A review of
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
(Author: Arlie Russell Hochschild)
Having the goal of creating a “bipartisan” online educational resource that non-degreed adults will want to visit, my intuition has been that ordinary conservatives will be warier than ordinary liberals. And that it often may not be effective to appeal to such conservatives with rational arguments, data, and expert opinion. This book tends to confirm my fears.
Via a huge number of interviews with (mostly) Tea Party conservatives in Louisiana from 2010 to 2014, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild put together the “deep story” that articulates how these citizens see the world and their place in it. In a nutshell, it revolves around the idea of “cutting in line”: they have been enduring and working for the American Dream, but if anything they’ve been backsliding, while other groups—minorities, civil servants, women, and so forth—have been cutting in line ahead of them. They don’t think anyone (including themselves) should be getting handouts, and they put the blame squarely on a bloated federal government that doesn’t share their values. Hochschild summarizes:
Those on the far right I came to know felt two things. First, they felt the deep story was true. Second, they felt that liberals were saying it was not true, and that they themselves were not feeling the right feelings. Blacks and women who were beneficiaries of affirmative action, immigrants, refugees, and public employees were not really stealing their place in line, liberals said. So don’t feel resentful. Obama’s help to these groups was not really a betrayal, liberals said. The success of those who cut ahead was not really at the expense of white men and their wives. In other words, the far right felt that the deep story was their real story and that there was a false PC cover-up of that story. They felt scorned. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one man told me. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”
With the cover-up, as my new friends explained to me, came the need to manage the appearance of their real feelings and even, to some extent, the feelings themselves. They didn’t have to do this with friends, neighbors, and family. But they realized that the rest of America did not agree. (“I know liberals want us to feel sorry for blacks. I know they think they are so idealistic and we aren’t,” one woman told me.) My friends on the right felt obliged to try to modify their feelings, and they didn’t like having to do that; they felt under the watchful eye of the “PC police.” In the realm of emotions, the right felt like they were being treated as the criminals, and the liberals had the guns.
It’s more emotional than reality-based, and is less about economics than identity. Trump has been hugely successful at connecting to that emotion, and the antagonistic, mostly-liberal media only exacerbates the situation.
It presents quite a dilemma: how could such conservatives be persuaded to look at the world differently?
Getting them to acquire knowledge about how the government and the economy really work would help. Of course, easier said than done. Fox News has conditioned many of them to believe government is bad and progressives are evil. And many of them simply do not have the interest or the time to explore.
They could be told, you’re looking at this wrong. First of all, African Americans and other minorities have not had less struggles or disadvantages than you. And despite what you’ve been led to believe, no one has any more fundamental, God-given right to prosperity than anyone else does. And, percentagewise, our government is actually smaller than that of other developed nations.
Perhaps a better approach, though, would be to search for common ground between liberals and conservatives, and focus on that. For example, we all want fairness, so let’s really look who is getting what benefits and why. We all want a clean environment, so let’s think about what ways make the most sense to accomplish that. We don’t want big money to control government, so how might we fight it? We want jobs, so let’s really look at how jobs can (or cannot) be created.
It could also be helpful if they watched open-hearted conversations between liberals and conservatives about these issues—not the mud-wrestling style they get on TV, but rather, people on both sides trying to understand each other. It might at least cause some of them to lower their guards.
The liberal-warrior approach might be, “Fuck ’em, marginalize ’em.” As satisfying as that may be for some, I think this is exactly the wrong approach. It’s unkind, it’s short-termist, it caricatures, and it contributes to further polarization that prevents Congress from solving problems. (I myself am caricaturing liberals a bit here—most liberals simply want to mobilize the Democratic base and outvote conservatives, which in a democracy is of course completely legitimate.)
Regarding our bipartisan educational resource, by the way, I am sure many liberals will also have their guards up: Is it going to lecture me about economics? Will I be asked to agree that socialism is evil, that identity politics is misguided, and that Christianity is under attack? But as I said, I do think more conservatives will tend to be suspicious.
I do think these conservatives are not wrong to think that federal government employees have it pretty good, at least in terms of economic security. And I think that, not being subject to the discipline of the market, government needs to work harder to justify its existence. Even if it entails additional work or expense, federal government agencies should be compelled to explain to these citizens what they are doing, in a way that such citizens will be willing to hear. It’s more than mere transparency, which is great for curbing abuses, but not great for explaining to citizens what is going on.
I think people are looking for grand narratives. The challenge with tweaking anything in the narrative is that it has the potential to make the whole thing collapse. That’s the lesson we’ve learned from postmodernism as a society, whether we know it or not.
Many versions of the conservative narrative are vulnerable to a small change resulting in a lot of change barreling through shortly later under a similar guise. There are progressive narratives that are very similar in their inability to take in new information. I think the key isn’t as much to smash that narrative (that is relatively easy) but to supply them with a new narrative that they can be just as happy with.
People won’t be the loser or the bad guy in their own narrative.
I agree: grand narratives are comfortable, and anything contradicting mine is uncomfortable. I’m struggling to visualize a new, different, (better) narrative that could appeal to Tea Partiers. E.g. could their focus be bent towards the disdain we receive from the wealthy and from global corporations? (New bad guy.)
Alternatively, I wonder if more knowledge about reality could weaken the hold that narratives have on people. I’m not imagining that massive change is feasible, but even if just a slice of the electorate becomes more thoughtful/skeptical, it would help.
In my experience, more knowledge about the world isn’t really the gap that needs to be closed. It comes down to something like Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory where they are focusing much more on a different foundation.
For instance, I am very low on care/harm compared even to conservatives. I am very anti-authoritarian. If someone makes an authoritarian argument to reduce harm, I am insanely opposed to it. The same idea applies to someone that is in the Tea Party. The Tea Party is very concerned with proportionality and fairness, so in your example they would say “they earned that money, if they hate us its our own fault for putting people in charge of our lives that try to take that money from them.”
I generally find that people aren’t wrong. They are just weighing information very differently. Some people work backwards from a conclusion, but it is very easy to work forwards from a different question and completely discard information that is essential for someone else’s conclusion but has no bearing at all on your own.
Look at something like flag burning as an easy example. It is an ingroup thing. If you don’t feel like you belong to that group, you won’t care about it at all. No arguments will sway you towards that being wrong until you become a part of the ingroup or understand that you shouldn’t harm other groups of people, just because you aren’t one of them. To do that, you have to convince someone that burning a flag causes harm, which may not be possible. (I am not sure it causes harm.)
I think the best we can hope for is to make everyone able to see that other people aren’t wrong. Changing minds requires the world to be different. You can present new facts, but you won’t change the question and filter that makes those facts relevant to the conclusion they have come to.