a wild, hateful rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizza parlor. Most liberals didn’t even know such a dark rumor existed, while quite a few conservatives actually gave it credence. Personal encounters can be opportunities to cross-check rumors like this.

We need to search for common ground. I’ll give an example. This January, I’m going back to Louisiana with my son, David, who is in charge of renewable energy at the Energy Commission of California. I’m getting David together with Mike Schaff, a man who has suffered very severe environmental disaster. You remember the story of the Bayou Corne sinkhole? Mike’s whole neighborhood is gone. There are earthquakes and methane gas leaks and a big sinkhole 36 acres wide. So Mike, who is a conservative, is a convert to environmentalism. He’s asking, “Why is this a left-wing cause? Why don’t we all want uncontaminated fish and air to breathe?”

It’s not clear to me that Mike and David will agree on a solution. But I’ve asked them to meet and think about these questions. How do you make sure that no Bayou Corne sinkholes ever happen again? What’s the role of the government in that? Can you do it without a government?

I understand why conservatives in Louisiana don’t like the government. Louisiana has been captured by the oil industry, which really dominates the state government and delegates the moral dirty work to it. Mike fears that the federal government is just a larger version of the Louisiana state government. We on the left fear cronyism too. That’s one thing Bernie Sanders talked about. And I found quite a bit of sympathy for Bernie Sanders among these far-righters. That tells us that making these stepping stones would be a very useful thing to do.

Is it possible to turn Tea Party voters like Mike into Democratic voters?

I asked Mike Schaff, “Who was the best governor Louisiana ever had?” He replied, “Oh, Huey Long.” I said, “Huey Long was a socialist. He wanted a chicken in every white pot and a chicken in every black pot.” Mike Schaff said, “Yeah, that’s true.” I asked, “Could Huey Long be elected today?” “Oh no,” he said.

Mike Schaff’s father was a Democrat. His mother voted for Kennedy. Jackie, another Tea Party supporter I talked to, was named after Jacqueline Kennedy. I’ve talked to people who said, “Oh, my dad would turn over in his grave if he knew I voted Republican.” They’re Republicans now, but they haven’t always been. And their parents were not. Political commitments are more fluid and changeable than one would think.

I just wonder if it’s too big of a stumbling block that the Democrats are seen in the South as the party of minorities.

Yes, race is a big divider in the South. Still, some of our best examples of cross-race cooperation come from the South. The New Orleans General Strike of 1892 — one in which half the population of the city participated — was a struggle for the 10-hour day. It remains the country’s most dramatic example of interracial collaboration. White owners tried to pit whites against blacks, blacks against whites, and the workers stood together. And then we have Huey Long. So, cultures that appear implacable aren’t always as hard to change as we may think.

These alliances are possible if there’s a shared common goal. But we need to develop common community ties, common organizations. Politics is about developing communities with institutional bases. There are a lot of victories to build on if you take a long-term view. There has been a lot of cross-race cooperation on the environment. This wonderful group LEAN, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, is an example. They’re focusing on Cancer Alley, the black settlements along the lower Mississippi where petrochemical plants have replaced the plantations. So, I do feel there’s a history to build on of cross-racial cooperation.

How would you answer the question, “Where should we go from here?”

Reaching out to the other side is especially important at this moment. Many on the left are in grief and shock. They feel that our federal government has been taken over. I do too. At this moment, we’ve got three things to do. First, clarify and communicate our vision. It’s a vision of diversity, human rights, freedom of the press. Second, we need to defend all institutions that promote this vision. Defend Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, labor unions, public sector workers, journalists, and professors. And third, liberals need to reach out to conservatives, through our schools, churches, and unions. We need to move beyond our electronic, media, and geographic enclaves. We need to de-enclave ourselves. One way to do that is through a program called “Living Room Conversations,” launched by Joan Blades of MoveOn.org. We need to find ways to respectfully encounter people who see the world very differently than we do.

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Mary Noble writes about politics, social justice, and the police. She was born in London and now leads the writing team at Topix.


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