It’s been a rough week in the news, headlined by the ongoing Gaza Strip protests and the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Yesterday saw the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area.  Then last night I read about the closure of another small liberal arts college, this one in Oregon.  It was therefore a relief, even a kind of solace, to have finished reading the very beautiful study about conservatives in Louisiana by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

I don’t call the book “very beautiful” lightly, having read it on and off since last summer and completed it this morning. Besides the rigor of research and the rich information and stories, the book is quite beautiful for two reasons. First, Hochschild did not let ideology keep her from pursuing intellectual curiosity. In fact, she saw the problems of her liberal bubble that blocked understanding. Second, she sought to “scale the empathy wall” that has hardened among Americans in the last decade or two. Hochschild is a uniter and not a divider, a lover of society and humanity and not a cynic. She is in some respects a model for us all: both academics and non-academics, people on the left and the right and the middle alike.


There is one other beautiful thing about this book: its analysis of loss and mourning. The subtitle of the book is “Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” and indeed there is a lot of description and analysis of these entangled and criss-crossing emotions among the Louisianans.  I found Hochschild’s analysis of “mourning” more interesting than that of “anger.” Part of it has to do with the fact that mourning shapes the originality of her argument. A related part is that mourning usually precedes but is obscured by anger. Yet another part has to do with my personal experience and intellectual sensibilities, which are oriented towards loss and mourning in regard to the Vietnam Conflict and the Fall of Saigon. It is not to say that all losses are the same in background, equal in scope, or deserving in sympathy. Not at all. But that experiences of loss and mourning are consequential in life as it is in politics.

It is very unfortunate that the Age of Social Media overwhelmingly favors anger over mourning. Twitter and Facebook and anonymous fora provide a consequential platform for angry people, giving massively disproportionate attention to anger than it does sorrow. The debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and mass shooting in the U.S., for example, are characterized by enormous anger from at least one side towards the other side – and usually by the anger from all sides. Anger might alleviate initial tension and frustration, but it hardens preconceived ideas and reinforces bubbles. It bypasses the opportunity for moral insights gained through grieving and meditating on one’s loss. Homer shows us that the anger of Achilles created the problem of Hector’s captured corpse, but it was the sorrow and mourning of Priam that led to a humane and moral resolution. Regretfully, the latter often loses out to the former, then and now. 

There are many synopses of the book and interviews of the author. Here is a succinct interview conducted by an environmental organization (audio and transcript). Here is one conducted at a radio station in Louisiana (audio).  Given so much loud noise from television, talk radio, and social media, it is refreshing to hear the soft-spoken and thoughtful Hochschild. (Transcript-only interviews include this one and this one.) 

Instead of giving a summary, I’d like to highlight a few things from the book. First is the “Great Paradox” that led Hochschild from her self-described “bubble” of liberal Berkeley to decidedly conservative Lake Charles. 

Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states. Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua.  Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution. 

Louisiana is an extreme example of this paradox… Out of the 50 states, Louisiana ranked 49th [in categories of “human development” such as life expectancy and median personal earning] and in overall health ranked last… Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states – in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent – do come from federal funds; $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year (pp. 8-9).

Social realities, however, are different from such assumptions. Hochschild writes about one of the natives that she befriended and interviewed at length. 

But Mike Schaff doesn’t welcome that federal money and doubts the science of climate change… Mike loves his state, and he loves the outdoor life. But instead of looking to government, like others in the Tea Party he turns to the free market. Mike’s mother had voted for the Louisianan Democrat Ed Edwards because he was Cajun and for Jack Kennedy because he was Catholic; “Democrat” wasn’t a bad word when he was growing up. But it is now. Mike worked for small business and advocates a free market for businesses of all sizes, and from this yet another paradox seemed to unfold. Many Tea Party advocates work in or run small businesses. Yet the politicians they support back laws that consolidate the monopoly power of the very largest companies that are poised to swallow up smaller ones. Small farmers voting with Monsanto? Corner drugstore owners voting with Walmart? The local bookstore owner voting with Amazon? If I were a small business owner, I would welcome lower company taxes, sure, but strengthening the monopolies that could force me out of business? I didn’t get it (9-10).

These paradoxes led Hochschild to Lake Charles, which, during her time of research, happened to be “ground zero for production of American petrochemicals.” She found the people kind and friendly. But she also found more paradoxes such as the fact that the Louisiana has the “highest rate of death by gunfire in the country, nearly double the national average” yet its regulations regarding guns are among the loosest in America. Or that they were “sad” upon the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in 2010 but “mad” at the federal government for placing a moratorium on offshore drilling.

Through encounters, conversations, new friendships, and research, however, Hochschild began to understand the reasons for the paradoxes between environment and economy on the one hand and belief and behavior on the other hand.  The different reactions to the oil spill and moratorium, for example, reflect what they saw as governmental over-regulation. It also reveals a particular meaning to “freedom.”

In all the talk at the gatherings for Congressmen Boustany and Landry and around the table at the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, I heard a great deal about freedom in the sense of freedom to–to talk on our cellphone as you drove a car, to pick up a drive-in daiquiri with a straw on the side, to walk about with a loaded gun. But there was almost no talk about freedom from such things as gun violence, car accidents, or toxic pollution. General Honoré was no nervous nelly, but he was mindful of the vulnerable communities around the “self-regulated” plants. “Part of the psychological program is that people think they’re free when they’re not,” he said. “A company may be free to pollute, but that means the people aren’t free to swim.”  

How did the psychological program work? Maybe I was missing the most obvious answer: jobs. Oil brought jobs. Jobs brought money. Money brought a better life–school, home, health, a piece of the American Dream… (71-72). 

It led to a lengthy portion in the book focusing on Hochschild’s visits, interviews, and research on the state’s “social terrain”: industry, government, the church, and the press. Her immersion gradually revealed, among other things, mourning among white working- and middle-class Louisianans for the loss of economic status; resentment at the people that they considered to be “line cutters” while they themselves had to “wait in line”; anger at government employees for doing little while earning good salaries; belief that they were “betrayed” by the distant federal government; and the effects of cultural disparagement from Hollywood, the media, and other liberal outlets.  

The third of four main sections of the book discusses what Hochschild calls “the deep story” that encompasses the multi-folded experience. 

A deep story is a feels-as-if story–it’s the story feeling tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.

There are many kinds of deep story, of course. Lovers come to know each other’s childhood in order to understand how it feels to be the other person; they learn a personal deep story. Foreign leaders and diplomats try to understand national deep stories in order to relate more effectively to world leaders. They gather international deep stories. The deep story here, that of the Tea Party, focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders. I constructed this deep story to represent–in metaphorical form–the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with. Then I tried it out on my Tea Party friends to see if they thought it fit their experience. They did. 

Like a play, it unfolds in scenes (135).

Hochschild then looks into four categories of people in this story that make up the American Right in Louisiana: the team player, the worshipper, the cowboy, and the rebel. She devotes one chapter to each type, and describes at length four Louisianan as representatives of these types. The third section makes for some fascinating reading. The chapter on the cowboy, for example, reveals that workers whose health were more negatively affected by pollution actually cared less about pollution than did managers who were not affected as much. If puzzled, you’ll have to read the whole chapter to understand why.

In the last section, Hochschild offers a meditation from history and ends with a chapter describing a Trump rally the day before the presidential candidate won the state’s Republican primary.  Even though Trump rallies were well covered in the news, this chapter, too, is riveting to read because it is a climax of the deep story described and analyzed in the third section.  Warranted or not, Hochschild ends the book on a hopeful note. 

In my travels, I was humbled by the complexity and height of the empathy wall. But with their teasing, good-natured acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley, the people I met in Louisiana showed me that, in human terms, the wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation. Left and right in Congress now agree on the goal of reducing the prison population. Young conservatives are far more likely than their elders to care about the environment. The last time I saw Mike Schaff, he surprised me with another crossover issue. “Big money escalates our differences. Let’s get it out of politics–both sides!” (233).

One of my favorite parts of the book shows Hochschild writing imaginary letters to her liberal and conservative friends. Having re-read Atlas Shrugged prior to her research in Louisiana, Hochschild begins the letter to liberals with a reference to its author.

Why not get to know some people outside your political bubble? Set aside Ayn Rand; she’s their guru, but you won’t find people personally as selfish as her words would leave you to expect. You’ll probably meet some very fine people who will teach you volumes about strong community, grit, and resilience (233-234).

The letter to conservatives begins on a similarly bridging tone.

Many progressive liberals aren’t satisfied with the nation’s political choices any more than you are.  And many see themselves in some parts of your deep story. As one sixty-year-old white, female, San Francisco elementary teacher put it, “I’m a liberal, but, hey, I can sympathize with that part about waiting in line” (234).

Having compared Louisiana to Nicaragua earlier, Hochschild offers a different comparison to a different country.

And Louisianans, take a look at Norway. It’s a small, capitalist democracy with about the same population as Louisiana, five million people. It has a long coast and  people, like you, look to the water, boats, and fishing. Like you, Norway has oil.  One difference between Louisiana and Norway, however, is their philosophy of governance and concept of freedom. Norwegians expect–and get–a great amount from their elected officials. Norway has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund–$800 billion–and the vast majority of Norwegians live upper-middle-class lives. They enjoy the very high scores in health, education, and overall well-being that come with such affluence–they enjoy freedom from need (235). 

Louisiana is like Norway: who’d have thunk, eh? I’ve often found it risible whenever liberals on social media uphold Sweden as an educational model for the U.S., or when conservatives elevate Switzerland’s gun ownership as a reason against gun control in America. The U.S. is massive in comparison to those countries in population, economy, geography, racial diversity, social dynamics, etc. While comparisons are imperfect, it is more sensible to draw parallels between a state and a country of similar size, as Hochschild does here. (The population of Nicaragua, incidentally, is about six million.)

In the end, the book is beautiful because it offers one small but beautiful example of immersion, engagement, understanding, and, ultimately, depth. I have absolutely no idea if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will ever end in peace, or if the political and cultural gridlock on guns will come to a solution satisfactory to most Americans.  But I think that neither will be possible without the participation of a lot of people similar to Prof. Hochschild. 

Mike Schaff and Arlie Russell Hochschild taking a boat ride in Louisiana – pc