Five years ago, the well-known sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild went down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to see if she could scale the “empathy walls” that she believed separated her, a Berkeley liberal, from the many Americans who had joined the Tea Party movement. Much of Hochschild’s earlier work—The Managed Heart, The Second Shift, The Outsourced Self—examined the emotional, as well as economic, dislocations of American work and family life since the 1950s. Now she wanted to apply her “sociology of emotion” to the discontents that have led to the recent rightward drift in American politics.
Traveling up and down the bayou country, Hochschild met with Tea Party activists like Lee Sherman. On the orders of his superiors at a chemical plant, Sherman had dumped toxic waste into local waters, putting jobs and an important food supply at risk. Later, when he was injured in a chemical spill, he was fired by his employer after his injury forced him to take eight months off. “They didn’t want to pay my medical disability,” Sherman told Hochschild. “So they fired me for absenteeism!”
Sherman was outraged by what the company had done, both to him and to the local environment. In an earlier moment, this would have made him an obvious recruit for the Democratic Party, which has historically championed environmental protection and workplace safety. But though he was once a Democratic voter, Sherman now turned to the Tea Party. Hochschild wanted to know why. What could cause “a victim of toxic exposure” who was “now proudly declaring himself as an environmentalist” to throw “in his lot with the anti-environmental Tea Party”?
Hochschild’s approach to answering this question is admirable. Unlike many contemporary social scientists, she doesn’t rely on statistical studies, the prevailing “literature,” or newspaper clips. Instead, Hochschild went to Louisiana and talked to people—and not just for a couple of days, but for over half a decade.
Hochschild also frames the analysis in her new book with an interesting theory about how people think and feel about politics. Politics isn’t only about collective self-interest or ideological commitments; it is also informed by what she calls a “deep story.” And the “deep story” she tells about the Tea Partiers—of people who see themselves having tried to get ahead by playing by the rules only to watch the federal government favor and move in front of them those who have not—rings true with what I’ve heard during my own interviews with various Tea Party militants and Trump voters.
Strangers in Their Own Land describes in vivid detail a world that is often ignored or caricatured by the media and by many liberals. But Hochschild’s method and “deep story” theory also have their limits. While helping to better explain the resentments that many Tea Party and Trump supporters feel toward minority groups and government programs, she also deprives their politics of its rational basis. By giving so much prominence to their worldview’s emotional sources, her important new book ends up reinforcing—rather than bridging—the gap between her own convictions and those of the people she set out to understand.