STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press, 351 pp., $27.95.
For 15 years, Lee Sherman worked as a pipe fitter in a petrochemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was a hazardous job done in one of the country’s most polluted regions. After a chemical leak, his boss advised him to leave the plant; 30 minutes later, the plant exploded, killing 15 workers. Another time he was doused with chemicals that burned his skin and ate through his pants, shoes and shirt. Then Sherman was given a new assignment: twice a day, he illegally dumped toxic waste into a marsh. He did this with a mounting sense of guilt, until his body began to fail as a result of the earlier chemical exposure. He went on medical leave, but when he tried to return he was fired for “absenteeism.”
Seven years later, after fish died off downstream from the marsh, the state’s health department issued a warning about eating local seafood. During a public forum, local fishermen expressed outrage at this threat to their livelihood. That was when Sherman took the stage carrying a sign that read, “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU.” The crowd went silent as he described what he had done at the company’s orders. For a moment, the anger in the room shifted from the government to the company.
Sherman is a fearless activist, and considers himself an environmentalist. Yet he is also an example of what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls the “great paradox.” That’s because Sherman is a Tea Party member and volunteers for candidates who aim to slash the budgets of OSHA and the EPA — the two federal agencies dedicated to protecting workers and the environment. How could this be?
Seeking answers, Hochschild, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley spent five years traveling to Louisiana to interview Tea Party activists at length. The result is “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” a book that is extraordinary for its consistent empathy and the attention it pays to the emotional terrain of politics. It is billed as a book for this moment, but it will endure.
“When we listen to a political leader, we don’t simply hear words: we listen predisposed to want to feel certain things,” she writes. What resonates will depend on what Hochschild calls our “deep story” — the stories that feel true to us, stripped of judgment or fact. Sherman’s deep story, reinforced by his diet of Fox News and right-wing blogs, placed all blame on the federal government. Once, he had been shorted out of his full tax refund. Though his life had been upended by a company’s behavior, it was that event that stung most.
Midway through the book, Hochschild writes a nine-page deep story of the Tea Party members she has come to know, and they enthusiastically endorse her portrayal. “You’ve read my mind,” Lee Sherman told her.
For them, life has come to seem like an endless line. As they describe it to Hochschild, they patiently wait their turn while others cut ahead, aided by the government. Blacks are promoted via affirmative action. Gays receive special treatment. The red carpet is rolled out for Syrian refugees. Everyone plays the victim, while they keep their heads down and work hard without complaint. Sure, some companies don’t treat them like they should — but at least they reward work; the government rewards laziness. But for all their effort, they’re not moving. As Hochschild writes, “Putting the 1860s and 1960s together, white men of the South seemed to have lived through one long deep story of being shoved back in line.”
White skin does, of course, bring its privileges. But they can be hard to spot in Lake Charles. One man sees his town swallowed by a giant sinkhole, caused by a company drilling for salt. Another, who had once gardened and raised animals in the verdant Bayou d’Inde, finally gives up when the animals — chicken, sheep, cows and finally the hardy hog — die after drinking polluted water. While others fled, he stayed put. “Endurance wasn’t just a moral value; it was a practice,” writes Hochschild. “It was work of an emotional sort.”
But even the sturdiest endurance athlete will reach his limit — which helps explain the rise of Donald Trump, who clinched the Republican presidential nomination just as Hochschild was finishing her book. Many of the people she interviewed have come to support Trump, a repetitive, rambling speaker who is nevertheless able to articulate their deep story with remarkable precision.
Why do these smart and compassionate people — and many of the people Hochschild interviews are clearly both — support Trump? If that’s a question you’ve asked, Hochschild’s book is the perfect place to start. Without caricature or condescension, she has shared their world with us. She also asks her presumably liberal reader to engage in what is both a modest and — in our polarized environment — wildly ambitious thought experiment: “Consider the possibility,” she writes, “that in their situation, you might end up closer to their perspective.”