'Strangers in Their Own Land': Anger and Loss Among Tea Partiers and Trump Supporters

The following is an excerpt from the new book Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild (The New Press, 2016).

Along the clay road, Mike’s red truck cuts slowly between tall rows of sugarcane, sassy, silvery tassels waving in the October sun, extending across an alluvial plain as far as the eye can see. We are on the grounds of the Armelise Plantation, as it was once called. A few miles west lies the mighty Mississippi River, pressing the soils and waste of the Midwest southward, past New Orleans, into the Gulf of Mexico. “We used to walk barefoot between the rows,” Mike says. A tall, kindly white man of sixty-four, Mike removes his sunglasses to study an area of the sugarcane, and comes to a near stop. He points his arm out the truck window to the far left, “My grandma would have lived over . . . there.” Moving his arm rightward, he adds, “My great uncle Tain’s carpentry shop was about . . . there.” Nearby was the home of another great uncle Henry, a mechanic nicknamed “Pook.” A man called “Pirogue” ran the blacksmith shop where Mike and a friend hunted scraps of metal that shone, through his boyhood eyes, “like gold.” His grandfather Bill oversaw the cane fields. Miss Ernestine’s, Mike continued, was to the side of . . . that. A slim black woman, hair in a white bandana, Mike recalls, “She loved to cook raccoon and opossum for her gumbo, and we brought her what we had from a day’s hunt, and Choupique fish too. I can hear her calling out the window when her husband couldn’t start their car, ‘Something’s ailing that car.’ ” Then Mike points to what he remembers of a dirt driveway to his own childhood home. “It was a shotgun house,” he muses. “You could aim right through it. But it held the nine of us okay.” The house had been renovated slave quarters on the Armelise Plantation and Mike’s father had been a plumber who serviced homes on and off it. Looking out the window of the truck, it’s clear that Mike and I see different things. Mike sees a busy, beloved, bygone world. I see a field of green.

We pull over, climb down, and walk into the nearest row. Mike cuts us a stalk, head and tails it, and whittles two sticks of the fibrous sugarcane. We chew it and suck the sweetness from it. Back in the truck, Mike continues his reverie about the tiny bygone settlement of Banderville, finally dismantled only in the 1970s. About three quarters had been black and a quarter white, and they had lived, as he recalls it, in close, unequal, harmony. Mike had passed his boyhood in an era of sugar, cotton, and mule-drawn plows and his adulthood in the era of oil. As a teenager earning money over the summer for college, he had laid wooden boards through mosquito-infested bayous to set up oil-drill platforms. As a grown, college-educated man, he had trained himself as an “estimator”—calculating the size, strength, and cost of materials needed to construct large platforms that held oil-drilling rigs in the Gulf, and to create the giant white spherical tanks that stored vast quantities of chemicals and oil. “When I was a kid, you stuck a thumb out by the side of the road, you got a ride. Or if you had a car, you gave a ride. If someone was hungry, you fed him. You had community. You know what’s undercut all that?” He pauses. “Big government.”

We climb back in his red truck, take a swig of water (he has brought plastic bottles for us both), and continue edging forward through the cane as our conversation shifts to politics. “Most folks around here are Cajun, Catholic, conservative,” he explains, adding with gusto, “I’m for the Tea Party!”

I’d first seen Mike Schaff months earlier standing at the microphone at an environmental rally on the steps of the Louisiana state capital in Baton Rouge, his voice cracking with emotion. He had been a victim of one of the strangest, literally earth-shaking environmental disasters in the nation, one that robbed him of his home and community—a sinkhole that devoured hundred-foot-tall trees and turned forty acres of swamp upside down, as I shall describe. That raised a big question in my mind. The disaster had been caused by a lightly regulated drilling company. But as a Tea Party advocate, Mike had hailed government deregulation of all sorts, as well as drastic cuts in government spending—including that for environmental protection. How could he be both near tears to recall his lost home and also call for a world stripped of most government beyond the military and hurricane relief? I was puzzled. I sensed a wall between us.

Empathy Walls

You might say I’d come to Louisiana with an interest in walls. Not visible, physical walls such as those separating Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Americans from Mexicans on the Texas border, or, once, residents of East and West Berlin. It was empathy walls that interested me. An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances. In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think. We settle for knowing our opposite numbers from the outside. But is it possible, without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics; that is, to cross the empathy wall? I thought it was.

I’d asked Mike Schaff to show me where he’d grown up because I wanted to understand, if I could, how he saw the world. By way of introduction, I’d told him, “I’m from Berkeley, California, a sociologist, and I am trying to understand the deepening divide in our country. So I’m trying to get out of my political bubble and get to know people in yours.” Mike nodded at the word “divide,” then quipped, “Berkeley? So y’all must be communist!” He grinned as if to say, “We Cajuns can laugh, hope you can.”

He wasn’t making it hard. A tall, strongly built man in tan-rimmed glasses, he spoke succinctly, in a low near mumble, and was given both to soulful, sometimes self-deprecating, reflection and stalwart Facebook proclamations. Explaining his background, he said, “My mom was Cajun and my dad was German. We Cajuns call ourselves coon asses. So since I was half Cajun, and half German, my mom called me half-ass.” We laughed. Mike was one of seven children his dad had raised on a plumber’s wage. “We didn’t know we were poor,” he said, a refrain I would hear often among those I came to know on the far right, speaking of their own or their parents’ childhoods. Mike had an engineer’s eye, a sportsman’s love of fish and game, and a naturalist’s ear for the call of a tree frog. I didn’t know any members of the Tea Party, not to really talk to, and he didn’t know many people like me. “I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-freedom to live our own lives as we see fit so long as we don’t hurt others. And I’m anti–big government,” Mike said. “Our government is way too big, too greedy, too incompetent, too bought, and it’s not ours anymore. We need to get back to our local communities, like we had at Armelise. Honestly, we’d be better off.”

Not only have the country’s two main political parties split further apart on such issues, but political feeling also runs deeper than it did in the past. In 1960, when a survey asked American adults whether it would “disturb” them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered “yes.” But in 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered “yes.” In fact, partyism, as some call it, now beats race as the source of divisive prejudice.

When Americans moved in the past, they left in search of better jobs, cheaper housing, or milder weather. But according to The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, when people move today, it is more often to live near others who share their views. People are segregating themselves into different emotionally toned enclaves—anger here, hopefulness and trust there. A group of libertarian Texans have bought land in the salt flats east of El Paso, named it Paulville, and reserved it for enthusiastic “freedom-loving” followers of Ron Paul. And the more that people confine themselves to like-minded company, the more extreme their views become. According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Compared to the past, each side also increasingly gets its news from its own television channel— the right from Fox News, the left from MSNBC. And so the divide widens. We live in what the New Yorker has called the “Tea Party era.” Some 350,000 people are active members, but, according to another Pew poll, some 20 percent of Americans—45 million people—support it. And the divide cuts through a striking variety of issues. Ninety percent of Democrats believe in the human role in climate change, surveys find, compared with 59 percent of moderate Republicans, 38 percent of conservative Republicans, and only 29 percent of Tea Party advocates. In fact, politics is the single biggest factor determining views on climate change.

This split has widened because the right has moved right, not because the left has moved left. Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford all supported the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1960, the GOP platform embraced “free collective bargaining” between management and labor. Republicans boasted of “extending the minimum wage to several million more workers” and “strengthening the unemployment insurance system and extension of its benefits.” Under Dwight Eisenhower, top earners were taxed at 91 percent; in 2015, it was 40 percent. Planned Parenthood has come under serious attack from nearly all Republican presidential candidates running in 2016. Yet a founder of the organization was Peggy Goldwater, wife of the 1964 conservative Republican candidate for president Barry Goldwater. General Eisenhower called for massive investment in infrastructure, and now nearly all congressional Republicans see such a thing as frightening government overreach. Ronald Reagan raised the national debt and favored gun control, and now the Republican state legislature of Texas authorizes citizens to “open carry” loaded guns into churches and banks. Conservatives of yesterday seem moderate or liberal today.

The far right now calls for cuts in entire segments of the federal government—the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Interior, for example. In January 2015, fifty-eight House Republicans voted to abolish the Internal Revenue Service. Some Republican congressional candidates call for abolishing all public schools. In March 2015, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate voted 51 to 49 in support of an amendment to a budget resolution to sell or give away all non-military federal lands other than national monuments and national parks. This would include forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. In 1970, not a single U.S. senator opposed the Clean Air Act. Joined by ninety-five Republican congressmen, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the most polluted states in the union, has called for the end of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And the Tea Party’s turn away from government may signal a broader trend. During the depression of the 1930s, Americans turned to the federal government for aid in their economic recovery. But in response to the Great Recession of 2008, a majority of Americans turned away from it. As the political divide widens and opinions harden, the stakes have grown vastly higher. Neither ordinary citizens nor leaders are talking much “across the aisle,” damaging the surprisingly delicate process of governance itself. The United States has been divided before, of course. During the Civil War, a difference in belief led to some 750,000 deaths. During the stormy 1960s, too, clashes arose over the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s rights. But in the end, a healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out. And to get there, we need to figure out what’s going on—especially on the more rapidly shifting and ever stronger right.

Copyright © 2016 by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This excerpt originally appeared in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.


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