Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Strangers in their Own Land Crop

One of several central figures in sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s important and compelling new book is Harold Areno, a retired pipefitter and Pentecostal deacon who, with his nine siblings, was born and raised on southern Louisiana’s Bayou d’Inde. He tells Hochschild about a childhood spent swimming and fishing and, flipping through a photo album, shows her pictures of the stately cypress trees that once lined the water’s banks. Today, the author writes in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, the bayou, downstream from a number of petrochemical plants that have taken full advantage of Louisiana’s lax environmental regulations, is a “tree graveyard,” and only lifeless gray trunks remain. The animals Harold’s family kept—cows, chickens, goats, hogs—died after drinking the toxic water; the fish are no longer safe to eat. Harold and his wife survived cancer, but he recites a long list of family members who did not.

Hochschild sees the Arenos, who are staunch Republicans, as part of what she calls “the Great Paradox”: in Louisiana, as in other red states in the South, one finds “great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.” Strangers in Their Own Land, which was just nominated for a National Book Award, grew out of Hochschild’s alarm over the country’s deepening political divide and her heartfelt interest in understanding, in her words, “how life feels to people on the right.” Over a period of five years, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana bayou country from her Berkeley home to get to know a group of men and women she comes to refer to as her “Tea Party friends” and to understand why, in an area that’s suffered from calamitous industrial pollution, they put more faith in industry than in government.

The short answer is economic. The men and women she interviews believe they must choose between the environment and jobs; they also tend to overestimate the number of jobs the oil industry brings to the state (the highest estimate is that 15 percent of Louisiana’s jobs are in oil). But Hochschild looks beyond economic explanations for what she calls her subjects’ “deep story,” one based not in fact but in how things feel. The story she comes up with is an extended metaphor that her interviewees agree captures their experience. Hochschild takes several pages to lay it out, but the abridged version is this: They’ve been waiting patiently in line, without complaint, but others—blacks, immigrants, refugees, even endangered animals—keep cutting in front of them. Adding insult to injury, Hochschild writes, they feel they’ve “been asked to extend [their] sympathy to all the people who have cut in front” of them. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one man tells the author. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.” Donald Trump hadn’t clinched the Republican Party nomination for president as of the book’s completion, but one reason Strangers in Their Own Land is so timely is that it explains the emotional release that Trump—who has disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, women, and the disabled and who had won the support of most of Hochschild’s subjects during the primaries—provides.

Hochschild’s Tea Partiers direct their resentment not up at the one percent or at the monopolistic corporations that pollute their air and waterways but downward at the perceived “takers.” Indeed, just as they overestimate the number of jobs the oil industry provides in Louisiana, they vastly overestimate the proportion of the federal budget allocated to welfare (eight percent of the 2014 budget went to needs-based benefits, Hochschild reports); many complain that “the federal government [is] taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.” In the wake of revelations that Trump may have avoided paying federal income tax for 18 years, it is especially poignant how many interviewees express pride to Hochschild that they have never taken “a dime from the government.”

Hochschild explains that her project was inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 hot-button book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which questioned why working-class Kansans were increasingly voting Republican when doing so was not in their economic interest. But the tone of Strangers couldn’t be more unlike that of Frank’s biting polemic. Hochschild—best known for the 1989 book The Second Shift, which demonstrated that women’s workdays were followed by another unpaid round of labor at home—has approached her subjects with an earnest eagerness to understand their lives, and they in turn are eager to be understood. “May I take you on an adventure?” a woman named Jackie asks Hochschild before driving her around the area, showing her the other homes where she and her husband had lived. Each house they moved to was bigger and nicer than the one before, each, Hochschild writes, “a step on a ladder to the American Dream.” Jackie, who grew up poor, says simply, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

Despite the fact that her own political leanings are, well, what you’d expect a Berkeley sociologist’s to be, Hochschild treats her subjects with boundless compassion and affection. As a reader, I reacted differently. Harold Areno’s world was lost, but he and his wife vote strictly for pro-life candidates because “if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and … [we’ll] never have to worry about the environment from then on.” Jackie’s vote might match Harold’s, but her concerns are more earthly. “I don’t want a smaller house,” she tells Hochschild. “I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” Unable to match Hochschild’s empathy, I often found myself, instead, wondering What’s the matter with Louisiana?