Review of the book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The book intrigued me by its title, as well as the premise. The title, a play of words on the name of one of my favorite books, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, promises a lot of interesting insights as well as sets the bar high on the depth and coverage of the content. The premise is intriguing as well: do we get an answer on why a lot of people in a lot of states vote Republican? Do they just not know any better, or there is something deeper truth to it?

The book was written by a sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild and published in 2016. Arlie travels to Louisiana and gets in contact with Tea Party supporters. She starts understanding their lives, their hopes and dreams, and the events which shaped the minds and feelings of many Tea Party supporters. She initially focuses on the questions of environmental pollution. Pollution is high in Louisiana due to the lack of reasonable state regulations and abundance of oil and chemical companies. She also discusses the questions of jobs, welfare, freedom, discrimination, and achievement of the American dream. These are the most important questions influencing voting decisions of many citizens of the state.

The discussions are alive and real, and the scientific approach to these discussions is presented well and in an unbiased way. The liberal bias of the author, who is from California, is not eliminated from the book and shows itself from time to time, especially when interpreting statistical facts. However, due to the book’s focus on scientific curiosity, and the attempts to evaluate the opinions of the people in an unbiased way, it is easy to distinguish where the actual impressions of the people are. It is possible to see how these people make decisions , — the main topic of interest in the book, — even with somewhat biased interpretations.

Without getting into too many details of any specific topics in this review, it quickly becomes clear that the author does not give actionable answers. There is a lot of great observations, however, some of which I would like to outline below.

The major observation Arlie is describing is a “Deep Story” concept. The Deep Story is an imaginary situation which creates an emotional impression on the story tellers: the citizens of the state. The Deep Story of the Tea Party members generally states that they work very hard, but can’t achieve the American dream: live better and easier lives than their parents. They can’t do that due to a variety of reasons, but key reasons which seem important to the people are lack of jobs, unreasonable and useless government regulations, and other people “cutting in line”. This "cutting in line" phenomena is very painful to experience: American patriots of those areas, a lot of them white males, now need to give place in front of them to all sorts of minorities: blacks, woman, LGBT, immigrants, refugees. Their lives aren’t getting better any time soon, but they are at the same time forced to yield to these new, seemingly undeserved, groups. There is no ingrained hatred or lack of sympathy to those groups, but the realization that there is no end to their struggle, and it only becomes harder when they have to let others go first.

The author doesn’t state many specific reasons of why people think that way, but from the discussions in the book, I think that the reasons are:

  • Extreme lack of social mobility
  • Lack of education due to the lack of social mobility and other factors
  • Lack of choice of candidates. Many people seem to only agree with the prominent Republican party candidate on some of the issues, and disagree on others. But as the US has a two-party system, people are forced to choose a side which seem to align with them on the solutions to at least some of the core problems.
  • Distrust in the US government, fueled a lot by the government itself. The government does not seem to realize that the region needs the trust to be slowly and very carefully built, and slacking on several occasions with under-regulation, corruption, and giving in to the agendas of industrial lobby groups.
  • Pressure from liberal social media to feel certain way or say certain things, which is viewed as a restriction of personal freedom
  • Biased presentation of the events by the popular media such as Fox news
  • Church-driven, possibly very biased, channels of receiving other information about the events happening in their state and country.
  • Very few examples of positive growth among their friends and neighbors, but at the same time presence of those examples outside of their circle. Some people closer to the liberal circles, for example Barack Obama, somehow get much further in life than anybody whom they know, and there is a widespread suspicion that it’s the establishment of those who “cut in line” facilitating such changes.

Overall, I can’t say I liked the book. It is too detailed for the amount of information passed, as well as it lacks any actionable, or not, conclusions. It was curious to see how Louisiana inhabitants think and feel, and try to uncover the reasons for the “paradox” of their choice. But I feel the same could be said in a more concise and structured way.