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Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (Arlie Hochschild)

Arlie Hochschild has gone the extra mile, and then some, to understand conservatives.  I would say that she exemplifies the (pseudo-) Indian saying, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” except that is not politically correct, so I will not say it.  Nonetheless, Hochshild has spent a lot of time and effort genuinely trying to understand a group of Louisiana conservatives, and the result is a very interesting book.  Sure, it’s not perfect, in part because Hochschild, like most of us, can’t fully overcome her own biases that sometimes lead her to engage in unsophisticated analysis.  But she is never once contemptuous or patronizing of these people, whom she seems to really regard as her friends, and she never caricatures the individuals, who actually vary from each other quite a bit.  This enables her to, overall, do an excellent job (and a better job than Joan Williams in the more recent White Working Class, which covers very similar topics in an obtuse way).

In today’s American society, it’s easy for anyone on the Right today to understand the Left, or at least to comprehend everything the Left thinks, as well as the putative justifications for their positions.  Someone who is conservative is, as soon as he reaches the age of reason, constantly bombarded with leftist history, culture and views.  He absorbs them on the news, when he walks down the street, when he goes to school, when he watches any kind of television or movies.  Leftist views of the world are wholly inescapable and are broadly and constantly presented as the only possible opinions.  Moreover, many leftist views are simplistic, and therefore easy to absorb while requiring no engagement or thought.  “Love is love is love is love.”  A stupider phrase is hard to imagine, but it sure sounds good on first hearing, doesn’t it?  Or “everyone should pay his fair share.”  Or a zillion other such morsels of facile propaganda, which in a more educated age would have marked their user as an imbecile, but today are held up as signs of deep virtue.  Conversely, a person on the Left can go his entire life never being exposed in any meaningful way to any viewpoint on the Right, other than as caricatured, irrational views he can (and usually does) dismiss without thought, and be praised for doing so, usually with a mental note “That must come from Fox News.”  This imbalance in inherent bias, where the Left has it much more than the Right, makes Hochschild’s accomplishment even more notable (although she does constantly fall into the trap of using “Fox News” as a lazy shorthand for “irrational” and “erroneous,” while naturally never demonstrating anything of the kind, or suggesting there could be any doubt).

Despite her best efforts, though, Hochschild doesn’t fully succeed in understanding conservatism.  She lumps anyone to the right of, say, John Kasich, into “far right”—a term that she uses so often I stopped counting at twenty-five.  And she prepares for her journey into Darkest Louisiana by reading Atlas Shrugged, a theme to which she returns at the end of the book in a hypothetical letter to “a friend on the liberal left,” where she says “Set aside Ayn Rand; she’s their guru.”  I doubt very much that any of the Louisianans she talked to have read Ayn Rand, or mentioned her to Hochschild, much less are devotees of Rand’s philosophy, objectivism.  Objectivism has been anathema to mainstream conservatives since Whittaker Chambers, at Bill Buckley’s behest, read Rand out of the conservative movement as a crypto-totalitarian, in 1957.  Today, there are many strains of conservatism, often contradictory to each other, but Hochschild overtly treats “Tea Party” as the equivalent of a monolithic “far right,” which apparently means everyone who might stand out in Berkeley.  She does not make even the basic distinction between libertarians, traditional conservatives, and Chamber of Commerce conservatives.

Of course, that distinction has now broken down, a fracture exposed by (but not created by) Donald Trump.  A more fruitful dichotomy for Hochschild’s analysis would have been to view American political thought today as roughly in the form of a quadrant.  In the upper left square are corporatist liberals—so called “neoliberals.”  They endorse progressive social stances, but are as equally fond of open borders, globalization, and corporate hegemony.  Hello, George Soros!  (Are you dead yet?  No?  Too bad.)  In the lower left square are progressive liberals—say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.  In the upper right square are corporatist conservatives—somewhat more conservative than neoliberals on some social issues (but by no means all) and generally in favor of lower taxes and less government regulation, but also fond of open borders, globalization, and corporate hegemony, and happy to have government regulation if it serves crony capitalist purposes.  In the lower right square are neoreactionaries—a growing group, aggressively socially conservative, vigorously opposed to government overreach in the social sphere, but opposed to all forms of corporate hegemony and crony capitalism, and willing to not maximize GDP if it will help society as a whole, in particular disadvantaged groups.  Neoreactionaries have traditionally been subordinated in (Republican) party politics to corporatist conservatives, but no longer.  Think Jared Kushner vs. Steve Bannon.  Hochschild’s Louisiana friends are all neoreactionaries (although some have a reflexive sympathy for corporate conservatives).

But let’s talk about the book.  Hochschild divides it into two major sections.  The first is an examination of what she calls the “Great Paradox,” a term she never defines precisely, but which amounts to the supposed glaring contradiction of conservatives disliking and opposing the federal government even when it can and does offer useful benefits to them of various kinds.  The second is a “Deep Story,” her sociological frame for understanding the Great Paradox.  Both of these are reasonable and clever ways to view the world in which she immersed herself, and she deserves a great deal of credit for them, though neither is a wholly perfect prism.

As to the Great Paradox, Hochschild repeatedly marvels that “one might expect people to welcome federal help,” given that Louisiana ranks close to dead last on important indices of health, education, and so on—but her interlocutors don’t.  Rather, they loathe the federal government (and the state government, too, though they perceive it as more hands off).  This is true even though, as we are repeatedly told, 44 percent of the Louisiana budget comes from federal funds (though Hochschild does not subtract taxes paid by Louisianans from that amount).  The paradox results from her being unable to understand any possible solution to any problem other than via the federal government.  She asks rhetorically, “If they call for smaller federal government, how do they propose to fix the problems that form part of the Great Paradox that has led me to Louisiana?”  This is a false dichotomy, and suggests a lack of sophisticated thinking.  In any case, within the Great Paradox, Hochschild’s primary frame, her “keyhole issue,” as she puts it, is pollution and environmental regulation.  Most of the book revolves around this issue (and not, for example, around benefits such as Social Security disability).

Louisiana has a lot of heavy industry, much of it centered around the production of petroleum, petroleum derivatives, and other chemicals.  Various environmental disasters have resulted, including most famously the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf in 2010, as well as two specific events Hochschild focuses on:  contamination of the Bayou d’Inde by chemical waste and a sinkhole created by the rupture of a salt dome cavern underneath a lake at Bayou Corne.  Hochschild gets to know people personally directly affected by these events, which have had ripple effects well beyond the immediate residents of the afflicted areas, and uses them to examine her Great Paradox.

When Hochschild refers to the Great Paradox, mostly she means that it is incomprehensible to her how the people she gets to know can loathe the federal EPA given that real environmental problems exist.  But her analysis is simplistic, while that of her interlocutors is frequently sophisticated, though Hochschild thinks the reverse is true.  Unlike Hochschild, her friends distinguish between the past actions of the EPA and its present actions, and they see that regulation frequently benefits the giant corporations that are supposedly regulated, at the expense of small business and individuals.

So, Hochschild notes of one man’s response to environmental regulation, “he appreciated [the] reforms—but he felt the job was largely done.”  But she does not follow up or engage the implied question—whether the work is in fact largely done, and if so, what does that mean?  She assumes, without any reasoning or discussion, that more federal regulation is necessary and imperative, and this should be obvious to all and sundry.  But dumping occurred since the 1920s at the Bayou d’Inde, so much of the contamination occurred prior to regulation, which began in the 1970s.  Hochschild makes much of the fact that illegal dumping has since occurred (at least according to one man, although she provides no evidence for that other than his word and she cites no enforcement actions against anyone)—but she does not dispute that dumping was illegal at the time, has now stopped, and in fact the Bayou d’Inde is currently being remediated.  And with respect to Bayou Corne, Hochschild notes “On the books were regulations that were disregarded by both company and state.”  It seems reasonable for a person to doubt that new, fresh regulations are the answer, when existing regulations have either eliminated the source of the problem or have failed in way that could not be solved by new regulations.  Yet Hochschild never engages this obvious point.  (We should also not forget it was Republicans who led and implemented all the environmental regulation of the 1970s; it  is a myth that conservatives opposed those actions.)

She thinks she finds the answer to her paradox, through her “Deep Story” I discuss below, but there really is no paradox, at least as it relates to environmental regulation, the focus of her book.  After all, we have had aggressive federal environmental regulation from the EPA for fifty years, which has gotten increasingly more aggressive, to a degree that would be unbelievable to someone from 1970, with ever diminishing returns, since the low hanging fruit was picked decades ago.  Yet federal regulation has not prevented the environmental problems at Bayou d’Inde or Bayou Corne.  Maybe people just realize that more regulation won’t make everything perfect, and will have its own costs, in jobs and government interference and power.  After all, in 2016, when EPA personnel released millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River in Colorado, the EPA tried to cover it up, refused to pay a cent for damages, and not a single person was punished in any way (and in fact staff were rewarded with cash bonuses)—although we can all be certain that if a private operator had done exactly the same thing, billions in damages would have been levied and decades of jail time handed out.  Why should such an entity be trusted with more power?  And, more generally, why should the federal government and its monstrous bastard child, the unaccountable administrative state, be given more power over the lives of the citizenry?

Hochschild also does not engage another way in which her interlocutors demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding than hers.  She quotes, in passing, one of her friends, “I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”  This is a powerful insight, that the burden of regulation falls on small business, although it’s not because it’s harder to regulate the top, it’s because most big corporations welcome government regulation, since they can afford compliance costs much more easily than small business and new entrants to the industry, so they benefit at the expense of smaller competitors.  (The classic example is Mattel, caught importing toys from China illegally containing lead paint, pushing an ultra-expensive testing law—then getting a regulation that allows them, and only them, to test cheaply internally, while small businesses have to outsource testing on each and every toy at huge expense).  Hochschild seems to not understand this at all.  She keeps referring to another supposed contradiction, that lack of (some unspecified) government regulation creates monopolies that harm small businesses.  She gives no examples of this, because today’s monopolies don’t exist from a failure of regulation, which does indeed prevent illegal monopolies—they exist, like Amazon and Google, for other economic reasons, which regulation does not address, or from regulation itself.  Similarly, she claims that voting “to roll back regulation of Wall Street [is] a measure that would strengthen monopolies and hurt small business people,” when those two things are actually totally unrelated.  You could imagine a legal regime that helps small business compete—but it is one that would involve less regulation, not more regulation.

So economics is not Hochschild’s strong point.  Fair enough.  But it is certainly a legitimate question why the people Hochschild surveys dislike the federal government so strongly, even if there is not as great a paradox as Hochschild thinks.  To answer this, Hochschild develops their “Deep Story,” what she calls a “feels-as-if” story.  In short, she says her friends feel like they have been standing in line for the American Dream, which is just over the hill.  The line has been slow or stopped for a long time—yet they see people cutting in line, helped by the federal government.  Mostly these are the non-working poor, given money by the federal government without a requirement to work, along with minorities given affirmative action, and Syrian refugees.  “They are violating the rules of fairness.  You resent them, and you feel that it’s right that you do.”  Hochschild does not dispute that “You’re a compassionate person.  But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you.”  And you don’t feel like doing that, especially when it delays your own hardworking progress toward the American Dream.  I think this is probably an accurate, if broad-stroke, summary of how a lot of neoreactionary conservatives feel, though it ignores the separate, actual and well-known costs of the regulatory state.

The American Dream is not just economic advancement, of course.  An integral part of this Deep Story is the search for dignity and respect.  The federal government is constantly showing contempt for these people, and their morals and values.  With Democrats, it’s overt contempt for the “deplorables.”   With Republicans, it’s contempt as shown by lip service for issues important to them—and then actual service to big business, in an alliance of neoliberals and corporate conservatives, usually at the expense of the little person, with private expressions of contempt for the morals and values of the little people.  (See, for example, the 2015 crushing of religious freedom in Indiana by a national coalition of vicious bigots led by Marc Benioff of Salesforce, with the active cooperation of state businesses and Republican placeholders.)  Hochschild is doubtless right that “everyone I was to talk with . . . felt like victims of a frightening loss—or was it theft?—of their cultural home, their place in the world, and their honor.”  So they feel they are being robbed of dignity as they are pushed back in line.  And they are right, on both counts.

Hochschild ultimately answers the Great Paradox by saying that she had failed to understand that “emotional self-interest” often trumps “economic self-interest.”  This is true up to a point, but again it is an unsophisticated understanding.  “Emotional” implies “irrational,” or at least “non-rational.”  But on the very same page she cites one of her core friends, a conservative who is nonetheless an environmental activist, that “the important things were small government, low taxes, guns, and the prohibition of abortion.”  These are not emotional issues—they are highly rational issues that combine economic benefit, for both the individual and the community, and moral values.  Emotion, that of honor, plays a part, but even at this late point in the book Hochschild seems unable to comprehend that her Ayn Rand stereotype of economic paramountcy has no relevance to the people she’s gotten to know so well, and that they just have other values than she does, which are just as rational, if not more so.

There are also a few other false notes.  The biggest one relates to guns, which for some reason constitute a miserable blind spot for liberals.  Hochschild mentions guns a few times, but she does not seem to understand the critical importance to many conservatives of the issue, and the symbolic and practical importance of guns as a defense against the government and other predators.  Then she compounds this by what may be the grossest mis-statements about guns ever in an actual, serious book, claiming that in Louisiana “gun vendors” are uniquely free of regulation relative to other states, and can sell to terrorists, drug addicts, juveniles, and felons freely, without background checks, and keeping no records.  All this is utterly and totally false, and any decent editor should have caught it.  Then she twice, in the same paragraph, refers to the gun company “Smith and Weston.”  This is inexcusable and shows total failure of any close thought.  (It’s “Wesson,” and it’s not obscure.)

Again to her credit, Hochschild ends her book on a positive note, saying that “the people I met in Louisiana showed me that, in human terms, the wall can easily come down.  And, issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation.”  But what is that practical cooperation?  Why, of course, it’s that conservatives can change their minds to agree with liberals, on everything from more regulation to cutting jail sentences to restricting conservative-funded speech in campaigns.  The number of examples of areas the author gives where liberals should move toward conservative views?  Zero.  And that’s why we can’t have nice things—because, at the end of the day, Hochschild can’t bring herself to suggest there is any substantive, rather than emotional, legitimacy to a single conservative view.  When someone like Hochschild concludes a book like this calling for less regulation; or rolling back gun control; or aggressive restrictions on abortion—then we’ll know that real progress is being made.  I’m not holding my breath.

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6 Comments

  1. Sir,

    I have enjoyed reading your reviews and colloquy blog posts, though I imagine it will take me a while to go through them all. I realize this is also rather abrupt (which I apologize for), but I was wondering if I might be able to contact you directly? You have my email from this post, and I am a firm believer that “a poor man should buy the rich man lunch” – I will be more than happy to do so for a moment of your time.

    Regardless of your reply, I would like to thank you for the enjoyment and insight I reap from reading your posts and reviews. You have certainly helped me clarify some of my own thoughts, and I have added material to my reading list (once I can save the time!).

    Best Regards,

    Dave

  2. Charles Charles

    Dave–thank you, and sure, you’re welcome to contact me directly. I’ll send you now an email from my personal email account. No need to buy me lunch–but happy to chat about any topic you’d like (within reason!)

  3. David Metz David Metz

    Like you, I found Hochschild’s book a worthwhile read, and one that carried a number of important insights. However, I found myself grinding my teeth (even more than you seemed to) at her repeated failure to recognize or confront the ways her own values, beliefs, and social context shape the ways she interacts with and writes about her interlocutors. Perhaps it’s because I also live in Berkeley, and the breezy, self-confident assumptions of fellow liberals batter one throughout the day in ways that can wear down even a lifelong Democrat like me. Or perhaps it’s because I do political opinion research for a living, and like to think that through painful trial and error over a few decades I’ve learned the importance of continually second-guessing one’s own perspective. Regardless, as I read I found myself moving back and forth between insight and irritation.

    There are a number of things I like about the book. That Hochschild entered her project in good faith, and in the spirit of honest inquiry, is hard to dispute. Like you, I credit her for this effort. She seems to genuinely like many of the people she met, and her persistence was rewarded with some very frank conversations.

    Hochschild’s “Deep Story” also rings true. It’s as good as any metaphor I’ve encountered for the frustrations felt by the white working class, and Hochschild was well-served by taking the idea back to her interlocutors and gathering their feedback on it. Moreover, Hochschild’s archetypes — The Loyalist, the Worshipper, the Cowboy, and the Rebel – are all defined by admirable values that define their worldview. Obviously, the generalizations required to develop such archetypes require huge amounts of oversimplification; nevertheless, Hochschild’s models contrast helpfully with the frequent liberal predilection to think of conservatives as either venal or stupid.

    I also think Hochschild is correct to point out an “emotional self-interest” that weighs in political decision-making as much as economic self-interest does. I don’t think it’s correct to lump guns, abortion, etc. into the category of “emotional issues” – but it makes sense to say that voters form an intuitive judgement of whether a candidate sees the world the way they do; holds similar values; and is likely to act from a set of shared premises about where they would like the country. Conservatives and liberals make those type of value and character judgments all the time, and they nearly always carry more weight in their voting decisions than all the candidates’ white papers. It explains both conservatives’ affinity for Trump and liberals’ revulsion, and while emotional neither strikes me as wholly irrational.

    Despite these strengths, I was often brought up short by passages in which Hochschild seemed to fall back, without reflection, on a series of liberal assumptions that hamper her narrative – and perhaps her broader inquiry. She speaks of getting to Louisiana and being struck by “no New York Times on the newsstand, almost no organic produce in grocery stores or farmers’ markets, no foreign films in movie houses, few small cars, fewer petite sizes in clothing stores, fewer pedestrians speaking foreign languages into cell phones…” I realize that she is making a point, but that these are the things she deems worthy of note, among what must have been thousands of differences, says worlds about her cultural, social, and class perspective. And just after she presents the views of her interlocutors with respect and clarity, she can’t help but present an Appendix full of statistics she dug up in follow-up research to demonstrate that they are, in some fashion, misinformed. That seems petty and distracts from the point – I read the book seeking to gain a better understanding of the Louisianans’ views, not to assess whether they have their facts right.

    And more fundamentally, I found the “Great Paradox” a limiting and misguided way to frame the central question of the book. Essentially, Hochschild is returning to the core premise of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” from a decade ago – a book she mentions in passing. Frank’s premise was essentially that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis would show that Kansans should vote Democratic, rather than for the Republicans they regularly return to office. That perspective was limiting then, reducing voters’ decisions to a spreadsheet of economic pros and cons, and it remains limiting now. We know that voters base their judgments on far more than subtracting the cost of taxes from the total economic benefits they receive from government – and they are not necessarily wrong, or deluded, to do so. To define this is a “paradox” or problem is a fundamental misreading of the challenges facing our politics. (Though, parenthetically, it is delicious to see how unified Republican control of Kansas state government under Sam Brownback produced a massive fiscal collapse, and exposed the total economic illiteracy of the modern Republican Party’s approach to governing.)

    Hochschild does herself no favors by viewing Louisiana politics through the lens of the environment. She does this, she says, because she wanted to focus on a problem that affects all voters – not just the poor. But there is lots of data to show that environmental issues rank low on voters’ list of concerns come election time – and more critically, the harms of environmental problems are often remote in time and have uncertain causes. And indeed, none of the candidates she discusses has a clear and explicit environmental policy that has caused demonstrable harm to Louisianans’ health (though many of their choices will likely have an impact over the long term). As a result, it’s sometimes hard to expect voters to make clear, distinct choices on environmental policy that will overwhelm more immediate concerns.
    And because she has chosen to focus on the environment, she tends to minimize other issues that likely have an enormous and understandable impact on her interlocutors’ vote choices. For example, she discusses the central importance of Christian faith for most of them, notes the core role that church plays in their social life, and acknowledges that many are pro-life. If one firmly believes that abortion is murder, is it really so surprising that one would vote for a pro-life Republican over a Democrat who may have a better position on remediation of chemical spills? Consideration of the role of other issues seems to be absolutely critical to understanding what’s going on, but Hochschild gives it short shrift.

    You raise a different objection – that Hochschild posits the only solution to pollution as a massive increase in federal spending or regulation, and wonders why they voters she talks to don’t embrace it. You state that discomfort with a greater federal role is sensible for these voters, and that there may be other, better solutions to industrial pollution than a bigger role for government.

    Here, I’m inclined to give Hochschild more slack. In the context of serious pollution problems, what else other than government involvement will solve it? Most textbooks use pollution as the classic example of an externality, a problem which free markets are ill-equipped to solve. Businesses have little incentive to avoid pollution if it hampers their profits, and individual citizens are hard-pressed to detect pollution problems or have any ability – outside of government – to affect change. Regulation, or taxes which price the costs of the externality into the market, are the conventional solutions – and both require government. You dismiss regulation – saying there is plenty on the books already, and that either 1) it may have solved many of the problems Hochschild describes (Hochschild doesn’t give us the data to know for sure) or 2) it hasn’t solved the problem, in which case it’s evidence that regulation doesn’t work. But that binary thinking sidesteps the more complicated reality – there are good regulations and bad ones, and poorly-enforced regulations and better-enforced ones – with the shape of current regulations and their enforcement largely dictated by the crony capitalism you deplore (and which, as Hochshild documents meticulously, Louisiana Republicans engage in with great relish). Treating regulation as binary process (either “regulation works” or “regulation doesn’t work”) vastly oversimplifies the real world. If pollution remains a problem in Louisiana, BETTER regulation is likely the answer – and I haven’t heard any other alternatives.

    All of that said, I actually agreed with much of your review. In fact, I take greatest exception to one of your opening statements that had nothing to do with Hochschild’s book: “In today’s American society, it’s easy for anyone on the Right today to understand the Left, or at least to comprehend everything the Left thinks, as well as the putative justifications for their position.” While this is a common attitude among the conservative commentariat – and while I recognize it as the type of red meat you dish out with brio to provoke a reaction from us lefties – it nonetheless is a deeply arrogant and stunningly superficial thought.

    I have no doubt that it is easy for conservatives to understand the thinking of Democratic elites – as you say, major national newspapers, Hollywood movies, and the average freshman survey course at a liberal arts college all dish it up with relish. That said, it’s also not hard for liberals in America today to be exposed to conservative elite thought – said conservatives control virtually every state house and the entirety of the federal government (White House, Congress and Courts), as well as news networks both national (Fox) and local (Sinclair). As Hochshild points out, Louisiana conservatives marinate in a social and media diet of like-minded conservative thought, rarely challenged.

    Set aside the elites – what liberals and conservatives do not understand is the lived experience of the average voter of the opposite party. Liberals, though the painful experience of last fall, have begun a painful and flawed process of trying to understand it. Books like Hochschild’s – and there are many – reflect thoughtful liberals seeking to push past stereotypes of conservative thought, and to learn more about the lived experience of conservative voters in communities different from their own. Their efforts may be flawed – as you argue – but they exist.

    Leading conservatives have shown no such interest, confident that their own experience is sufficient to give them knowledge of how liberal Americans think and live. Can you name one conservative author who has attempted what Hochschild has done? To set aside their own experience, and spend real time and ask real questions of voters who consistently vote Democratic – perhaps African-Americans in Detroit, immigrant communities in Texas, LGBTQ voters in the Castro, or suburban white women in Virginia? Name a book and I’ll gladly read it. But I suspect that the requisite intellectual curiosity and humility is in short supply among leading conservative thinkers – who prefer to write about such communities based on aggregate quantitative data and convenient anecdotes plucked from news stories.

    But this topic bears deeper exploration – which I will turn to, very shortly, with some reflections on your comments on Katherine Cramer’s “Politics of Resentment.”

  4. Charles Charles

    As seems to happen often, I agree with the majority of your analysis, which is incisive and insightful. A few thoughts, not mostly in opposition:

    1) Starting with your last point first, I admit that your idea about a conservative book of the same type is an excellent one, and, moreover, that such a thought had not occurred to me, which suggests a considerable failure on my part. Probably part of the problem is that “leading conservative thinkers” is a very small group nowadays. Between Trumpians, #NeverTrumpers, superannuated/irrelevant National Review types, and so on, who would that be? No idea. Me, maybe. I’m pretty sure “leading” conservative thought is an oxymoron, both because there are no leaders, and because there is an abundance of clowns. (I think I’ve recommended Rod Dreher before, but you should read him.)

    My kneejerk reaction is that LGBTQ (or whatever the acronym is today) voters in the Castro wouldn’t look favorably on someone coming to their community whose premises are, say, that homosexual acts are a sin and same-sex marriage an abomination. My opinion is that liberal tolerance in general is an oxymoron, an opinion strengthened by slogans like “I can tolerate anything but intolerance.” But, of course, that’s the same opinion these authors had before they went on their quests, which suggests that, at a minimum, my reaction is unlikely to be wholly correct.

    And, of course, none of these authors (other than Ken Stern) have changed their views at all, which is part of my point.

    2) On emotional self-interest, I think Jonathan Haidt’s book (The Righteous Mind) is exactly on point. You don’t have to buy his evolutionary explanations, in whole or in part, to agree that people’s decision making is not based on maximizing quantifiable utility at the margin.

    3) I have not read Frank’s book (though I have a copy). I mentioned in my Ken Stern review the apparent debacle Brownback caused; although as I say I know little about it, you are correct that the result undermines Republican orthodoxy. Or rather, it undermines what used to be Republican orthodoxy. The era of Chamber of Commerce dominance is probably at an end. I’m not sure that the era of Roy Moore dominance is an improvement, though. Probably all this is merely bubbles preceding the emergence of some new synthesis, in which economic Lysenkoism isn’t the touchstone of party belief. (As you may notice from my reviews, I am increasingly turning against conservative orthodoxy on economic matters.)

    4) My objection is not to government involvement in solving pollution problems; it is to the idea that more government involvement is always better. (Richard Nixon did indeed need to clean up the air and water.) It may be true that “BETTER regulation is likely the answer.” But there is apparently regulation directly on point that did nothing to prevent recent dumping. And I think you understate the gruesomely bad record of most regulation—see, e.g., the Colorado example I mention. Unfortunately, some of this is always going to be hard to quantify. I think the Colorado events are a typical exemplar of regulatory and regulator behavior. You (presumably) think the opposite. It’s hard to prove either way. (I think the administrative state is bad on principle, regardless of results. But that is a separate question from whether regulation is bad on principle, since regulation can be done directly by the legislature.)

    5) On our apparent point of major disagreement, understanding by both Right and Left of each other’s position, Haidt, at least, agrees with me. Extensive studies have shown that liberals are far less able to understand the point of view of conservatives. I may well be arrogant (in fact, I almost certainly am), and I may be superficial (less likely), but neither is demonstrated by this. Leaving aside Haidt’s empirical analysis:

    a) First, it may be “not hard for liberals in America today to be exposed to conservative elite thought.” Whether that is true I address next. But this is not the flip side of conservatives, because they cannot avoid being constantly inundated, under extreme pressure to conform, with liberal thought. True, my statement probably only applies to the educated classes, and not to many of Hochschild’s interlocutors, at least on the surface. But the educated classes are called the ruling class for a reason. Any conservative who aspires to work in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or the academic world, of necessity is exposed for his entire life, beginning from earliest youth, to the liberal positions on everything, usually presented as the default position of all honest and not-stupid people. So, while an (educated class) liberal may choose to expose himself to conservative elite thought, in most cases he does not have to.

    b) Your argument seems to be that my last sentence above is wrong, and that he does have to, because “conservatives control virtually every state house and the entirety of the federal government (White House, Congress and Courts), as well as news networks both national (Fox) and local (Sinclair).” Those facts are true enough. But liberals can not only wholly ignore the offerings of those conservative sources, they can deny they have any validity, and use their denial to prove both their liberal bona fides and their superior knowledge and thinking. In fact, that’s what they usually do. No liberal actually engages or thinks about what Fox News says. They sneer at their cocktail parties that “Fox News says . . . .,” treating any statement from such source as self-refuting. So, liberals are not actually being exposed to conservative thought at all. Educated liberals can live in an environment of complete epistemic closure, and most do. They live in a world of purely liberal news and analysis, which is the entire news-setting media. What Fox News or Sinclair says is, to them, irrelevant. Conservatives cannot take the converse position, because what the is news is decided by liberals. Thus, Hochschild’s interlocutors may “marinate in a social and media diet of like-minded conservative thought.” But they are still exposed, every time they go to a public place playing CNN, every time they pass a newspaper box, every time they go to any mainstream news site, to aggressive liberal partisanship. The same is not true of liberals. Have you ever been in an airport playing Fox News?

    c) Not all liberals have epistemic closure, of course. You don’t—but you are from the Midwest, and, more importantly, your profession makes you have to understand. If you were a lawyer at a big law firm, you would never have to engage with conservative viewpoints, and in fact it would be very career dangerous to do so openly on many issues. Same with many other jobs. Your job is the exception, not the rule. Similarly, there are doubtless some educated liberals who live or work in majority-conservative environments who are forced to engage conservatives. But for the vast majority of educated liberals, this is not the case. For the vast majority of educated conservatives, it is the reverse. An educated conservative cannot sneer “The New York Times says . . . .” For liberals, any claim that agrees with what they say, from any source, is gospel requiring Jesus to personally contradict it for them to consider they might be wrong, while any claim that disagrees with what they say is prima facie illegitimate, even if supported by liberal media outlets.

    6) I am not sure if you have read my review of Ken Stern’s book, the most recent book of this type. It is worth reading, I think. His entire project was to “reflect thoughtful liberals seeking to push past stereotypes of conservative thought, and to learn more about the lived experience of conservative voters in communities different from their own.” Of course, I would think that the book is good, since he basically turns conservative, but it is still worth reading.

    I eagerly await your thoughts on Cramer!

  5. David Metz David Metz

    Well said, Charles. I have little to add. There are certainly plenty of educated liberals who choose never to engage seriously with conservative thought, and there are a bumper crop who live within a ten mile radius of me. It frankly drives me nuts sometimes. But I think you underestimate how easy it is for conservatives, especially in red states, to insulate themselves from liberal thought. Hochschild quotes a Louisianan talking about how all the satellite dishes are pointed toward Fox News, and when I’m in a hotel bar in the South it’s on as much or more than CNN. And the newspaper boxes most conservatives encounter in Lake Charles won’t have the New York Times (much to Hochschld’s dismay) but the local paper which, presumably, is more conservative in orientation.

    That said, much likely hinges on the qualifier “educated” which you applied – and yes, if one gets a post-graduate degree and moves in professional circles, there is no doubt that social progressivism prevails and the neo-reactionary square in your quadrant is almost totally unrepresented, though one can likely still find plenty of Chamber-of-Commerce conservatism.

    I’m write up Cramer next. I’ve read Haidt, but that was a while ago. I’ve read about Dreher, which made me interested in reading his writing. Would be curious which of the other books you mention you would commend to me next.

  6. Charles Charles

    Dreher rules; although it’s a complex topic, he is in some ways the harbinger of a new type of conservatism. Whether such a thing could gain enough adherents to gain some level of power is another question.

    Stern’s, probably. It’s short, and he’s the only author (except maybe Haidt, to a degree) who shifted his positions as a result of his explorations.

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