America Must Reconnect
The Deep Story: two melting pots that should mingle more
“I felt like I was in an enclave. I think most Americans are, and we’re seeing a lot of public conflict. If you turn on the television or you look at Facebook there’s a lot of political conflict, but when you turn to your partner or your best friend or your neighbor, you’re agreeing with them. So it’s a kind of schizophrenia, and I think what we have to do, all of us actually, is try and climb out of our enclave and reach a hand out to the other side.” - Arlie Hochschild
Maybe it’s just the recommendation engines of Facebook and Medium, which are based on machine-learning— showing me what I like to see, constructing my own personal political bubble — but I have encountered many articles before and after Trump’s victory talking about the divide between Left and Right and “who are these Trump voters?” — often with a tone of reconciliation.
This may point to the real sense in which Trump voters won: whatever their candidate’s faults may be — and those who voted “for” and “against” seemed to disagree about what those faults are — he finally forced America to hear. Will the rest of America now finally listen to their grievances?
For the most part, in their efforts to convince and to “frame the debate”, neither side has been listening. At the same time as one person gave up tens of thousands of dollars to take a stand against the billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel, a female Muslim immigrant — “liberal and proud daughter of West Virginia” — voted for Trump. Clearly, these two people are living in different realities, their worldview perhaps shaped by two different sets of media, and perhaps living in two different social classes. One is a young technology professional in L.A., the other a 51-year-old writer from a town of 30,000 who is successful enough to have a Wikipedia page but “can’t afford health insurance under Obamacare.”
America is deeply wounded by its divisive hyper-partisan politics, where most people live in a left-wing circle or a right-wing circle. Trump may have shifted the meaning of “right wing” (for the two-party system offers little room for more than two “wings”), but he did nothing to reduce the divisions among Americans.
Still, his victory has forced many people to reflect. Now is the time for us to seek out alternative media sources whose goal is to make you learn and think rather than to bash liberals or conservatives. Now is the time to join nonpartisan movements that can help heal this country through a new kind of politics: a politics of understanding, of finding common ground and supporting the policies that a large majority of Americans want. There are many policies meeting that description, often ignored, because it’s not what the elites want, or because there’s not enough “political will”, or because the media doesn’t talk about them — and often all three at once! Like, hey — how about getting big money out of politics?
Sometimes only one side talks about an issue that both sides could potentially agree on. The Right loves to talk about stifling regulations, and the Left doesn’t — but it should, because sometimes the Right is absolutely right and the left just doesn’t care. As I like to say, San Francisco’s housing crisis has a lot to learn from Houston. Likewise, the Left loves to talk about the good things that government does (roads, schools, Medicare, scientific research) and could do with tax dollars (free college or skills training, cheap municipal broadband, the universal basic income)—while the Right would much rather talk about tax cuts and the evils of big government.
Look, I’m sorry to use such strong language, but please, cut it out!
Stop disagreeing about everything. Stop exaggerating everything the other side says (and yes, if you pay close attention you’ll see your side doing it often). Stop bashing. Stop using ad-hominim attacks: attack ideas, not people. Stop blaming single causes for complex social and economic outcomes. Stop being so confident about things you can’t possibly know for sure. Stop using guilt by association: a politician doesn’t believe X just because their friend believed X or a major supporter believed X — or even just because that same politician believed X 30 years ago. Stop believing something just because everyone you hear (who, it turns out, are all liberal or all conservative) says it. Stop trusting popular pundits and preachers that use these shady tactics. Stop letting your friends get away with these tactics.
Start learning about the other side. Start supporting them when they’re right. Start being wary of the slant of your news sources. Start speaking in a more balanced way. Start noticing the group polarization effect. Start fighting more for policies that are supported by majorities of Americans (or might be if awareness were raised.) Recognize that lying is still wrong when your side does it, but realize that others won’t.
If you have found a positive political movement, one that Left and Right can agree on, please praise its proposals in the comments section. (My proposal to you is this: join the anti-corruption movement Represent.us.)
The Deep Story: Feeling the Tea Party
One of my favorite writers, Ezra Klein, interviewed one of his favorite writers, a sociologist who spent five years “embedded” with Tea Party Louisianians. That interview is the real point of this piece. I’d like to share an abridged version of that interview, edited for length and clarity. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and take the words of Arlie Hochschild to heart.
Ezra Klein: If I was someone who you thought there was a gulf with, when you approached that conversation the first time, when we met and you wanted to persuade me to open up to you, what kinds of questions would you ask me?
Arlie Hochschild: Let me give you an example. I was at a meeting in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was about as far from Berkeley California as I could get on the political dial, and I was at a meeting of Republican women of southwest Louisiana. Across the table was a very bright warm woman, gospel singer, Pentecostal church — her husband was a minister there — and she said “I love Rush Limbaugh”, you know, the conservative commentator. Well, that doesn’t accord with my experience, but I said to her, “you know, I think I have something to learn. Could we make a date? Could I talk with you?” I explained who I was, a retired professor from UC Berkeley — I teach sociology and I’ve been concerned about this rift between Left and Right and I’ve come here to try and see if I can understand, I think a lot of people don’t — and she said “Sure!” They were all very friendly and outgoing.
So we had a meeting, and I said “tell me about Rush Limbaugh, why do you like him?” and her answer was “well, he really gives it to these feminists, he calls them ‘feminazis’ and he really hates environmentalists, he calls them ‘environmental wackos’ and I think that’s really putting them in their place. It makes me feel good, I like that.” She even said “I follow the Rush doctrine.”
So I was writing things down and reflecting on that, and she said “was that hard for you to hear?”
I felt approached humanly, and I said “actually, it’s not hard for me to hear. It’s not what I agree with but it’s very easy for me to hear what you are saying because that’s my purpose of being here. I’ve got something to learn, and you’re teaching me.” And she said, “you know I do that too, sometimes.” She can turn her alarm system off. So now we have that in common. We could each really reach out and listen, and I felt a human bond with her.
And then she said “you know, what I really like about Rush Limbaugh is that he defends people like me from mainstream liberal culture, because a lot of people out there think that if you live in the south you must be uneducated and backward and that you’re homophobic and sexist and racist and… that you are an unworthy person.” I learned a lot in those five minutes, that she felt seen and denigrated and that Rush Limbaugh was defending her against that denigration.
Anyway, that’s an example of how I would approach such a person and how quickly the chemistry can change when you do approach someone in that way.
Ezra Klein: I’m fascinated by the metaphor of turning off your alarm system, because I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the way in which our minds and our bodies work, when we come into contact with ideas we find threatening or offensive. And people can feel it. Just go right now and read an op-ed of somebody you really disagree with (and who won’t treat your ideas with much respect or gentleness). And you’ll feel it, you’ll feel your skin get a little bit hot, you’ll feel your stomach tighten up, and rationally, you will be looking for holes, you’ll be reading it critically in a way that you will not be when you’re reading a column by somebody who agrees with you — looking for every trip in logic and every mistake and every unblocked path.
How do you approach that ability to turn off your alarm system, how do you make it a more pleasant task, to hear things that, as that woman said, in another context would be hard to hear?
Arlie Hochschild: I think the first thing is to be completely honest about who you are and what your purpose is, so the other person understands that you’re not there to convince them of something, you’re there to really learn and get the hang of, and get the feel of life as it is for them…
Normally, when you talk, you talk to convince, to convey information and to tell another person where you stand and who you are, so the function of talk really changes when you take off your alarm system. It’s to absorb and learn, it’s really an exciting thing to do. I think you have to have a certain orientation to that kind of talk, in other words, when I set out to do the research for “Strangers in Their Own Land”, some people said “why are you gonna do that?” as if we were at war and I was crossing the lines, and giving aid to the enemy. It was an orientation that taking your alarm system off is disarming “your side”. And I had to say, “no, if you want to compare it to anything, it’s a diplomatic mission, it’s, look, we can work this out, let’s see what the basis of that could be. We are all American.”
Others would say, I don’t know how you can do that — they’re going to say all these distasteful things! I would urge more curiosity. I have not had a more interesting, and I would say fun, experience, doing research — and I’ve done nine books — than this, and I think it’s because of the relationships that they permitted me to establish and it’s not just I that reached out, they reached out back to me, each knowing that the other had fundamental beliefs that were very different.
Ezra Klein: My background is, I’m a policy writer. So the way I tend to interact with American politics is trying to decide if something is, in my view, given the research I can find and the information I can find, right or wrong, good or bad, is this policy better than another, does this tax plan add up…
But what you’ve done here is frame it completely differently, that in this work, it almost didn’t matter who was right or wrong, it didn’t matter if the stories and the views you were being told were backed up by evidence, that they were experientially treated people…
Arlie Hochschild: What I did was first go in and interview 40 supporters of the Tea Party, in rural Louisiana, and I interviewed them repeatedly and I asked them, could you show me where you were born and where your school was? Where did you sit in first or second grade? Were you in the front row or in the back? Could we visit the church you went to? Where were your parents buried ?— often very close by... And we did things together. They would show me where their children went to school, we would go fishing together, go to a fish fry, go to the gumbo cook-off.
Really they were people of location, they love their communities, feel attached to them. I interviewed 60 people altogether in five years, so 40 Tea Party/Trump supporters, and 20 people who could help me understand the 40, so, 60 altogether. 4600 pages of transcribed interviews.
The second thing I did was, on the basis of what I’d learned, to propose a metaphoric “deep story”, I call it, and that’s really the basis of the approach in “Strangers in Their Own Land”. The deep story is a story that’s stripped of judgements, stripped of facts. It’s a story that feels to be true. And we all have deep stories. I then went back to them and asked “is this how you feel?” and they said yes, or they modified it, they would add something to it — but their deep story was like this:
You’re standing in line. It’s going uphill, a little like a pilgrimage, at the top of which is the American Dream. And you’ve been waiting patiently for a long time, and the line actually isn’t moving, and then you see someone ahead of you meaning to cut in line. Who would that be? That might be an affirmative action black or affirmative action woman, who would like a job not available to women, a male kind of job, and a black looking for a job that was always held by whites; then you see immigrants, who’ve had very difficult experiences, or you see refugees cutting ahead. And then in this deep story, you see Barack Obama waving to the line-cutters. “Oh he’s their president, he’s helping them, but he’s not helping me, he’s not my president.”
And so, you get the feeling that the president (or the federal government), all he stands for is pushing you back in line, for something you’ve worked extremely hard for and feel you deserve, and then you see someone ahead of you kind of turning back and saying “oh, you southerners, you racist, you redneck,” and this is insulting — insult to injury — and then there comes a moment where you feel this isn’t even your country, you are a stranger in your own land, and you look for alternatives. You look to be heard, to be recognized, and you don’t see it.
…Then last March I went to the rally for the primary in Louisiana where Trump gave a speech, and I felt I’d been studying the kindling, and now I see the match.
So the deep story is the main point… Mine is an emotions-based approach, and it’s different from other approaches in that focus. And it isn’t just the Right that has emotions of course, the Left does too, we all do. And we all have deep stories, but I think we need to get a conversation going, deep story to deep story, with some empathy for those who differ from you.
Ezra Klein: …your argument that people feel deeply disadvantaged is very true. But then it also runs up into this question of well, have they been deeply disadvantaged? This idea that all these African Americans and Hispanics and immigrants are cutting some kind of great line in America is very hard to square with the history of this country. …Objectively African Americans and Hispanics have done economically worse in recent decades if you just look at sort of where they’re absolute levels are and where their growth levels are. …If it’s all economic anxiety they should be supporting Trump too. So where does that leave you? How do you think about these things when they’re in tension?
Arlie Hochschild: Well, what you’re saying is the deep story subtracts facts as well as judgements, and that that’s a problem, if a deep story doesn’t accord with the facts. And the facts that you mentioned, partly don’t accord and partly do. We’re looking at older white men, that’s kind of the core group, for Trump supporters and Tea Party supporters — big differences in a lot of beliefs between those two groups but at the moment Tea Party is leaning, and planning to vote Trump — what to do with the fact that the deep story does not accord with the real hard knocks that blacks have had, and immigrants have had, and refugees have had?
…I mean I don’t have any easy slick solutions here; we do differ on what the facts are… but what I would say is the way to talk about it, is through acknowledging deep stories, and crossing the empathy bridge, and also looking at the facts they do have on their side, and this is why the subtitle of my book is “Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” The mourning is due to felt losses, some of which are real, and don’t have an easy policy fix.
For example, they are increasingly demographically on the decline — what are you gonna do about that? And they feel that, being religious people, there is a growth of secularism and that being a devout believer is less respected — well, that’s a long-term trend. They also feel marginalized for their cultural attitudes, that they are pro-family and pro-life; the law of the land has not supported them in those two beliefs. I don’t think there are any quick fixes with regard to these sources of estrangement in their deep story, but if we’re going to talk about them, we need to talk about them respectfully.
I think economically, they have been affected, especially older men, who have run into age discrimination, and while they aren’t on the unemployment lines, most of the right-leaning people I came to know, they tell me that in so many words that the difficult lives they saw blacks lead could hit them too. In other words, globalization and the offshoring of plants, and the high automation of plants, the import of foreign labor, these trends hit blacks first, and now it’s the whites’ turns. So, that isn’t fantasy, I think that’s true, they have a point.
Ezra Klein: [Long, meandering question]
Arlie Hochschild: Well, if you’ve crossed over the empathy bridge, you can begin to look at the facts on which each position is based in a different spirit. Appendix 3, the last appendix in “Strangers in Their Own Land”, is a fact check. And I begin by saying, you know, often when I was interviewing people, I felt as if we were living in a different truth, and I had to check myself what the facts were. And so my research assistant and I — it’s all carefully footnoted — took on a number of issues.
For example in my conversations I often heard people say “oh, so many people work for the federal government, I think 40% of Americans work for the federal government, you know, too many government employees.” Well I looked it up; it was 1.9%... If you add in state employees, and local county employees —[including] teachers in public schools and nurses in public hospitals and [the] active military, it came altogether to 16%, so that’s a long way from 40, and we can look at that, and understand how, you know, a perception can be exaggerated.
I also looked at birth rates of black and white women. It’s often said, you know, so many black women have more children so they can stay on welfare — and these were often whites who came from very large families — actually the birth rate for black and white women is the same. So, just some fact checks that have to be looked at, not in the spirit of ammunition but in the spirit of just “where are we?”
The spirit in which you do your fact checks is hugely important, that is the point of my book. We’ve got to get into a different spirit of difference, and then look for crossover issues, and you would be surprised the number that I discovered.
One man for example, just on crossover issues, said well, we ought to get money out of politics, both sides. I thought, wow, great, yeah, let’s do! I didn’t realize that was something on which we could really agree.
Ezra Klein: So I’ve always been fascinated, coming at things from the policy perspective, how positive-sum policy is, how much people actually agree on. This is true when you poll them, but it’s also true when you talk with them. I’ve never covered a policy process, even at the elite level, early on when you got experts on both sides into a room, people couldn’t see a way to make things better for both sides, than where the status quo was.
It’s not just money in politics, I mean, if you look at Americans’ opinions on taxation, if you look at opinions on foreign policy, there’s actually a lot of overlap, much more so than you would imagine from the bitterness and division of our politics.
And the conclusion I’ve come to is that, while policy and issues are often positive-sum, elections and politically relevant identities are often quite zero-sum to people, and that we are often having a conversation about the latter (about elections and political identity) disguised as the former (about a discussion of policy), and that feels to me like a place where American politics truly breaks down, because what both sides are very good at, when they get into a fight, is taking something where there could have been agreement with the right kind of leadership… but that we then activate people’s identities around it.
I don’t want to overstate the case here because there’s quite a bit in Obamacare that Republicans had every right to be unsupportive of, and frustrated by, but the individual mandate has always felt to me like a very interesting moment in this, because it really was an idea that emerged on the Republican side, it really was an idea that was part of the Republican alternative to the Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton health care bill in 1994, and it really was an idea that Republicans were supportive of as recently as 2009, but by the time you got to the end and it had become about identities and liberal/conservative and Republican and Democratic and who would win the next election, by then it became something Republicans felt was not just a bad idea but literally unconstitutional, and to me that’s really the… problem in politics I don’t know how to solve, and I don’t even see much hope for solving.
Arlie Hochschild: You say “identity” and I say “deep story” on which that identity is based. It’s as if these policy issues that you’re engaging were wrapped in a bubble, a kind of negative defensive bubble that is defending a deep story without understanding what the other guy’s deep story is, and I thing what we need to do is take these policy issues out of [the] bubble and talk about hem in detail as they would affect personal lives… you find quite a lot of crossover.
I mean, it’s interesting that what’s happened in this political moment is not that the Left has become more left, but that the Right has become more right, and if we look at Republican leaders of the 50s and 60s, they have what seemed today like quite liberal positions. For example, Barry Goldwater ran as a Republican candidate for president in 1968 and his wife Peggy was a founder of Planned Parenthood, and now Republican candidates want to get rid of Planned Parenthood. Dwight D. Eisenhower was very strong in building up the infrastructure — roads, buildings, the public railroad, and today the Republicans are saying “no, that’s a waste of money”. In the past, Richard Nixon in the 70s gave us the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and now many Tea Party Republican candidates want to get rid of the EPA, and deregulate polluting industries, so yeah, there’s been a move right politically.
Ezra Klein: in the context of all this, and I try not to ask much about current events on the show, but I’m very curious to what you thought when you heard about Hillary Clinton’s comment that roughly half of Trump’s supporters are part of this “basket of deplorables”.
Arlie Hochschild: I was above horrified and saddened. She later walked that statement back, and said “I didn’t mean to say half, and I’m sorry I did, many supporters have real grievances,” but the fact that she did say it, of course, is being picked up as a lack of empathy, a lack of getting into that deep story, and it would be great for her to come down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, or Sinkhole, Louisiana, or Ritter, Louisiana, or Longville, Louisiana where I met a lot of wonderful right-wing people. I’d love to take Hillary around and meet some people. I think she wouldn’t call them deplorable at all. She’s call them very fine Americans, but who have very different views, and haven’t been engaged in the kind of dialogue that you and I are talking about.
Ezra Klein: …I think one of the tricky things about “basket of deplorables” is that she took people’s ideas and turned them into their identities. And it seems to me… that some of your work here is trying to understand people who… in some cases, hold opinions that you might think are quite wrong or quite damaging. But how do you think about it, and in a separate way how would you have told Clinton to manage the question of “how do you describe people…” — and I’m not saying it’s 50%, but there are some Trump supporters whose views on some of these issues genuinely are noxious. I get a tremendous amount of anti-semitic hate mail from Trump supporters. How do you talk about that very real phenomenon without losing hold of your empathy?
Arlie Hochschild: Hmm. Well, this calls for real skill that is very important for all of us to develop. I think when Hillary is talking about noxious people, the deplorables, he’s thinking of David Duke, once a grand wizard who defended lynching, and she’s thinking of how Donald Trump responded to David Duke — first he said “oh, I don’t know who he is” and then pushed finally said “oh, I disavow David Duke, okay?” I disavow, okay? In other words, he communicated a reluctance to separate himself from David Duke, but I think it is Duke that she has in mind...
I guess just to get back to the pathway forward, it is not to use the word deplorable, it is to positively affirm the good angels that are real… and get down to respecting one another, and then talking about particular policies that we could agree on, but taking seriously what the real threats for the right wing have been. There is something there, real, that they have responded to. I think that they have lost confidence in the economy; they think that the liberals really stand for those who are the beneficiaries of the new face of globalization, you know, the highly educated, that can take advantage of jobs and speak many languages, and the kind of cosmopolitan elite, and that they have been left behind.
The paradox, of course, is there are many progressive policies that speak to that issue, for example in Vermont — which has the highest proportion of people graduating high school and has the lowest proportion of people going on to further education — so what they’re proposing is to pay for the students to go on if they’re in technical colleges or community colleges, and really get them the jobs that are available. These are the kinds of things I think we can agree on but we just have to stop spitting on each other.
Ezra Klein: At length in the book… you talk about how, for some of the white men that you met and that you worked with, they felt at the crosscurrent of, on the one hand, a societal belief that white men are privileged and dominant in the society, and their own very real experience that they very clearly were not privileged and not dominant in their society. That their ideas and their life is perhaps looked down upon by cultural elites, and that their bank account does not reflect any dominance of the American economy, so that the privilege of whiteness and maleness was something that they were, on the one hand, expected to atone for… but on the other hand something they did not feel they were benefiting from, and that in that space there was quite a lot of resentment that could grow.
And I’m curious about what you think should be done about — that might be too facile — but how do you think about that? …We tend to talk in these large generalities about large groups of people in this country, and on the one hand… it’s empirically true that whiteness and maleness has been an advantage and on the other hand it’s also true that not everybody who is white and male has had it easy…
Arlie Hochschild: The problem here is the great silence in America about social class. Not all white men are created equal. Some are rich and some are poor. Some are born in homes with a lot of books in the living room, and summer vacations when they get time to read them, and some are born with no books, and they’re working from the first age they can with no inclination or opportunity to read…
America has really got a blind eye on class, and this is what this is about. We have to look at some of the recent studies, and I cite in “Strangers in Their Own Land”, for blue-collar white men, they were very similar to upper white-collar white men in 1960. Both upper and lower class were likely to get married, to go to church, to volunteer for the community, to spend time with their children. But in 2010, the upper stratum, the top third in income and education were still pretty much like they were back in the early period, but white blue-collar men, the bottom third in income and education, look very different. They are more likely to be not living with the mother of their children, not involved in their children, they didn’t go to church, didn’t volunteer for their community, they were more depressed.
Charles Murray, who’s written a book comparing whites of different classes, has concluded [that] there were two things that blue-collar white men do more than they did three decades back, and that’s to sleep and watch TV. And he then concludes, “oh well, that’s because they’ve lost their morals.” I think from my emotions perspective, they’ve lost their morale, they’re depressed.
They don’t see a future, and we’ve got to grok that…. White men see kind of a bleak future. They do not think globalization is good for them, and they’re right about that.
Ezra Klein: …We seem to be opening up a debate about a politics of time, and who controls that time (you or your employer, your employer or the government), what are you able to take from that time, what happens when you do take some of that time to raise a family and then come back to the workforce. I think that, to a large extent, is what the equal pay for equal work debate is about.
I’m curious if you see this as something that is genuinely changing…
Arlie Hochschild: There is a politics of time, and if we turn away from that issue we’re going to put great pressures on families. The Right cares about the family… the Left cares about the family… so this would be a basic crossover issue…
I’ll give you an example of a man I met who grew up on a sugar plantation… He grew up in the old south, he’s a white man of 63. And he had his entire adulthood in the new south, that is to say, Louisiana oil-related jobs. In his last place of work, where he worked a very long time, for the first five years he was given one week off a year. Sick time and vacation time together. So if he got a cold — he had no vacation for five years. And the next five years he got two weeks off, so if he had a cold, he had one week the entire year… a decade of life with almost no vacation.
The man loved nature, he loved to go fishing, he couldn’t get the time to go out and do it. And he was a white male, so how privileged is that? With regard to time, very unprivileged. And he didn’t get a raise for the last 10 years either. 20. Time is an issue for both sides and it’s a great crossover issue.
Transcription by me.
If you enjoyed this interview and want to heal the rift, please share this on Facebook, and think about how you can apply it in your own life!
Some problems seem to remain intractable. Our media has a hopeless rift. How can America unify without agreeing on the facts? But how can we agree on the facts if conservative media is a parallel universe?
Frankly, I think it’s easier to fix our corrupt politics. How long has D.C. had a corruption problem? Long before Citizens United! Watch the late Senator Wellstone explain to the other Senators their own corruption in 1999:
Unfortunately, Lawrence Lessig, who wrote a book about corruption and ran for president to end it, doesn’t think Trump “has a clue about how to end the corruption he so powerfully attacked”. Trump’s hundred-day plan does have some anti-corruption elements:
FIRST, propose a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;
FOURTH, a 5 year-ban on White House and Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service;
FIFTH, a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government;
SIXTH, a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.
But there’s no campaign finance reform, no electoral reform, nothing about gerrymandering, and since U.S. corruption is home-grown, the last two promises are not likely to make a difference (and note that foreigners already can’t give money to U.S. campaigns). The first two are a good start; however, constitutional amendments are extremely hard to pass, and the 5-year rule would still allow lobbyists to be appointed to important positions, and still allow congressional officials to be paid handsomely when they leave office (maybe as “executives”, “consultants” or “public speakers” rather than as “lobbyists”).