In a New York Times review of Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press), Jason DeParle describes how Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologists and professor at University of California-Berkeley, interviewed anti-government Tea Party supporters from Louisiana Bayou Country in an effort to understand their view of what is happening in the United States.
Jason DeParle recounts a scenario Hochschild presented to participants in her study and their reactions.
“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”
Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them.
And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother,” and he’s cheering on the line cutters. “The president and his wife are line cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”
One participant responded to Hochschild, “You’ve read my mind.” Another says, “I live your analogy.” A third claims says she has seen people drive their children to Head Start in Lexuses. She believes “If people refuse to work, we should let them starve.”
As a group, the people Hochschild interviews believe “others” are “cutting in line,” the federal government is “taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle,” and “The government has gone rogue, corrupt, malicious and ugly. It can’t help anybody.” To rectify this, they “vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs.”
According to the reviewer, Hochschild “likes the people she meets. They aren’t just soldiers in a class war but victims of one, too. She mourns their economic losses, praises their warmth and hospitality, and admires their ‘grit and resilience.’” Unfortunately they blame others who are in the same boat for their problems when the real cause is “unchecked corporate power and technological transformation.”
As Hochschild points out, “Louisiana is a classic red state. In 2016, it’s ranked the poorest in the nation and the worst as well in education, health and the overall welfare of its people It also has the second-highest male incidence of cancer and is one of the country’s most polluted states.” Meanwhile recent polls show Louisianans favor Trump over Hillary Clinton by at least 47% to 39%.
Racism has deep-roots in Louisiana’s White population. In 2012, only 10% of the state’s White voters cast ballots for Barack Obama, the second lowest percentage in the country. In the 1991 gubernatorial election a majority of the state’s White voters supported David Duke, a former Klansman and a neo-Nazi. Duke is currently running for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana and supporting Donald Trump for President.
Confusion, ignorance, superstition, disillusionment, a sense of displacement, longing for a past that never existed, bigotry, profound racism, some or all infect large swaths of White America. Communities in Wyoming blame “Killary” for the collapse of the coal industry. They fervently believe Trump will miraculously revive an industry replaced by other fossil fuels and with a large responsibility for global warming. The problems in their lives are real. Income and wealth inequality in the United States are growing. But the solutions that appeal to them are false and candidates they support are dangerous.
Hochschild believes Americans can eventually find common ground so the United States is able address problems like poverty, job loss, and environmental degradation. I hope she is right. I just don’t see how with politicians like Donald Trump, the conservative right, financiers like the Koch brothers, Fox News, and much of the Republican Party misdirecting and misusing their deep unhappiness for their political ends and the detriment of the country.
I support the multi-ethnic working-class alliance Hochschild envisions and hopes will challenge “unchecked corporate power and technological transformation.” But I also believe it will take time to build. Given its enemies, it will also be vulnerable.
Similar movements emerged as the Populists in the 1890s, the labor movement in the 1930s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite substantial achievements, each eventually faded.
If Donald Trump is elected President the United States the American people may not have the time we need to build a new progressive movement. That is why as a member of the Green Party I am voting for Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016.
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