Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You hear a lot in the media about the divisions in American politics. It's easy to find writing to support one side or the other. What you don't see very often are real attempts by one side to understand the other, but in this book Hochschild does exactly that.
Hochschild is a liberal university professor from Berkley, California. In this book, she recounts her experiences getting to know conservatives living in Louisiana. It's hard to imagine a larger gap in political viewpoints, which was exactly the intention. Hochschild wanted to personally talk to people in the opposing political camp to understand their viewpoints.
From those conversations, Hochschild gathered what she calls a "deep story" for the conservative right. This story largely deals with feelings of being left behind while others are given advantages which have not been earned. (Whether that's actually the case or not isn't the point...the feelings are real either way.) When political leaders appeal to the emotions behind that deep story, the people respond, even if the actual actions of those leaders cause them harm.
Harm caused to the population is a pervasive theme in the book, mostly in terms of Louisiana's serious pollution and environmental issues. Most of those interviewed have suffered direct harm from industry causing environmental damage, and yet continue to support leaders who cater to those same industries and oppose environmental regulation. The appeal of the deep story is offered as an explanation for this seeming contradiction.
You might think that a book entirely about a liberal having discussions with conservatives over environmental damage and other political hot topics would be full of arguments and anger. There's very little of that to be found here. Hochschild repeatedly refers to the people she met as her conservative friends, and the tone of the book certainly supports that. I give her plenty of credit for that, since an interviewer with the wrong attitude will almost certainly cause an angry reaction. And just as much credit goes to the interviewees, who clearly were willing to share their experiences and feelings honestly.
I highly recommend reading Strangers in Their Own Land, no matter your political viewpoints. I think it makes some good points about certain specific issues, primarily around environmental regulation, but that's not the main reason. What I found most compelling about this book is that way that people on opposite sides of the American political divide had honest conversations, learned to understand each other, and parted as friends. We should all strive to follow that example.