Book of the week
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
(New Press, $28)
If you didn’t vote for Donald Trump and wonder who the voters are who did, this book is “the perfect place to start,” said Gabriel Thompson in Newsday. Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley, Calif., native and a staunch liberal. But several years ago, the esteemed sociologist began hanging out in southwestern Louisiana to get to know local conservative activists and to examine what she calls the Great Paradox: that resentment of a proactive government runs deepest in regions where government help is most needed. The book she’s written after her five-year immersion is “extraordinary for its consistent empathy”: Even when she struggles to recognize logic in the political views of her subjects, she sees most of them as smart, compassionate people. More usefully, she discerns the emotional framework through which they view the world.
What matters most to the people she gets to know is that no one counts them among the weak or needy, said Sean McCann in the Los Angeles Review of Books. These “astonishingly resilient” folks live in a region that’s known as Cancer Alley because of illnesses linked to abuses by the local petrochemical industry. Her subjects have had homes erased by hurricanes and sinkholes but still resent federal intervention. Hochschild wins nearly unanimous agreement when she proposes to them that they see themselves as stoics who’ve kept their heads down, worked diligently to attain economic security in an atavistic world, and therefore bristle at changes in the rules and at the groups—including African-Americans and immigrants—who appear empowered to cut ahead in line. Hochschild maintains, even while attending a raucous Trump primaryseason rally, that this “politics of honor” needn’t be divisive. But “the very force of her argument cuts against the optimism she tries hard to maintain.”
It’s “hard to entirely trust” Hochschild’s central insights, said Carlos Lozada in The Washington Post. She arrives in Louisiana with too many preconceived ideas, including that conservatives are obstacles to the environmental policies she favors. She then assigns her “Tea Party friends” to reductionist categories “that sound like they were dreamed up in the faculty lounge.” But her efforts do offer a useful road map toward empathy, said The Economist. In Strangers in Their Own Land, “people like Janice Areno, a Bible-[thumping] Pentecostalist who says the poor should work or starve, become human,” their anger and hurt “intelligible to all.” In today’s political climate, “this may be invaluable.”