It is no secret that American political life has become increasingly polarized over the past several decades. In 2004, Barack Obama catapulted himself into the national limelight by denouncing the bitter antagonism between rival camps and suggesting that we heed “the better angels of our nature” rather than the preachers of divisiveness. Four years later he was elected president, only to discover for himself the width of the chasm he had once thought could be bridged simply by changing the tone of political discourse. As he prepares to leave office, the evidence is everywhere that the abyss has only grown wider and deeper. His enemies denounce him as a foreigner, a traitor, and an agent of every imaginable form of mischief and malevolence.
The president’s detractors attack him not only for what he is—a black man who overcame all obstacles to become our head of state—but also for what he symbolizes: the federal government, with all its resources—legal, financial, military, and regulatory. Obama’s enemies see the powers of the federal government as illegitimate, the taxes they pay to support it as unwarranted confiscations of their hard-earned dollars, and the regulations it imposes as job-killers that stand as obstacles to their own aspirations. Yet the opposition to the president and his party is most intense in states like Louisiana that rely heavily on federal dollars, in regions that have suffered most from the dismantling of federal regulations.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, a distinguished Berkeley sociologist, calls this the Great Paradox. It is a conundrum she sets out to explore in her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Her strategy is simple: She will go to rural Louisiana—about as far outside the Berkeley bubble as one can imagine—and talk to people who identify with the Tea Party and its implacable hostility to “big government.”
Besides cultural remoteness from Berkeley, there is another reason for the choice of Louisiana: It is a center of the U.S. energy industry—“the buckle in America’s energy belt”—and consequently the site of some of the worst environmental disasters in history, such as the Bayou Corne sinkhole. Companies such as Dow Chemical and Union Carbide rent storage vaults in huge underground salt domes into which they dump wastewater from fracking as well as millions of gallons of the toxic chemical ethylene dichloride and other pollutants. When an errant drill penetrates the wall of one of these domes, a vast expanse of earth disappears into a sinkhole and quantities of oil rise to the surface. Some 350 homes had to be condemned in what officials called a “sacrifice zone,” deemed unfit for human habitation.
Surely, Hochschild reasoned before embarking on her study, people directly harmed by the havoc caused by giant energy companies operating in a lax regulatory environment will have been forced to re-examine their fundamental beliefs about the evils of government. What she finds is quite different. Many of these Louisiana conservatives feel a deep connection to nature. They have been raised as fishermen and hunters. They remember the beauty of the unspoiled bayous of their childhood. Yet they do not react to the environmental devastation as a liberal like Hochschild would expect.
When she inquires why this is so, she discovers that her subjects unsurprisingly rationalize their reactions in a variety of ways. She develops a useful typology, grouping her respondents into three categories: team players, who put loyalty to party or faction ahead of everything else; worshippers, whose fatalistic outlook compels them to accept losses as a deserved part of God’s inscrutable plan; and cowboys, who see risk as an intrinsic part of life and stoically endure whatever hardships come their way. Underlying all three responses is an ethic of “toughness.” Endurance “wasn’t just a moral value; it was a practice.” For these dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, liberalism encourages claims of victimhood by coddling whiners. “Not claiming to be a victim, accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of a loyalty to free enterprise—this was a tacit form of heroism.”
Hochschild’s psychological account of extreme conservatism is plausible, but it raises a question: Why, she asks, should right-wing politics flourish primarily in certain regions of the country? “The contemporary turn to the right in America has occurred mainly in the South.” To explain this, she turns to history. The South became “a section apart,” she notes, quoting the historian C. Vann Woodward, because of the plantation system, which created a culture of dominators (plantation owners) and dominated (slaves). In between were whites of relatively modest means, who not only envied but also identified with the dominant planter class because solidarity with the slaves below was unthinkable. Hochschild quotes Oliver Houck, a law professor from Tulane: “What oil and gas did is replace the agricultural with an oil plantation culture.”
The modest whites who form the backbone of the Louisiana Tea Party therefore identify with the energy companies. They refuse to see themselves as victims, because to do so would be unheroic and “weak.” It would be to acquiesce in what Nietzsche would call the “slave morality” of the culture of victimhood that these “tough” individualists pride themselves on rejecting. The companies after all provide the jobs they need to keep from sinking into the subaltern status they fear above all. To regulate the “job creators” would only “force” the companies to look elsewhere, depriving middle- and working-class whites of the livelihoods on which their dignity depends. Hochschild even offers evidence that companies fearing regulatory oversight deliberately seek out regions of the country where this culture of resignation and endurance flourishes, knowing that it will serve their interests.
This excursion into the possible historical roots of what Hochschild calls “the deep story” to which her Tea Partiers subscribe, and which underlies their belief system, skirts one issue that naturally springs to mind when one invokes the “peculiar” status of the South: race. “Race is an essential part of this story,” she concedes. But she is also at pains to portray her subjects as they see themselves, and for them the accusation of “racism” is as deeply resented as it is familiar. They speak freely of Mexicans and Muslims, who account for a tiny percentage of Louisiana’s population, but are “generally silent about blacks” except when it comes to rejecting the charge of racism.
And “by their own definition, they “clearly [are] not racists.” For them, racists are people “who use the ‘N’ word” and “hate” blacks, and on both counts they plead innocent. Hochschild’s definition is different: “Racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom.” Although she concedes the importance of race to her book’s “deep story,” one feels that she tiptoes around it with special care so as not to give offense to people with whom she spent a great deal of time and in many cases came to think of as friends. This choice allows her to present fuller portraits of her subjects than she could otherwise. Or, as she herself puts it, it allows her to “climb the empathy wall” that separates the warring camps in our polarized polity.
Such wall-climbing is intended to be a first step toward an urgently necessary dialogue. Still, one can’t help feeling that if progress is possible, a deeper probing of racial attitudes than is attempted here will be necessary. Empathy is after all such a liberal value, and a bit of the cowboy’s bravado in the face of hostile resistance will also be needed if authentic communication across the divide is ever to take place. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, but in politics forgiveness is not necessarily a cardinal virtue.