Arlie Russell Hochschild is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. For five years she traveled in the bayous of southern Louisiana, interacting with Tea Party conservatives and trying to understand their thinking about life, hope, faith, and American politics. Her book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, tells the story of that experience. It has been nominated for the National Book Award.
ECM: What motivated you to try to empathize with the Tea Party?
ARH: In 2011, when I began researching the book, I was increasingly concerned about a growing divide in America between liberals and conservatives, left and right. Congress was at a standstill and I felt it was time to get out of my bubble in Berkeley, California, go to an equal and opposite enclave, and turn off my alarm system—to permit myself a full curiosity as to why very good people come to such very different conclusions about what is true and good.
ECM: You talk a lot about your struggle to make sense of the “great paradox” of Tea Party thinking. What is it, and why is it such a roadblock to empathy?
ARH: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a roadblock to empathy. It is rather how the world actually looks on one side of the empathy wall. That is, from where I stood, things didn’t make sense. On the whole, in the United States, the red states are poorer, they have worse education, worse medical care, more family disruption, more accidents, more alcohol and substance abuse, worse health, lower life expectancy—all of those problems. Red states also receive more in federal aid than they pay in taxes. And yet, they are politically conservative and take a very dim view of the federal government.
So the paradox is this—if you had that many problems, wouldn’t you want help to get rid of them?
In Louisiana, where I chose to do my research, this is a super paradox. In 2014, it was the poorest state in the union, and 44% of its state budget came from the federal government. But the citizens there heavily favor the Tea Party, and now heavily favor Donald Trump.
None of this got in the way of my empathy, but it did present me with a problem to try to understand—how it all made sense to the people of the state.
What I discovered was that they knew about the paradox, but it was less important to them than what I came to call the “deep story.”
ECM: What is the deep story?
ARH: We all have a deep story—a story that we tell ourselves about the world, what it is, and how it came to be the way it is. For Tea Partiers, the story imagines America as a long line of people waiting for their shot at the American dream. They see themselves waiting patiently in that line, but up ahead they see people cutting in front of them. Some are black, some are Latino, some are women—and the government seems to be helping them do it.
A deep story is a story that feels true. You take the facts out of it, you take the moral judgments out of it, and you are left with a feeling. That, in a way, is the goal here. That is what the book leads to—the discovery that, on the other side of the empathy wall, this is what people feel. So to empathize with it is to imagine the feeling of being pushed back in line, disrespected, and ultimately, humiliated.
So that’s how I came to empathize with the people I studied. It’s not to say that I agree with them, but I did my best to understand that this is how they feel.
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.