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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