A Donald Trump for President campaign yard sign in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Tony Webster)

Strange Elegies

When the ‘Deep Story’ Is a Big Lie

Rattled by Trump and Brexit, elites have vowed to listen to the heartland. For example, the well-funded centrist think tank Third Way dispatched several experts to Western Wisconsin to talk to focus groups of voters. Reporter Molly Ball followed the researchers, and chronicled rambunctious meetings and polarized political views. “We don’t have any Muslims here, and that’s a good thing, because Muslims are trouble,” said one Chamber of Commerce official. A “hippie” pushed single-payer health care. Union members demanded much more spending on social services: “If we can’t help each other,” one said, “what are we, a pack of wolves—we eat the weakest one? It’s shameful.” The tour revealed an America growing more divided, with few if any horizons of understanding shared by the left and right.

And what did Third Way make of these diverse opinions? That the community’s “biggest frustrations” are “laggard government and partisan squabbling”—exactly Third Way’s point of view before its listening tour. Despite hearing earnestly partisan sentiments, Third Way stuck with its preconceptions about the wisdom of centrist bipartisanship. Western Wisconsin could speak, but official circles would only hear it in a certain way.

Sadly, this tendency does not just affect think tanks. Guardians of our public discourse do not like to acknowledge social conflict. When they do, they do not want structural forces or actual figures on inequality at the forefront of the conversation. Better, instead, to focus on personal stories, cultural politics, the comedies and tragedies of manners that unfold when very different citizens of a deeply divided country somehow find themselves cheek by jowl. Do not burden us with the sense that there might just be irreconcilable differences among citizens, they insist—and, if you do, please lighten the message with a sense that politics might not matter that much after all.

The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild advances the first of these messages in Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press, $17.99, 416 pp.). The financier J. D. Vance advances the second in Hillbilly Elegy (Harper, $16.99, 288 pp.). Hochschild wants to build bridges between red and blue America, while Vance tries to assure each side that their policy disputes pale in comparison with the role of culture and family in perpetuating inequality. Their fans bill them as tellers of hard truths, willing to challenge orthodoxies with hard-won insights into the character, views, and outlook of rural America in general and Trump voters in particular. But both books ultimately reinforce elite meta-narratives about the wisdom of centrism and the limits of politics. Fortunately, along the way to these conventional conclusions, Vance and Hochschild unintentionally reveal the real foundations of America’s political divides.

 

Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an inspiring story of personal transformation and growth. Vance grew up in an unstable, impoverished household in Appalachia. But during high school, his grandmother (Mamaw) took him in. Mamaw is the hero of the book: a fierce and profane matriarch, pained and breathless from a long series of chronic illnesses, but still loving, loud, effusive, blustery. Mamaw goads, cajoles, inspires, demands—and the young J. D. heeded it all, successfully applying to Ohio State University.

Daunted by a mountain of financial-aid forms, and worried that he isn’t yet disciplined enough to succeed in college, Vance had second thoughts, and detoured into the Marines. After succeeding in military public relations, he returned to OSU, working a number of jobs to put himself through college. The next stop was Yale Law School, where he studied diligently, earned some plum job offers in conservative politics and law, and fell in love with a fellow law student.

A progressive could easily tell Vance’s story as an object lesson in the value of government. Many in his town could have starved if basic disability, old age, or nutritional benefits dried up. Medicaid was probably a lifeline, too. Vance vacillated on whether he should go to college, but the G.I. Bill covered enough of his tuition that he could pay the rest with wages. He took out loans for law school, and those may well have been subsidized. He credits the military with transforming him into a strong, competent, brave soldier. In other words, when he submitted himself entirely to government control—of what he ate, when he woke up, how much he exercised, where and how he had to work—he finally matured.

But Vance tells exactly the opposite story in his book, offering a familiar tale of rugged individualism. If only there weren’t so many government handouts, maybe the ne’er-do-wells in the “holler” would get their act together and hold down a steady job. Reflecting on the fate of young people in Appalachia who don’t have a “Mamaw” figure to guide them, Vance writes, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” He continually minimizes the power of government to do anything positive for Appalachians.  This is music to the ears of people like the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who runs a hedge fund where Vance has worked.

How do we tell the story of our lives? What connects the personal to the political?

 

Nevertheless, parts of Vance’s story resonated with me. I went to Yale, too, and felt like a fish out of water in the Ivy League. Many students hailed from legal, financial, or academic aristocracies. My dad had bounced between jobs as a steelworker, drug-store assistant manager, Godfather’s pizza deliveryman, and 7-11 clerk while I was growing up. My mother’s work wasn’t much more glamorous—reservationist at Hertz Rent-a-Car, customer-service representative at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, pharmacy tech at Walgreen’s. (And for anyone unfamiliar with the pecking order in pharmacies, such techs now average about $12.50 an hour—and pay was lower when my mom did the job, in the early 1990s.)

Financial insecurity was also a constant theme, well into my time at law school. During my first year at Yale, I had to transfer some of my student-loan money to my parents so they could get new lodging when they couldn’t afford a rent hike on their old apartment. When I was twelve, my dad lost his job at “Drugs for Less” in Oklahoma City, and could not find another one for months. The bank foreclosed on my parents’ house soon thereafter, and we scrambled to a cheap apartment, and then out of the state, to Arizona. We moved four times while I was in high school in Phoenix—again, in search of cheaper rent. We nearly got evicted when my dad broke his leg during one of the moves (he slipped off the truck as we were carrying a couch down a ramp) and couldn’t work for six months.

Despite my parents’ financial problems (and those of other family members, or one-time neighbors in western New York, where I was born), I never felt the kind of impatience or disgust that Vance so readily expresses toward the poor. Sure, I imagine that if they’d never bought me Christmas presents, they might have been able to ride out Dad’s spell of unemployment in Oklahoma. But who knows—maybe not—oil prices crashed at about that time in the ’80s, and jobs were scarce. Defeatists quipped, “Last person to leave Oklahoma, please turn out the lights.” Even as a child, I had some sense that there were larger forces affecting our well-being, well beyond whatever gumption my parents did or didn’t have. I remember biking to St. Luke’s parish in Phoenix to pray a novena during one particularly tough stretch. Even then I recognized that whatever happened to the Pasquale family was not entirely in our hands.

So God and government loomed much larger in my youth than they did for Vance. Both remain important to me, while Vance appears disdainful of the latter and increasingly interested in the former. Which raises the question: How do we tell the story of our lives? What connects the personal to the political? I spent time in college and afterward puzzling out these questions. There were many false starts along the way. During freshman year at college, I remember coming back home at Christmas break to tell my father about my first economics course. “Turns out,” I said, parroting the professor, “free trade is good overall. So even though you lost your job at the steel mill, overall, more steel is produced more efficiently when we trade internationally. Ultimately, it’s win-win.” I remember my dad looking like he had particularly bad indigestion when he heard that, and saying something like “well, it didn’t feel that way to me.”

I’m sure that Vance would see that exchange as yet another exhibit in the right’s case against elite universities, as bastions of privilege disconnected from the lived experience of America’s vast lower and middle classes. But the same university education led me to a required “literature and arts” class where we read Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”—a powerful tribute to family and duty. The academy also exposed me to heterodox thinkers in political economy, who expressed more sympathy with workers like my father. Despite devoting many pages of Hillbilly Elegy to his time at Ohio State and Yale, Vance does not seriously engage with a single book he read while attending those august institutions. And that, sadly, resonates all too well with my sense of elite education generally: it’s possible to skate through while barely encountering the “best that has been thought and said.”

But such superficiality is not the fate of all who attend college. Whether we take advantage of it or not, higher education gives us a chance to study thinkers who constantly interrogated the validity of the stories they told themselves—whether about their own upbringing, their political identity, or their highest obligations. For example, I was moved in college by a 1969 essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor called “Responsibility for Self,” which takes issue with existentialists who see individual human choice as the foundation of moral and ethical value. “The human subject…is not just de facto a certain being, with certain given desires,” he writes. Part of what makes us distinctively human (and responsible) is the ability to desire certain desires, to “strongly evaluate” our preferences, prioritize some, and demote others. Those strong evaluations depend on goals and purposes outside, above, and beyond the self. We can question the background expectations and assumptions that push us in one direction or another, and search for firmer grounds for our beliefs.

Once we do that kind of strong evaluation, we can revise the story of our life accordingly. We can question whether our fundamental commitments and judgments are fair, or simply reflections of some ready-to-hand ideology. On a superficial level, Vance’s book exemplifies this kind of self-evaluation. It is a tour de force account of how he grew to suspect—and ultimately reject—his “hillbilly” proclivities toward fast food, drinking, anger, emotional unavailability, and a host of other personal shortcomings. In excruciating detail, he tells us how he overcame each of these self-destructive tendencies. But all these episodes of self-improvement fit a neat Horatio Alger narrative arc, which in turn leads to “tough love” political bromides: government hurts those it intends to help, creating cycles of dependency; only personal resolve can fix broken families; and so on.

After hearing out story after story—about cheating IRS agents, ineffective regulators, and job-killing bureaucrats—Hochschild arranges their main features into a “deep story” of the right.

Vance shows no interest in alternative narratives of personal reform and redemption. He focuses only on himself, his family, and finally, the military. He sees little or no room for the welfare state to intervene. But what if a modern day Works Progress Administration guaranteed jobs in rural communities? What if government lured (or required) businesses to invest in Appalachia, rather than strip it of assets? Would more of his family have found steady jobs? What if drug-rehabilitation policies were more humane, and addiction centers better funded by Medicaid? Would his mother have recovered from addiction more quickly, and provided a better home for him?

Vance does not explore such possibilities. Nor does he do much to defend the meager set of policy recommendations he offers in the book. He inveighs against payday loans on one page, then, on another, fondly recalls working for a conservative state senator who fought restrictions on them. By the time he got to college, he could handle a weekend loan to tide him over to the next paycheck, so why can’t everybody? “The legislators debating the merits of payday lending didn’t mention situations like that,” Vance comments, apparently unaware of the mountain of funded research and lobbying the payday-loan industry underwrites to assure that exactly such situations are the first thing mentioned by all too many legislators. “The lesson? Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me.” Vance appears unaware that his good luck makes him, by his own account, an unrepresentative member of his community.

But in two other ways Vance is all too representative. In her Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Jennifer Silva analyzes the mental habits and outlook of twenty- and thirty-somethings struggling to get by. She investigates “why young people who would seemingly benefit most from social safety nets and solidarity with others cling so fiercely to neoliberal ideals of untrammeled individualism and self-reliance.” She finds that many experience “bewilderment and betrayal” by institutions—never quite grasping, for example, that particular people with particular interests may want to make the federal student-loan program a quicksand of confusing paperwork and high-interest rates in order to make their own products (private loans) comparatively more attractive. Instead of constructing any coherent narrative connecting the personal to the political, most of Silva’s subjects instead tell themselves self-soothing stories of emotional resilience and self-overcoming.

That is ultimately Vance’s strategy, too. He never tires of reminding the reader how hard working he has become, and how diligently he strives to overcome the traumas of his youth. To underscore his connection with those he left behind, Vance airs standard cultural grievances. “I’m the kind of patriot whom people on the Acela corridor laugh at. I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy anthem ‘Proud to Be an American,’” he assures us. But he’s not just tough on Amtrak’s business class. He reserves the real venom for friends and neighbors back in Appalachia:

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over.

Of course, the “we” here is a rhetorical device—Vance makes it clear in the book that he has escaped these pathologies. The opposite of the “royal we,” the “pseudo-we” is a convenient way to wrap blanket condemnations in the humble mantle of a mea culpa.

Sadly, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild is all too prone to take such feints and slights seriously in her book Strangers in Their Own Land. A liberal, Hochschild is alarmed at a trend toward “partyism”—where “the most politically engaged on each side see those in the ‘other party’ not just as wrong, but as ‘so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” So she vows to understand Tea Party members in particular, and the right within the Deep South in general—to gain “a full understanding of emotion in politics.” This leads her to Louisiana, where she asks one Republican after another why they suspect the federal government, why they are so skeptical of environmental regulation, and why they deny or minimize climate change even as their state is swamped by storms and subsidence.

After hearing out story after story—about cheating IRS agents, ineffective regulators, and job-killing bureaucrats—Hochschild arranges their main features into a “deep story” of the right. Hochschild’s definition of such a “deep story” is at the core of her book:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.

This move combines the methods of psychiatrists, social scientists, and mediators. If we are to understand our past, or the motives of others, or even the social world in general, we need some empathetic understanding of others. So Hochschild carefully listens to her “new Louisiana friends.” Then she boils their stories down to a pages-long “deep story,” which includes these telling passages:

You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It’s scary to look back.[…]

The sun is hot and the line unmoving. In fact, is it moving backward?... 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…. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve…. And now Filipinos, Mexicans, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese on special visas or green cards are ahead of you in line.

Nowhere in this “deep story” is any awareness of decades of upward redistribution of income and wealth by business and political elites through tax and regulatory policy. Hochschild explains that she “checked back” with her “right-wing friends to see if they felt as if [her version of their deep story] was true—and they did.” Readers of Hillbilly Elegy will also see sentiments like these simmering in the rage and frustration of its subjects—resentment at welfare queens, food stamp users, affirmative-action admits. Vance, to his credit, explicitly calls out racism when it is expressed in resentments far removed from reality.

The conclusion of Strangers in Their Own Land continually blurs differences between the right and left

Hochschild is also alarmed by racism, but brackets her concerns to better understand her interlocutors. Her main goal in the book is to “climb the empathy wall” between red and blue America. When presenting her new friends’ versions of the deep story, she tends not to immediately dispute them. But she also includes “Appendix C: Fact-Checking Common Impressions,” which patiently disputes statements like “Black women have a lot more children than white women” or “A lot of people—maybe 40 percent—work for the federal and state government.” (For the record: the white fertility rate is 1.75, and black, 1.88; “at the end of 2014, 1.9 percent of the 143 million American non-farm workers were employed in the civilian sector of the federal government.”) On the basis of a long series of conversations, Hochschild concludes that “with their teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley, the people I met in Louisiana showed me that, in human terms, the [empathy] wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation.” In an imagined “letter to a friend on the liberal left,” she pleads for understanding of “the right wing’s good angels—their patience in waiting in line in scary economic times, their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance.”

This isn’t simply a gesture of good will on Hochschild’s part. The conclusion of Strangers in Their Own Land continually blurs differences between the right and left. Both are trying to get to grips with automation, she assures us (despite Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s declaration that loss of jobs to robots “isn’t even on our agenda”). Both see a role for activist government, she asserts, mentioning Bobby Jindal’s offer of tax credits to corporations (which starve the state of revenue) as an example of such “activism” on the right. Maybe one of her new Louisiana friends would approve of recycling bins, she muses, even as the state’s senators and representatives in Washington gleefully slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Strangers in Their Own Land is a remarkably well-designed vehicle for publicizing Hochschild’s research. Like Third Way’s researchers, mainstream political and media elites want to hear the centrist deep story—one of people of good faith working together to solve problems. Someone who simply denounces the “cutting in line” story comes off, to them, as shrill. Hochschild’s book answers to their demand for a milquetoast meliorism, an academic version of Colmes to Vance’s Hannity.

For those who truly want to understand where rightwing politics is heading, Adam Serwer’s article in The Atlantic, titled “The Nationalist Delusion,” rings truer than Hochschild’s tome. Serwer talked to dozens of Trump supporters about their views on race and Muslims.  “What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked,” Serwer concludes. There is no cognitive dissonance here—simply the same obliviousness to facts and values that President Trump models when he trolls climate scientists in a tweet about a cold snap. Serwer pulls no punches, especially when putting his findings in historical perspective:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Hochschild’s feeble gestures toward bridging cultural divides, or climbing empathy walls, are part of that denial and disbelief. According to exit polls, 68 percent of Alabama whites voted for Roy Moore,  a candidate who openly spoke of antebellum times as “better” than today, referred to Native Americans and Asian Americans as "reds and yellows,” and would prohibit Muslims from serving in Congress. Imagine how much higher his support would have been if he had not faced saturation coverage of accusations of sexual misconduct in the month preceding the election. Whatever “deep story” is motivating support for candidates like Moore, it is probably better described as a “big lie.”

 

To undo the damage of a still-young Trump era, progressives must take on herculean political tasks. Gerrymandering tilts the political playing field so far right that Democrats might earn 57 percent of the vote and still lose the House of Representatives. If the remarkably Democratic vote in the Roy Moore/Doug Jones Senate race is replicated in 2018 House races, the electoral map will convert it into a Republican rout, awarding the GOP six of the seven House seats. Voting restrictions further bias the electorate toward richer, whiter precincts.

Given these realities, Hochschild’s pleas to liberals—to understand the right’s deep story, to engage in dialogue and debate—may seem like good political advice. Without mutual cooperation and good will, we may be consigned to Vance’s fatalistic disregard for government. But Hochschild’s fixation on Trump voters’ “anger and mourning” downplays a deeper phenomenon of apathy in American politics. In 2016, 132 million eligible voters cast ballots, but 100 million did not. Rather than searching for the hidden appeal in red states’ deep stories, Democrats should focus on turning out those who have been too apathetic to subscribe to any narrative. By tirelessly recruiting volunteers to knock on every single door in his Congressional district, Keith Ellison increased his margin of victory by over a hundred thousand votes over the course of several terms. His efforts helped keep Minnesota “blue” as many of its neighboring states turned deep red. Ellison did not focus on pleading with Tea Partiers to reconsider whether recycling mandates might be a good thing. Rather, he and his compatriots “did the work,” getting reliably Democratic constituencies to the polls.

Neither Hillbilly Elegy nor Strangers in Their Own Land tells us much about America that a sensitive reader would not already know. Instead, they reveal their authors’ respective political fatalism and optimism. If you want to read the story of a former Marine with a real plan for helping the disadvantaged, check out Lee Carter, who decided to run for the Virginia legislature when he was electrocuted on the job and had to pay for medical care without insurance. Carter won, defeating the House majority whip. We need more of that kind of political energy—not Hochschildish relativism dressed up in the guise of civility.

The “deep story” of the right is increasingly a Manichean one of friends and enemies, locked in mortal struggle to control the state. Endless listening sessions won’t change that dynamic, nor will Vance’s self-help platitudes. Instead, progressives need to reach out to the apathetic, with their own deep story of solidarity, equality, and effective government. American politics is now a race to enroll the unengaged in one of two incompatible visions of the American dream. The sooner anti-Trump forces realize this, the better.

Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society (Harvard University Press), is presently editing a book on the policy implications of Laudato si'.

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