Arlie Russell Hochschild opens the doors of my liberal bubble and bursts its walls in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. She’s a professor of sociology at University of California in Berkeley, and this does have an instructional ring to it. But it’s much more than that, because Hochschild was willing to climb her own “empathy walls” and see life from a vastly different perspective.
I remember when I heard Hillbilly Elegy was a great explanation of the rise of the Tea Party and the conservative right in blue collar America. Then I read the book and found it wanting. I should have immediately picked up this book, because it’s everything the other book wasn’t.
Since Hochschild is a sociologist, she knows how to research in a broader swath of characters and situations. She goes to southern Louisiana and starts connecting with people there. She meets church ladies and factory workers, all people who are lamenting changes to the balance of power in their communities.
What they see is that capitalism and the American Dream have been readjusted by forces beyond their control. To them, the government has changed the rules of the game and skipped other groups ahead of them. With this, they’re being left behind. That’s why they’re angry and getting even with their votes, even when it seems disadvantageous.
I listened to Strangers on audio, narrated by the terrific Suzanne Toren. I had some chores to complete, and found at the end that I’d listened for just over three hours straight. Hochschild and her work are just that interesting.
This isn’t a book of statistics. Instead it’s a book of life stories and a sociologist’s analysis of them. Hochschild gets into her subjects’ cars, homes, diners, and churches. She treats them with respect and, in return, they open their lives to her.
She see their decisions as paradoxical, and they explain why. On one hand, their outdoor-loving lifestyle on the bayou has been destroyed by nearby chemical and oil leakage and dumping. And yet, her subjects don’t want the Environmental Protection Agency (or any big government) to regulate the businesses that are responsible for polluting. These folks live in an untenable tug-of-war, and are looking for a small-government, capitalism-driven solution.
Hochschild opens a valuable window into a conundrum that affects most of blue-collar America. I appreciated every sentence in this book. I recommend it to everyone, whether you vote Republican or Democrat.