Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hochschild - Strangers in their own land

One of the greatest paradoxes of the 2016 U.S.A. Presidential election was why so many people seemingly voted against their apparent self-interest. This is the subject of Arlie R. Hochshild’s book, Strangers in their own land (2016). The book is based on a sociological study of the Bayous of Louisiana, an area that is at the bottom of all the measures of a good life – educational attainment, environmental degradation, and life expectancy – yet the vast majority of the people in this area actively identify with the Tea Party.

Hochschild describes her journey as an attempt to scale the empathy wall, “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” (2% through digital text) Many of those Hochschild met in the Bayou Courne region of Louisiana were poor, although most expressed that they didn’t see themselves that way. They were of various cultural backgrounds including Cajun, Black, White and other.

Bayou Courne residents used to embrace the platform of the Democratic Party but now they are decidedly more Republican or, at minimum, independent and leaning to the right. The cause for the party affiliation shift – a sense of losing opportunity, being left out of prosperity, and having others less deserving than them cut in line ahead of them to receive benefits from the government. In addition, the Great Recession of 2008, the presidency of Barack Obama, and Fox News fanned the exodus with a healthy tailwind from those who advocate the philosophy of “you’re the only one who can save yourself” based on Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.

Hochschild reported that Bayou Courne and other areas such as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge are blighted by years of neglect and exploitation at the hands of corporations. She documented Pittsburgh Plate Glass dumping raw chemicals and oil companies releasing sludge into natural waterways. More recently, sinkholes have swallowed up entire neighborhoods after underground aquifers and caves were pierced by fracking. The residents of these blighted areas resist governmental controls and inspections although many grieve the loss of former pleasures of restive vistas and leisure fishing. Those who live in the most devastated areas have no option to leave polluted rivers and lakes because home value losses have prohibited sale. With all this evidence of abuse by corporations, the Louisiana state government continues to give away tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to draw corporations back to drill for more oil or frack for natural gas and citizens welcome the job opportunities the corporations will restore.

What the citizens of Bayou Courne grieve is not the sacrifice of clean air/water but the unfairness of government taking tax revenues away from deserving citizens and redistributing them to what they perceive to be underserving leeches on the public dole. This view was widely evident even in the face of evidence that “Voters in the twenty-two states that voted Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008 – and who generally call for less government regulation of business – lived in more polluted environments.” (19% through digital text) Regardless of the economic, social, and political devastation Bayou Courne endures, its residents are resilient – pursuing their way of life and often drawing strength from religious beliefs that caused them to thank God for the strength to persist rather than pray for the fortitude to stand up against those who abuse them.

Hochschild offered a ‘deep story’ to capture the sentiment of those she interviewed which was readily accepted when she shared it with them. The story, similar in many ways to narratives proposed by Haidt in The Righteous Mind, started with the idea that the American Dream is one that is in progress for all, requiring each individual/family to wait in line, work hard, and be patient. The violation of this story is what those in Bayou Courne resented most – line cutters who gained unfair advantage in striving for the American Dream, a dream ever-more crowded and competitive due to a globalizing world that is leaving so many behind. The citizens of Bayou Courne had lost the ability to see themselves in the American Dream and they had lost purpose and honor in their striving.

Why would citizens of this ‘deep story’ reject a political agenda calling for governmental assistance? Why would they place their hope in the Tea Party and political figures of vastly different socio-economic means? Because to identify ‘up’ grants pride within oneself for being optimistic, hopeful, and not giving up on the dream that had been part of your upbringing, your church, and the very identity from which you derived worth.

And along came an unorthodox personality (part entertainer, part businessman, part politician) who redefined the run for the presidency as no longer Democrat versus Republican but instead anti-establishment versus establishment. And Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the U.S.A. on January 20, 2017.

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