It’s not often that I find an epiphany in a book. Sure, books deepen my understanding and broaden my perspective, but an out-and-out epiphany? A miraculous moment in which the fog clears and my vision focuses on something new? That’s a rare thing. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land delivered such a new insight to me, and it’s on a topic I’ve been batting around in my head for months — maybe years.
The question has always been of motivation. I’ve always wondered why Republicans vote so clearly against their own interests — why people from poor states vote to diminish the safety net until it’s barely a cobweb, why cities that desperately need infrastructure and education reform vote to slash taxes on the wealthy. I could never figure out their motivation, and that always bothered me.
Seattle liberals sometimes seem too eager to cast off Republican voters as stupid or evil, but I refuse to believe that to be true. If I were to ascribe half the country to cartoon villainy, I might as well never get out of bed again. No, there had to be a reason. But what could it be? I could never understand the thinking behind diehard Republicans who live in near-poverty conditions.
So imagine my surprise when Hochschild explained the motivation and made it look easy, in just a few paragraphs. Her book — subtitled Anger and Mourning on the American Right: A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide — is packed with anecdotes and data about conservative voters from Louisiana. In the middle of the book, in a passage explaining the “deep story” of conservative voters, she lays out a thought experiment explaining exactly how conservative voters see the world — how they justify voting the way they do. Here’s an excerpt:
Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You're following the rules. They aren't. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, and they hold a certain secret place in people's minds, as we see below. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers – where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don't control or agree with. These are opportunities you'd have loved to have had in your day ‑ and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn't be getting them now. It's not fair.
Blacks, women, immigrants, refugees, brown pelicans — all have cut ahead of you in line. But it's people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you. They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them and you feel it's right that you do. So do your friends. Fox commentators reflect your feelings, for your deep story is also the Fox News deep story.
You're a compassionate person. But now you've been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You've heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy — especially if there are some among them who might bring you harm. You've suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren't complaining about it.
There it is: the motivation, clear and bright as the noonday sun. It’s a simple enough image to understand, but it incorporates all the disparate Trump-voter hot takes I’ve read since the 2016 election. You know the ones: Trump voters, they warn, are suffering economic anxiety; Trump voters, actually, are just howling racists; Trump voters, maybe, are just sick of identity politics. Yes, racism is at play, and economic anxiety, and the angst of a shrinking demographic. Hochschild’s answer incorporates all those ideas and flips the POV to an aggrieved white voter. They’re all kind of true, but none of them separately take the whole picture into mind. To these voters, it’s about fairness. Ask anyone who’s had to supervise a toddler’s birthday party: fairness is a very difficult value to argue.
Last night, the Reading Through It Book Club met at Third Place Books Seward Park to discuss Strangers. Most of the attendees seemed to enjoy the book, or at least they seem to have gotten something out of it. (One of the first speakers said that she thought the book was a good version of J.D. Vance’s dunderheaded memoir on the same topic, Hillbilly Elegy.)
Hochschild’s journeys into rural Louisiana appealed to many in the book club. One speaker with family in Louisiana said it brought back memories of her most recent visit. Another felt that Hochschild perfectly captured the hospitality of southern conservatives — that many southern Republicans would do anything to help a person in front of them, but that the sympathy and generosity only went as far as their line of sight: southern hospitality encompassed neighbors and townspeople, but not strangers two towns over, or in another city or country. (Someone else rebutted that Seattle liberals had the exact opposite problem: we love to express empathy over Facebook, but we will desperately avoid eye contact with someone seeking our help on the street. A fair point.)
But we found that Strangers fell short when it came time to provide solutions. How do liberals convince conservatives that they’re not waiting in line — that, in fact, as someone else said, “we’re all in the same boat?” The line analogy is a useful metaphor for understanding the way conservatives picture the liberal mindset, but it isn’t easy to dissemble.
Probably the sharpest political observation came from the speaker who suggested that what mattered most was convincing conservatives that it isn’t minorities and women and endangered species who are cutting in line — it’s corporations and the wealthiest one percent who are trampling their rules of fairness.
But the economic debate has its own problems. Both sides of the political dynamic love to refer back to the fabled 1950s, when everyone could own a house and retirement was all but guaranteed and financial stability was a way of life. (Of course, this is a white male American fantasy; things were very different in 1950s America for minorities and white women.)
That 1950s dream of economic security is dead, and nothing meaningful has taken its place. So instead, we’re all scrambling for scraps and looking out for ourselves. Donald Trump may not have provided honest solutions to this problem, but he at least acknowledged it. Many in the Democratic Party seemed to ignore the problem, and they paid dearly for that willful ignorance in November.
When you disagree with someone, as your argument becomes louder and angrier, it becomes almost impossible to see the world from their perspective. This is a profoundly human flaw. Just when we need empathy most, empathy fails us. We are right now in the middle of a loud and contentious battle in this country. At last night’s book club, emotions ran high. Several people were visibly frustrated that they were being called to have empathy for someone who so clearly had no empathy for them. This is understandable; it doesn’t seem, well, fair that liberals have to do the thinking and working and building and reaching out. And we all know unfairness is something that humans loathe.
Books like Hochschild’s make the effort to find a common ground easier, by explaining and investigating and examining the differences between us. Strangers doesn’t contain the answer to our problems, but it does contain some unique and worthwhile insights into the modern political age. If it can pull us just a few steps closer to an understanding, it’s worth our attention. I have to believe that we can find a way back together, one epiphany at a time.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant