What’s the Matter with Cancer Alley? Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Anatomy of Trumpism

August 22, 2016   •   By Sean McCann

Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild

THIS MIGHT BE the saddest story you’ll read all year. If not, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land will certainly be among the most timely of books in this moment of seeming near political apocalypse. Hochschild is an eminent sociologist best known for her lapidary dissections, in works like The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (1989) and The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1979), of the stresses and strains of middle-class life. Disturbed by the ever more polarized political landscape, she set out five years ago to understand a popular movement she found bewildering. What was it that was driving the apparently self-injuring rage of the American right? Her question was a version of the one famously asked by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas? Why, Hochschild asked herself, do ordinary conservatives adamantly resist the policies and initiatives by which they stand to directly benefit? What makes them vote — consistently, eagerly, angrily — against their own apparent interests?

When she first considered this question, Hochschild was especially struck by the example of subsidized childcare. How could the hard-working families of Middle America oppose an inexpensive policy they seem so badly to need? But as she pursued her research, she soon came across a still more striking example. By chance, she found her way to a community of local informants at the epicenter of what was then the Tea Party movement and that has since morphed into the Trump insurgency. Through an acquaintance, she met first a pair of politically divided friends living in southwestern Louisiana and then, in expanding circles, a wide network of associates and kin and allies residing near the heart of Louisiana’s booming petrochemical industry. Though they live literally in the shadows of what epidemiologists now call Cancer Alley, nearly all these people, Hochschild discovers, are hardcore conservatives. They admire, almost without reservation, the transnational corporate industries that pollute the air and water around them. They loathe liberals. And they are deeply antagonistic to even the thought of environmental regulation that might protect them at little cost.

Hochschild calls that stance an example of “the Great Paradox,” and her book is an effort to plumb the emotional lives of the ordinary conservatives who manage to maintain it. In the five years since she made her first contacts in Louisiana, Hochschild went on to explore that world deeply. She conducted focus groups with Tea Party voters in the state. She followed local political campaigns, attending rallies and interviewing supporters. She met with several dozen local residents, questioning them about their lives and work and political views. Finally, she earned her way into the good graces of six people who seemed to her to exemplify the base of Louisiana’s Tea Party. Following them about in their daily routines, Hochschild sought to understand their experiences and attitudes. In effect, her book is an ethnography of a community of older, Southern white voters (the youngest of them is 45) whose highly conservative commitments prove all but unshakable, even in the face of extraordinary personal suffering.

Unlike Thomas Frank, Hochschild does not see such people as dupes of conservative media and Republican elites. Nor, by comparison to some other recent analysts, does she think their attitudes mostly reflect plausible, if not always evident, economic interests. Hochschild is concerned rather with the force of emotion, which she contends runs deeper than formal political ideology or rational self-interest. To understand what moves conservative voters like the ones she met, Hochschild says she herself had to struggle across an “empathy bridge.” She needed to live among the people she would describe, to come slowly to know their worlds and to inhabit their points of view.

The book that results from this effort is often remarkable. The people Hochschild describes are good neighbors, kind friends, and likable people. They vote Republican, get their news from Fox, support the Tea Party and then Donald Trump. But Hochschild takes pains not to render them as figures in a faceless crowd, instead depicting a cast of vivid characters. She shows us Mike Schaff, a 64-year-old retired “estimator” who once worked calculating the materials needed to construct oil rigs and who now spends his days mourning the environmental destruction of his community and campaigning for the far right. She follows Madonna Massey, a middle-aged gospel singer who grew up in poverty in Mississippi but whose singing career and marriage to the pastor of a megachurch have brought her the trappings of wealth. She tells the life story of Lee Sherman, 82, a former chemical plant worker who once carried out covert illegal dumping at the command of his employer and who was then fired when he was sickened by the very chemicals he handled. And she introduces us to Harold Areno, a retired pipefitter, and his wife Annette, who are sustained by their evangelical faith as they lament the chemical-induced sterility of the once-teeming bayou they call home.

Hochschild depicts these people and other members of their community in generous terms that match their own hospitality toward her. “Warm” is perhaps the word she uses most often to describe the welcome they extend. But she also shows us that they are hard-working and resilient — often astonishingly resilient. They feel a profound sense of loyalty to the once-vital small worlds that are vanishing among the vast refineries that surround them, and they stubbornly maintain their homes and connections, even sometimes in the face of devastating loss. They speak in Hochschild’s telling for an ethical vision of endurance and local community that is at odds with the more cosmopolitan values and looser ties that flourish among the nation’s largely liberal, professional classes. As her title tells us, they feel — not without reason — that their communities have been taken away by forces they cannot grasp or control.

Indeed, in any number of ways, the people Hochschild meets have good cause to feel anxious and unfortunate. Not that they are in most obvious ways economically disadvantaged. Like Tea Party voters and Trump supporters more generally, they are all wealthier than the average inhabitants of their state and far richer than they could have ever expected to become in their youths. Nearly all of them grew up in straitened rural communities. (“We didn’t know we were poor” is a “refrain,” Hochschild reports.) But they prospered amid the industrial transformation of the South, and they now own homes and trucks and SUVs they could not have imagined in their childhoods.

And yet, they sense, too, that people like themselves have not continued to prosper in recent years as the wealth of the global one percent has pulled away from them and as political power has gone along with it. They are aware that the state and municipal officials that preside over their local communities defer cravenly to the demands of international corporations and disregard the welfare of their own people (a pervasive system that Hochschild deftly illustrates). They mourn the environmental degradation that has robbed many of them of homes and neighborhoods they cherished, and they grieve at the patterns of illness that rip through their families and communities. Perhaps most keenly, they sense the fragility of everything they have built. “A lot of us have done okay, but we don’t want to lose what we’ve got,” Hochschild quotes one man. She tells us of another woman, Jackie Tabor, whose powerful religious faith helped her escape a youth of rootless poverty. Jackie is now married to an independent contractor who thrives amid Louisiana’s hurricane-driven rebuilding boom, and she and her family have moved into the large suburban home she long craved. Jackie looks around her living room and tells Hochschild, “This could all vanish tomorrow!”

And, indeed, a number of the people Hochschild meets have witnessed their homes disappear virtually overnight. Mike Schaff saw much of his beloved neighborhood swallowed by the vast Bayou Corne sinkhole — an environmental disaster directly attributable to corporate negligence. Schaff’s story is merely the most dramatic illustration of the environmental degradation that Hochschild shows occurring throughout southern Louisiana. Yet, among the people Hochschild meets, even those with most reason to complain rarely do so. Still more rarely do they look to political means for redress or protection from the industrial pollution that most directly threatens their way of life.

Why is that? In good part, Hochschild tells us, it is because the people she meets value loyalty and take pride in their ability to endure hard trials. They are, Hochschild says, “victims without a language of victimhood.” But, as she further explains, that remarkable stoicism cannot be separated from their harsh suspicion of the less fortunate. They are repelled by dependency and resentful of liberals who seek, as they believe, to compel them to sympathize with the undeserving poor. One woman, an industrious accountant who escaped poverty by working her way through college, makes this attitude especially clear. Knowing that what she says will sound shocking to her listener, this woman complains to Hochschild about “people who refuse to work.” “[W]e should let them starve,” she declares. “Let them be homeless.”

In short, the people Hochschild comes to know are reluctant to pity themselves, but they still more stubbornly refuse sympathy to the less fortunate. Hence their one, very strongly expressed, political desire. They do not want government to restrain corporate power, nor expect that it will be able to do so. (Indeed, unlike the media outlets they favor, Hochschild’s informants don’t seem to view the state as tyrannically powerful. They see it rather as feckless and manipulative. By contrast to corporate power, government sins not out of strength but weakness.) They seethe with resentment, however, at the thought that liberal politicians extend advantages to people less deserving than themselves, and they yearn to see those advantages stripped away.

This, Hochschild says, is the “deep story” shared by the people she meets. In the quest for the wealth and security promised by the American dream, they believe that some people have been permitted to cut the line in front of them. They take pride in the work that allowed them to rise as far as they have. But now, as they perceive their world slipping away, they resent the unfair assistance that they think liberal government gives to the less deserving — to people who, as one man complains in a particularly transparent moment, “lazed around days and partied at night.” They view those undeserving people not as economic competitors but rather as threats to a fragile sense of “cultural honor.” What matters most to the conservatives she meets, Hochschild suggests, is the embattled feeling of pride they take from the conviction that they themselves do not belong among the weak and needy. Indeed, Hochschild reports that nearly all of her subjects have benefitted in direct ways from “a major government service.” Many of them, she adds, are “ashamed and asked me to dissociate their identity from such an act.”

It is among the great strengths of Hochschild’s book to suggest, concisely yet forcefully, how indebted that sense of cultural honor remains to a long history of racial hierarchy. The people Hochschild depicts are reluctant even to discuss questions of racial justice. They are confident, as Mike Schaff suggests of himself, that, because they no longer casually use the word “nigger,” racism has become largely a thing of the past.

But as Hochschild subtly reveals, in every detail of their world — down to how frequently its segregated cemeteries are mowed — Louisiana remains a society organized by racial hierarchy. Indeed, in many respects, its petrochemical industry maintains patterns of vast inequality that were laid down with the state’s antebellum plantations. As a Civil War reenactor Hochschild meets pithily observes, “Oil is the new cotton.” His point is a good one. Like its predecessor, oil is a globally traded commodity that demands enormous private investment and yields huge profits without requiring a great deal of skilled labor or public infrastructure. It encourages the growth of great fortunes while doing little to sustain diversified or widely shared economic growth.

Along with that extractive economy, Hochschild points out, Louisiana preserves elements of its long-standing “plantation culture” and the norms of governance that accompanied it. As she notes, much as in its past, state government in the South largely bends to the wishes of the most powerful private interests while at the same time expending a great deal of energy in regulating the lives of the poor and dark-skinned. Much the same logic — one rooted in the region’s long traditions of deference and honor — is apparent in the thinking of the ordinary conservatives Hochschild comes to know. They too admire and yield to the powerful and resent and suspect the weak.

In some respects, of course, that picture of conservative attitudes is not shockingly new. What Hochschild has to say about the conservatives she meets is largely consistent with the political science research that notes the strong correlation between voters who support Donald Trump and those who express evidence of racial resentment. So too does it fit with recent accounts of the politics of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism.

But Hochschild gives a rich and vivid picture of the emotional and social life of that politics in the American South. She shows both its powerful meaning for the people who hold it and the way a reactionary worldview is sustained by a dense fabric of community, church, government, and media. In her closing chapters, moreover, as she follows her subjects from the Tea Party to Donald Trump, she offers a compelling account of how the politics of cultural honor contributes to the collective fervor that surrounds the Trump campaign.

Making a point that seems increasingly unavoidable, Hochschild notes that Trump speeches and rallies are something more powerful and dangerous than conventional political events. On her account, they should be viewed instead as expressions of cultural identity and thus as the claim to pride and stature of people who feel their honor threatened. At a Trump event, Hochschild argues, we see a people who believe they are being disrespected and who now assert their claim to be a dominant national majority. It is an experience of communal self-assertion, Hochschild notes, that produces exhilaration and that thrives on the transgression of conventional norms and the exclusion of outsiders. The hatred of Muslims and Mexicans that flourishes at Trump events, the aggressive incivility, the displays of anger and dominance — these are not bugs, Hochschild contends. They are elemental features of a ritual of collective revival.

Alas, Hochschild’s account is all too convincing. As she lucidly shows, the politics of honor can quickly lead decent and kind people to do ugly things. Sadly, the very force of her argument cuts against the optimism she tries hard to maintain in its face. Throughout Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild conveys her strong appreciation for the appealing people she has met and her reasonable belief that her readers should share in her affection. She urges us all, liberal and conservative alike, to trade mutual suspicion for common appreciation.

Indeed, in her final pages, Hochschild reminds her readers that we are already bound by webs of economic interest we neglect. Louisiana and other poor Southern states depend for their survival on the economic support provided by the federal government, and thus on the taxes paid by coastal liberals. But so too, Hochschild notes, do Democratic voters of the metropolitan North depend on Louisiana and similar states for the energy and chemical products they supply. The United States may be profoundly split by yawning political and cultural divisions, she suggests, but the nation’s conservative and liberal communities are already more mutually dependent than either may like to admit.

Such economic dependence could be matched, Hochschild suggests in closing, by a larger empathy bridge of the sort she has sought to construct. American liberals, she contends, should not only sympathize with the acute sense of vulnerability experienced by people like Mike Schaff and Jackie Tabor. They should appreciate as well the stoicism and loyalty and communal identity beloved of the people she depicts. By the same token, Hochschild suggests that the conservatives she has come to know might someday appreciate the importance that liberals place on the values of fairness and care and the public good. Both factions, she hopes, might find a way to come together to address the environmental degradation that threatens us all.

It is an appealing vision. All the more sad, then, that her book shows how easily political emotion overrides reasonable arguments for shared interest and mutual tolerance. As Strangers in Their Own Land suggests only too clearly, it is going to be very hard for angry conservatives to leave the politics of honor behind.


Sean McCann is the author of A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (Princeton University Press, 2008) and Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2000).