Can a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground? That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.
When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans. It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them. The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.
In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.
What made you undertake this experiment?
I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government. That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.
I decided, “I’m in a bubble.” In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble. If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.
So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with. I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.” It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Really? How so?
I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.
You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there. How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story?
I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted. [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide. Well, we’re worried about the divide, too. So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.” That happened to me a great number of times. It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.
I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing. I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images. How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation? That’s how the deep story was born. It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.
That was an act of my mental process. Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real? Let me try this out on you. Does this work? Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?” Some people [agreed], just as is. “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman. Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff. Others would say, “Well, wait a minute. You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”
So, they would change it. Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute. We got a line. We move to a different line.” They would modify the ending, the middle. So, I put that in, too. Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this. Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?” Or does this same story have a different endings?
That’s where my mind is now. I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them. Then, of course, how do we undo them?
I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”
Right. I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees. It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider. I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders. So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.
I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative. That really feels recent.
And Muslims. There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana. There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.
Right. You mentioned an allegory. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?
It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story. But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.
Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom.” And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.
Yes. Thank you for flagging that for me. I’m going to read that.