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Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
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In 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.

We’ll make our journey across the empathy wall by exploring:

  • The paradox of white working-class conservative voters supporting the pro-corporate, anti-tax, and anti-environment agenda of the modern Republican Party
  • How the support of rank-and-file Tea Party voters for such policies stems not from ignorance or greed, but rather, from their ingrained sense of honor, pride, and resentment at a liberal, secular culture that they feel disrespects them and their values
  • How white conservatives, especially men, feel that minorities, women, and immigrants have unfairly “cut in line” ahead of them on the path to the American Dream—and how they believe the federal government has taken the side of the line cutters
  • How cultural changes have left conservatives feeling isolated and alienated from the country they once knew—feeling like strangers in their own land
  • How liberals and conservatives can overcome the empathy wall and find common ground

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.

Example #1: Environmental Degradation

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental watchdog groups, Louisiana is one of the most polluted states in the country. The state’s wetlands, for example, are in an extremely vulnerable condition. Since 1930, Louisiana has lost an area of its wetlands equal in size to the entire state of Delaware.

With the arrival of companies like Firestone and Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) in the years after World War II, industrial pollution poisoned the land and water. Republican politicians and their pro-business, laissez-faire ideology have given these polluting companies a free hand to poison the drinking water and destroy a once-thriving commercial fishing industry, all in the name of free enterprise.

Example #2: Worker Exploitation

The petrochemical industry is also well-known for its ruthless exploitation of employees. One former Louisiana petrochemical worker recounts numerous industrial accidents in which he saw coworkers gruesomely maimed or killed. The company for which he worked offered minimal compensation to these workers or their families.

Later, when this man became chronically ill from years of exposure to dangerous chemicals, he was fired by the company for alleged “absenteeism”—but the real reason was their desire to avoid paying his mounting medical bills.

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.

But if we’re going to overcome the empathy wall, we need to delve deeper and understand the deeper story behind...

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Introduction

In 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. As a professor at UC Berkeley, famous for its tradition of left-wing activism, Hochschild recognizes the need to step outside of her liberal bubble and understand the world as American conservatives see it.

In an era of rising political polarization, Americans on both the left and the right increasingly see one another not as rivals, but as bitter enemies and even existential threats. By speaking with conservative Tea Party supporters living around Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana, Hochschild attempts to move past the partisan divide and approach American politics from a position of empathy for those on the right.

It is only by breaking down this empathy wall,...

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Part 1: The Plight of the Right

Blue-collar conservative voters’ support for the pro-corporate agenda of the modern GOP often results in tragic outcomes for them. In this chapter, we’ll explore:

  • How conservative states like Louisiana have some of the lowest national rankings on crucial quality-of-life measures like health, education, income, and air and water quality
  • How these outcomes are often a direct consequence of these voters’ disdain for government regulation and support for politicians who are committed to gutting public services
  • How the emotional force that truly animates popular support for conservatism is a desire on the part of white conservatives to uphold their honor, dignity, and perceived rightful place in the social hierarchy—especially in the face of a liberal Democratic Party that conservative Louisiananans feel is hostile to their way of life

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...

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Part 2: Pillars of the Conservative World

In the last chapter, we saw how the GOP’s commitment to unregulated industrial capitalism has delivered environmental and economic havoc to its most loyal voters. We also saw how that political loyalty comes from those voters’ commitment to traditional values and their resentment toward a Democratic Party that they believe is disrespectful and hostile to their way of life.

In this chapter, we’ll move our analysis forward and approach the empathy barrier by examining the institutions that order and shape the emotional world of the Tea Party right in Louisiana, specifically:

  • The energy industry—even when its mistakes result in massive environmental destruction
  • The region’s particular brand of Christianity, with its emphasis on self-reliance and personal responsibility
  • Conservative media, especially Fox News, which provide an emotional outlet from what conservatives feel is the judgmental and lecturing tone of mainstream media and culture

The Power of the Energy Industry

As we saw in Chapter 1, the energy industry has emerged as the most powerful player in

Louisiana politics, despite its underwhelming performance in creating jobs for state...

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Part 3: Honor and the Tea Party

In the last chapter, we discussed some of the core institutions that shape the right’s worldview and explored some of the deep stories—individual personal narratives that they feel to be true—that underlie these voters’ political conservatism.

In this chapter, we’ll 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.

Specifically, we’ll explore:

  • The common belief among Tea Party supporters that undeserving “others” have cut in front of them in the line to the American Dream, something that greatly insults their sense of honor
  • The economic woes of many older, white working-class men, which contributes to their feelings of alienation and shame—and makes them highly receptive to right-wing politics
  • The perceived loss of cultural dominance felt by many white conservative Christians
  • How the struggle to maintain their honor in a hostile world leads conservatives to adopt a culture of...

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Shortform Exercise: Understand Status

Explore how insults to your status might impact your worldview.


What are the things in your life that provide you with a sense of honor or status?

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Part 4: Past and Present

So far, we’ve talked about how conservatives’ narratives about their own lives, communities, and their place in a changing society shape their political orientation. In particular, we’ve explored how deeply held notions of honor and hierarchy order the right-wing worldview and are the true animating force behind their fierce opposition to government and the welfare state.

But while conservative attitudes may be driven by a reaction against changing economic, social, and racial systems, they have very deep roots in American history. In this chapter, we’ll explore:

  • How American history—and Southern history in particular—profoundly shaped how working-class white people saw their role within the nation’s social hierarchy
  • How the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and the social advancements of minority groups beginning in the 1960s contributed to the feeling of loss of place or status among many whites
  • How these historical forces carry forward today, coloring the political attitudes and resentments of white conservatives—and making them highly receptive to the appeals of a charismatic demagogue like Donald Trump

The Weight of Southern History

We’ve...

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Strangers In Their Own Land Summary Conclusion: Breaking Through the Empathy Wall

To heal America’s growing political divide, liberals and conservatives must find ways to overcome the empathy wall that separates them. Each side is far too busy demonizing the other and reacting to caricatures of their political opponents, rather than substantively engaging with what the other side really believes and why they believe it.

Conservatives like the ones profiled in this summary must recognize that liberals do not wish to impose their values on them or judge them for how they live their lives. Instead, American liberalism is premised on a vision of the common good, one in which traditionally marginalized groups are empowered to chart the course of the nation’s future and economic gains are shared more equitably. And, sometimes, the federal government is the only entity with the resources and direction to bring such a vision to life.

Liberals must recognize that conservatives are not motivated solely by bigotry and hatred, nor are they uneducated or unsophisticated. Their political beliefs and resentments stem from a long history of feeling marginalized and discarded by mainstream American culture—of feeling like strangers in their own land. Moreover, there...

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Shortform Exercise: Understand Strangers in Their Own Land

Explore the main takeaways from Strangers in Their Own Land.


Why do you think working-class conservatives support the Republican Party despite its policies being against their economic interest?

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