Arlie Hochschild: Strangers in Their Own Land Theories

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What is the Arlie Hochschild Strangers in Their Own Land book about? What ideas does the book present about conservative voters?

Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land seeks to tackle the conservative paradox and how we can overcome the empathy wall to build a better country. She examines conservative policies and why people continue to vote against their own interests.

Read more about Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, and conservative beliefs.

Arlie Hochschild: Strangers in Their Own Land

In Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, sociologist Arlie Hochschild seeks to understand the social, cultural, and emotional forces driving right-wing politics, in an effort to move past the partisan divide and approach American politics from a position of empathy for those on the right.

People on the opposite sides of the political divide are not just separated by political beliefs. They are also separated by an empathy wall—a barrier that prevents them from achieving a deep understanding of the other side. The empathy wall causes us to feel hostile and dismissive toward those with whom we disagree politically, making it nearly impossible to find common ground and work toward solutions to our society’s pressing problems.

By breaking down this empathy wall, we can come to truly inhabit the emotional world of the right, giving us insight into why these voters believe what they believe—and why those beliefs might make sense given these voters’ experiences.

The Conservative Paradox

In Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, she discusses the conservative paradox. If we’re going to overcome the empathy wall between liberals and conservatives, we need to first explore what appears to be an inexplicable phenomenon of American politics: that the most conservative, heavily Republican states in the country are enduring immense suffering—often as a result of the anti-government, anti-tax, pro-business policies favored by the politicians who represent them.

Across the conservative South, states and counties lag behind the rest of the country across nearly every measurement of human development—to the great frustration and puzzlement of many on the left. 

The conservative state of Louisiana ranks near the very bottom of all 50 states across most quality-of-life measurements, including life expectancy, health outcomes, median income, educational attainment, and pollution. 

The GOP’s electoral dominance has resulted in a business climate that enables polluters to operate with a free hand. Despite their political loyalty, ordinary Louisianans have suffered extraordinary abuse at the hands of a largely unregulated corporate sector. Even when the negligence of petrochemical companies results in the wholesale destruction of a community (as happened in 2012 in a Louisiana town called Bayou Corne, when a drilling company accidentally created a massive sinkhole that forced the evacuation of the town) residents denounced government as the culprit. The conservative paradox leads these voters into a self-destructive feedback loop in which:

  • They enthusiastically vote for politicians who promise to slash regulations on business and cut funding for agencies tasked with enforcing public safety.
  • Understaffed and underfunded agencies lack the resources to properly enforce safety regulations, leading to industrial disasters.
  • The failure of the government to prevent these disasters affirms voters and politicians in their belief that the problem lies with government—and, therefore, the only solution is to reduce its role even further by voting for more right-wing politicians.

Next, we’ll explore some of the consequences of the conservative paradox for the lives of everyday Louisiana residents.

Regulation and Hierarchy

Given these experiences of exploitation, it might seem baffling why Louisiana voters would keep electing politicians who allow oil companies to poison their air and drinking water, expose them to lethal chemicals, and wreak havoc on their state’s budget and social services. Arlie Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land talks about what this hierarchy means.

But if we’re going to overcome the empathy wall, we need to delve deeper and understand the deeper story behind why these voters believe what they do. The emotional force that truly animates support for conservatism is a desire on the part of white conservatives to uphold their honor, dignity, and perceived rightful place in the social and racial hierarchy. Even though they would likely benefit from the more pro-worker, pro-regulation policies favored by the Democratic Party, conservative Louisiana voters feel culturally alienated from it.

Tea Party supporters believe that cosmopolitan liberals sneer and look down upon rural conservatives like themselves as racist, sexist, Bible-thumping, bigoted reactionaries. For them, liberal values are an affront to their honor and dignity—and they believe that the Republican Party, for all its faults, better represents their values.

(Shortform note: Although the Tea Party no longer exists as a movement, its values and beliefs are still widely held by the broader conservative movement in the United States. Many candidates who ran explicitly as Tea Party conservatives in the 2010 midterm elections remained powerful figures within the Republican Party a decade later, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.)

Honor and the Tea Party

Arlie Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land also examined some of the deeper attitudes that underlie the political conservatism of Tea Party supporters.

Now, we need to expand upon that analysis and explore a key theme that runs through much of right-wing politics: honor. By understanding their culture of honor, we can gain deep insight into how members of the right view themselves as losing status and position in the world—critical if we are to overcome the empathy wall and find common ground.

Loss of Status

These resentments at being cut in front of reflect deeper anxieties about the perceived loss of once-privileged social status. White Christian men in particular (who comprise a disproportionate share of the Republican base) believe that they have lost their dominance in both the economic and cultural spheres.

Declining Wealth

Many white working-class people have indeed lost ground within the nation’s economic hierarchy. To many, this certainly feels like they are being robbed of their just rewards.

People born after 1950 have, on average, seen their real incomes (wages when adjusted for inflation) steadily decline as they get older, leading to an alarming downward mobility. This is the inverse of the fabled American Dream—people are doing worse than the generation that preceded them.

This trend is especially true for people without a college education, as is the case with many Tea Partiers in southwestern Louisiana. Global economic developments have exacerbated this trend. Globalization has made it easy for large multinational corporations to export low-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs overseas; moreover, automation greatly reduces the need for human workers. 

Once-thriving communities across the United States have been hollowed out and destroyed, leading to economic misery and social decay. For a certain subset of white men, their inability to provide for themselves or their families is a deep source of emasculating shame. This affront to their honor leads them to cast about for someone to blame for their plight—and in their outrage and despair, they are increasingly drawn to far-right politics of resentment.

Arlie Hochschild: Strangers in Their Own Land Theories

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Here's what you'll find in our full Strangers In Their Own Land summary:

  • What drives right-wing politics in America
  • How a lack of empathy is increasing the partisan divide
  • Why Republican politicians remain popular even if their policies don't help their voters

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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