DENVER AND BERKELEY VIA PHONE—Disturbed by the growing divide in the U.S. between the political left and right, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist and professor emerita at the University of California Berkeley, left her liberal coastal hometown to spend the better part of five years interviewing and befriending active members of the Tea Party—a conservative political movement within the Republican party—in the Louisiana bayou country. After researching and reading what other thought leaders had to say on the topic of the widening split, Ms. Russell Hochschild found that something was missing—an understanding of the human emotions beneath belief and behavior.
And so, she set about choosing a part of the country, Louisiana, that was as right-leaning as her Berkeley enclave was left-leaning to understand the other side’s point of view. Her book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” was the culmination of her time in Louisiana and a 2016 National Book Award finalist. While living and researching in the bayou country, Ms. Russell Hochschild looked for common ground between the left and the right and for a way to climb what she described as an empathy wall. After finding a deeper understanding of how Louisiana voters felt, she returned to Berkeley to tell the stories of a vast community of people who felt left behind and left out of the political process. She recently spoke with she-files about her experience. EXCERPTS
KIRSCH FELDKAMP: You’ve spent most of your life studying societies around the globe. What made you want to go into sociology in the first place?
RUSSELL HOCHSCHILD: I’ve always been a curious person but I also have an early childhood experience of being taken out of my group. My parents worked in the [State Department’s] Foreign Service so from age 12 on, we lived in different countries. I always found myself an oddball. I was a head taller than other girls and dressed differently, didn’t know the language. You know I think that kind of displacement is painful at the time but also tremendously good. I look back at it and think ‘You know that’s how I started to be a sociologist because gosh I had better figure out how this works because I don’t know the rules.’
Why did you feel compelled to research and write your latest book?
I realized that we as a society wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of the goals I had been [working] on until we back up and really understand the split between people that look to the government as good government that can serve the people and make life better and people that felt the government couldn’t do that.
You talked to many women who supported Donald Trump. How did they feel about his attitude toward women?
People have a lot of objections to Trump on all kinds of grounds including his disparagement of women. It wasn’t that people didn’t know he did that or to object to his doing that, it’s that something else felt more important to them and the more important thing is told by the deep story. The deep story is something that feels true to you and you take the facts out of it, the moral judgment out of it. And left and right— everyone’s got a deep story. The deep story of the right is that you’re waiting in line and it’s a pilgrimage up a hill the top of which is the American Dream. And you’ve been waiting a long time and you feel a great sense of deserving for that dream. And then you notice somebody cutting in ahead. You think ‘Whoa, wait a minute; they’re not obeying the rules. And who are the line cutters?’ They’re blacks who now have been given through affirmative action jobs that used to be reserved for whites. And women that through affirmative action now have been given jobs formerly reserved for men. And then you have immigrants and refugees.
How did most of the women you talked to feel about feminism?
They didn’t like the word and they didn’t like the concept if it was associated with affirmative action. They felt it was line cutters, women who would have access to jobs that used to be reserved for men –women who climbed telephone poles, women plumbers, women carpenters, women professors such as myself. At the same time, they all worked and they all believed in equal pay for equal work; in that way, they had accepted [a] feminist goal. They all wanted good childcare as they were working. In all the red states, there’s a higher proportion of single moms who are forced to make a living. Every woman that I interviewed over the five years in Louisiana worked.
So, the word feminism represents a structured change that is government-led to them?
That’s right. They didn’t think of feminism the way you and I would as increasing the amount of care in the world, helping this world be a more loving place and having families prosper even though women are working [like] they’ll have schedules at work that permit them to pick up their kids [and] that they can get [quality, affordable] childcare.
Since your book came out, a global women’s march took place. What are your thoughts on this recent activism?
The Women’s March was a model for how women on both sides of this political divide can find common cause, represent their convictions and feelings publicly in a peaceful way. There are many crossover issues that women on both sides of this divide really can come together on and certainly it can be the care of children, it can be flexible time schedules– the government could give incentives to help companies set up flexible, family-friendly policies. And there’s a crossover issue with the environment. The women I talked to want clean air and clean water and safe food for their children. And the minimum wage of people that get the minimum wage, that’s more women than men, that’s a crossover issue. So I think the march represented both the possibility and the reality of a lot in common between women Republican and Democrat.
So, it’s been forcing conversations that maybe we would not have had otherwise?
That’s exactly it. You know what I’d love to see? To have all the schools in the United States institute a program where you have a two-week visit, each student in the home of a family that’s in a different region than you are. So you’ll have coastal people that take a two-week visit to a family inland, a farming family. You have that farming family inland pay a visit to a family on the East or West Coast. You have kids in the South that make visits to the North and kids in the North that pay visits to the South. There will be differences in political culture, and that’s a good way to learn that there are really good people on both sides here and let’s not let our leaders divide us.
Photos: Courtesy of Arlie Russell Hochschild.
Featured photo: Arlie Russell Hochschild.