Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, New York, 2016)

Highly regarded Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s new book, “Strangers in Their Own Land” is an effort to “get inside” the emotional world of today’s angry Trump supporters, Tea Partiers, anti-government crusaders and gun advocates. Most of them are white, older, lower middle and working class, religious, family-oriented and straight. They get news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh. They live by metaphors like “standing in line while others cut-in” and buy into a number of false ideas about welfare, capitalism, politics, race and class. The men—and they are largely men, but not all men, “remember” better times and feel cheated of their manhood. The women try to be strong inside a faith ethic and feel for their men’s loss. Hochschild hopes to find an “empathy” that might help her understand how most of these Red State folks consistently vote against their own interests, or ignore realities (pollution, global warming, economic inequality, racism and poor health) that most of us take for granted. Given the fundamental contradictions involved, it is a huge task.

Hochschild headed to southwest Louisiana to undertake her investigation. For one thing, Louisiana is an “extreme example” of what she calls the Great Paradox. The great paradox is simple: Most hard right-wingers (of many stripes) vote for politicians who make their lives worse. And they already live in backward areas where the deck is stacked in favor of big, polluting businesses while they themselves often extoll the virtues of Big Oil, Big Pharma or Big Retail that suck the life out of their communities. As for Louisiana, out of 50 states, it ranks 49th in overall health; it nest to last in reading and math scores, while only 7 percent of residents have graduate or professional degrees. It ranks 49th out of 50 states in child welfare. Louisiana is nearly last in every area of “human development”—obesity statistics, life expectancy, diabetes, heart-disease and, importantly, industrial pollution. In fact, Louisiana, along with Iowa, is the most polluted place in the United States, and one of the most polluted places on the planet. Its land is sinking, its marshes disappearing, and its coastlines submerging as ocean levels rise. Yet, Louisianans regularly vote for politicians who make things much worse.  For example, during his eight years in office, governor Bobby Jindal fired 30,000 state employees and furloughed many others. In the nation’s second poorest state, he cut finding for higher education 44 percent, cut funds to the judicial branch drastically and sold off state land to raise money as taxes were cut, all while he was granted nearly $1.6 billion in “incentives” to lure oil and chemical companies to the state. He handed over hospitals to profit making businesses and costs for health care rose drastically. The people of Louisiana, already unhealthy, lost what health care they had.  A lot of right-wingers will tell you they want the “government” out of their lives. With regard to alcohol use, Louisiana is one of the most permissive states in the Union. You can buy a “to go” cup at a liquor store drive up window and drive away sipping a daiquiri. Unlicensed vendors can sell guns without registration or background checks. On the other hand, if you are wearing your pants “low” (as many blacks do), you can be arrested. Jindal lowered corporate income taxes so that state revenue fell drastically. Parks, libraries and some school programs shut down entirely. Some big oil companies avoided the severance taxes in their entirety. The promise of lower taxes made Louisiana progressively poorer, less educated, and less healthy.  Low taxes and a permissive attitude towards the oil and chemical businesses hadn’t made these angry Whites better off. In fact, it punished them. Individuals in red states live in more polluted environments, sometimes much more polluted. They have worse schools, fewer state services, and higher death rates. Yet, these right-wingers think Americans “worry too much about the environment” and that the country is “doing more than enough” about it.

Here it is in a nutshell: “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.

 Yet, here we have Right-Wingers—poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and largely involved in evangelical religion (Pentecostal, “rapture glory”, Catholic or Baptist), believing in a totally fantastical myth system:

“The government spends a lot of welfare and foreign aid.” False.

“Welfare rolls are up and people on welfare don’t work.” False.

“People on welfare depend entirely on money from us taxpayers to live.” Totally false.

“Black women have a lot more children than white women.” False. (The fertility rate for black and white women is nearly the same.)

“A lot of people work for the federal and state government.” False. Excluding the military, the number is about 5%–and that includes school teachers and administrators!

“Government workers are lazy and overpaid.” Clearly false.

“The more environmental regulations you have, the fewer jobs.” Totally false. A comparison of health, wealth and well being between California and Louisiana tells the story.

 “Economic incentives and low regulation attract business to a state.” False. What attracts business is excellent infrastructure, excellent educational facilities and a trained workforce.”

“State subsidies increase jobs.” Totally false.

“Oil stimulates the rest of the economy.” Demonstrably false. Most oil revenue leaks out of the home state.”

“The economy always does better under a Republic president.” Historically false.

Here’s something amazing in Hochschild’s book: She discovered a “secret” report paid for by the California Waste Management Board defining communities that might be willing to “host” an “undesirable” industry. Here’s the list of characteristic the consultants found—people who’d be OK with a polluter next door. These people the report called “The Least Resistant Personality Profile.”

Longtime resident of small towns in the South or Midwest—

High school educated only—


Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism—

Involved in mining, farming, ranching (“nature exploitative activities”)—



Advocates of the “free market”—

There you have it in a nutshell. Everything a big business oligarch could want in a voter. After reading Hochschild’s book it is doubly hard to have empathy for these folks. The thing is to keep them from dragging the rest of us down with them. The thing is to resist their religious fervor, their gun culture, their fat fried foods and refusal to think critically or even evaluate their own lives. I’ve known them, one or two intimately, and nothing seems to shatter their values, not even cancer caused by chemicals leaking into their drinking water supplies.

“What’s the matter with Kansas (and Louisiana)?” Your guess is as good as mine.