Tag: Arlie Hochschild

How it Started/How It’s Going: Real America Edition

There’s been a cute trend on social media recently. One shares a picture from some earlier time and one that’s more current. I’ve seen these contrasting young children with their adult selves, with couples at first meeting and now years into marriage, or pre-pandemic (remember then?) and today. The little game communicates both stability and change over time.

As the Trump campaign and their allies have attempted to litigate and re-litigate and re-re-litigate the 2020 election results, I kept hearing echoes of familiar themes. When the Texas lawsuit (outrageously endorsed by most of the Republican establishment and thankfully — but expectedly — stopped at the Supreme Court) complained of the votes in their four target swing states, it spoke of alleged problems in their large cities. Giuliani said, without evidence beyond questionable affidavits, that these cities had long been sources of fraud. In other words, these Democrat[ic] cities cannot be trusted with fair elections and that those who voted for Trump had been disenfranchised somehow.

How does such an argument make any sense? Because Real America is only those parts of the country that voted for Trump.

In October of 2008, VP candidate Sarah Palin spoke to supporters at a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her remarks, which were striking at the time but soon became part of her stump speech, suggested a narrow view of who Real Americans were.

“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe” — here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom (emphasis mine).”

I could point out that there are lots of factories in urban areas (or their suburbs), that there are teachers working hard and loving their students, and that military service is a common path for social mobility for urban minority populations. But that’s not the heart of her statement. Her claim was that rural America is where you find Real Americans and we can’t be sure about people who live in the urban areas, particularly those on the coasts.

I’m sure that Palin wasn’t the first to express such sentiments. They likely are echoes from early century populism. But I remember when I heard these comments and the resulting sense that I was being discounted from who counts as American.

I was reminded this week (thanks to a post from Rob Schenck) of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land –my 2016 review is here. She tells the story of residents of rural Louisiana who have come to feel that they have been left behind and that our political institutions don’t care about them. They don’t like being told how they’re supposed to feel about guns or religion or gays.

It is true that Democratic candidates haven’t helped those fears. Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comments fed into the perceived disrespect of the Real Americans (resulting in great sales of Deplorables t-shirts). Romney’s unfortunate comments about “47% of the electorates were takers” who wanted free stuff also fit their theory.

But the media has fallen over themselves trying to understand these rural and small town Republicans who were so central to Trump’s election races. There have been far too many “man in diner” stories where the interviewee repeats Fox News talking points and the journalist takes them at face value. Yet, the distrust of the media has only increased, part of the great conspiracy to deprive Real Americans from their due.

Trump distinguished himself among presidents in only caring about his base. He elevated these Real Americans to a position of prominence they believed they hadn’t gotten before and they loved it. It is no surprise that the geography of Trump Rallies are what they are. Even last week he didn’t go to the Atlanta area (where Republicans need to staunch the bleeding in their suburban support) but to Valdosta. Because Real Americans live in Valdosta and not in Atlanta.

He has centered urban areas like Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit in his speeches and tweets and suggests that they are broken hell-holes, good only for rats and crime. His administration has made no effort to address challenges in those urban areas, opting for photo ops and vague claims (enterprise zones!).

It is no surprise, then, that Trump caravans were popular in blue state areas. It doesn’t take a huge showing to make a video splash and disrupt traffic, giving a middle-finger to the blue-leaning cities in the process. It is no surprise that a teenager would travel from his small town in Illinois and drive to Kenosha to protect businesses from Antifa, murdering two people in the process.

Which brings us to Rudy and friends making accusations about fraud. Because they begin with a generalized distrust of a place like Detroit, it’s easy to suggest that ballots were discovered and dead people voted and ballots were backdated. [By the way, when I lived in Illinois 40 years ago, a Tribune opinion writer said “dead people vote in Chicago and cows vote downstate.”) For so many votes to have been cast for Biden in Wayne County something had to be fishy (it couldn’t be that the city has a large minority presence and Biden won those populations by over 80%). There must have been fraud.

This winds up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only Real American votes count and everybody else cannot be trusted, as The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer wrote a couple of days ago. As I write this, a “stop the steal” rally is underway in Washington. Because Real Americans voted for Trump and states certified Biden as the winner, obviously the election was stolen.

Palin’s comments, surprising in 2008 to the point that the campaign walked them back, has become the default position of the Republican Party. Texas GOP chair Allen West (who was outrageous as a Florida congressman) suggests secession is in order. People like Michael Flynn suggest we need to overturn the election to protect “the soul of America”.

This puts remarkable pressure on President-Elect Biden. He has made it clear through the campaign that he, too, wants to heal the soul of America. But he means ALL of America, not just a part.

Moving forward from where we are now will require a very different approach to our politics, our reporting, and our sociological analysis. If we are to bridge these divides, and that’s a big if, we will need to find common stories regardless of geography. We will need concrete solutions at local, state, and national levels to the issues that the Pandemic has made visible that we would prefer to ignore. And somehow, we will need to learn to trust our neighbors — rural and urban — again.

I’ve started reading The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. It traces the ways in which America was characterized by individualism and inequality in the first part of the 20th century, saw that shift to better social cohesion post WWII, and then return to its earlier character over the last 50 years. Their point is that we can change if we choose to. It will be a hard road, but the optimist in me says that there is still hope.

Emotions and Elections: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Last week, I wrote on two books that helped me reflect on our current political moment. One, Hillbilly Elegy, told the story of how limited opportunity connects to family dysfunction (a story told more sociologically in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids). The other, Evicted, detailed the complex interplay between poverty, tenant law, and the institutional forces that trap some populations in inner-city substandard housing. (The author, Matthew Desmond, will be speaking at Calvin College on January 5th.)

Both of these books address issues we never heard about during the presidential campaign. If we are to repair our political discourse in the face of segmented news sources and fake news conspiracies, we need to be more attentive to these institutional forces. If we want our candidates to speak to the real issues that would make government work for people (and thereby refute the claim that “government can’t do anything”), we need to listen more.

So I was pleased to be able to dive into Arlie Hochschild’s excellent book on Tea Party folks in Louisiana. A Berkeley sociologist, Hochschild took her qualitative lenses to the part of the country that confronts remarkable paradoxes. Inequality has grown substantially in spite of the new job economy that has gone along with expansion in the oil industry and fracking startups. Government oversight of those industries is usually seen as unwanted intrusion at best and harm causing at worst (the Obama administration’s moratorium on oil exploration after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon is an example of the latter.) But there is an awareness that the rules are written in favor of those oil concerns so government wasn’t going to do anything anyway (but somehow regulations could still apply to individual citizens who violated environmental guidelines).

Hochschild rejects the simplistic approach that asks why these Louisiana voters were acting against their economic self-interest. She begins her book refuting the argument made 12 years ago by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas. Frank had argued that Republicans offered social issues (Roe v. Wade, prayer in schools) to voters that they never moved on while supporting economic policies that worked for big business. Rather than beginning with her thesis and then finding supportive anecdotes, Hochschild is committed to finding the Deep Story that is motivating decision making (including voting).

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that Arlie tells her story of discovery along the way. The reader gets to follow along as she makes discoveries and starts connecting dots. When she arrives at a tentative Deep Story, she then tries it out on the people she has gotten to know during her visits. She shares her own struggles in trying to reconcile life in former plantation Louisiana with her life back in Berkeley.

The Deep Story she arrives at has an image of people standing in line for the American Dream. They have been standing for a long time, waiting to get their shot (Hamilton reference!). But society has been shifting demographically and attitudinally. People keep being invited into line in front of them and their promise of a good life is continually deferred. Moreover, the people put in line in front of them (immigrants, refugees, independent women, blacks, gays) are being helped by the social forces controlled by government. Nobody is looking out for their interests at all and the powers that be seem to be working directly counter to those interests.

This image of line cutting is quire consistent with the argument Robert Jones made in The End of White Christian America. Not only is it true that American society is changing with regard to religion and demography (albeit slower in Louisiana than in the country as a whole), it also aligns with Jones’ argument that 2016 saw a rise in “nostalgia voters”: people who longed for an earlier time when the Big Story worked (simply calling them racists and homophobes is as limiting as Frank focusing on economic issues).

The paradox is that this story fails to deal with the significant issues at their front door. Arlie uses environmental concerns as the keyhole issue through which one can read the relationship between the people, the free market, and the government. There is the story of Bayou d’Indie and how illegal dumping by the major employer destroyed the entire ecosystem making land unproductive and fishing absolutely hazardous. In 2012, careless drilling by Texas Brine punctured the Napoleonvillle Dome, a salt dome nearly 4000 feet below Bayou Corne. (Apparently, storing various materials in underwater salt domes is a common practice.) The result was a sinkhole that eventually subsumed 37 acres and inundated the water supply with flammable gas. The I-10 freeway bridge running across Lake Charles needs to be replaced because the clay on which the supports rest is contaminated with EDC (ethylene dichloride) which renders the supports unstable.

But media sources don’t cover these stories (how did we miss news of a 37 acre sinkhole?). And the people tend to think that interfering with the free market would be ineffective. The companies have too many lawyers, give too many campaign contributions, and infiltrate the oversight bodies. It wouldn’t do any good and the jobs on which the people are dependent might simply go away. There is little tie between corporate culture and community culture (perhaps due to tax abatements offered to get the plants to explore the oil and gas deposits that go with the terrain).

There is an added layer to her argument that I found fascinating. Early in the book, she writes this:

At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right wing belief. And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president in 2016, can appeal, saying, as he gazes upon throngs of supporters, “See all the passion.” (15-16, emphasis hers)

This passage helped me understand the concern about “political correctness” for the first time. The issue isn’t that they want to be free to use racial epithets or  homophobic slurs or echoing Rush Limbaugh’s concerns about “femi-nazis”. It’s that they don’t want people to tell them how they are suppposed to feel.

A commitment to being free to feel as you want rings true to me. I see it in the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump. I see it in Michael Wear’s conversation with Emma Green today on how democrats lost evangelicals.

Curiously, I also see it in millennials and others who are abandoning evangelicalism. The seem to be resenting the way that evangelical gatekeepers say “these are the issues you should be concerned about (see anything on Franklin Graham’s Facebook feed)” or “these are issues you can’t discuss (see Pete Enns’ response to the Tim Keller/Nicholas Kristoff interview).”

The challenge for us going forward is that there is a huge disconnect between the feeling concerns and the institutional forces that are really impinging on those feelings. If we stay at the emotional level, we feed a rugged individualism that insists on protecting one’s one interests. There is little there to build an understanding of the common good much less to build good policy.

But a necessary first step is to actually linked to hearing the experience of others. That’s something that policy makers of both parties need to work on.