Those People

A sociology professor named Arlie Russell Hochschild from the Liberal enclave of Berkeley decided to do a fieldwork project on what made people on the Tea Party Right give support to political candidates that seemed to work against their interests.  By interests, she meant things like opposing the EPA and other environmental regulators in Red States that are by far the most polluted in the nation.  And politicians who opposed Medicaid and other supports for the poor in Red States that had the highest level of poverty and were the largest consumers of these programs.

She chose a Parish in Louisiana to do her work and conducted interviews for five years.  While the question of why people seemed to vote consistently against their own interests was the impetus for her research, what she really wanted to capture was what she calls the "deep story" of how these people actually perceive and feel about their world.  Implicit in this is that she might not herself correctly understand what their interests are.  She put all of this in her book Stranger in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

What interested me about the book is that I come from an urban version of the same place.  I'm a working class boy.  When I was growing up, everyone's aspiration was to become the supervisor or the detective.  If college entered the picture (and I was the first on either side of my family to go) then becoming a teacher or an accountant became possible.  Most of my family consider themselves conservative.  Since I know them all well, I've never considered them as stupid or even misguided.  So why Trump? And why now?

In Louisiana, Professor Hochschild found herself in what had once been a beautiful bayou community of (non-tree hugging) nature lovers.  However, their bayous are being destroyed by fracking and the expansion of oil production.  Her book has extended examples of what a disaster this has been for individuals that she interviewed.  They could see it happening.  And they hated it.  Yet they were anti-government and consistently voted for people who gutted state environmental regulations and failed to support the few on the books.

These people were not, in general, poor and uneducated:

Most of the people I interviewed were middle class—and nationally more than half of all tea party supporters earn at least $50,000, while almost a third earn more than $75,000 a year. Many, however, had been poor as children and felt their rise to have been an uncertain one. As one wife of a well-to-do contractor told me, gesturing around the buck heads hanging above the large stone fireplace in the spacious living room of her Lake Charles home, "We have our American Dream, but we could lose it all tomorrow."

And they are not necessarily against government programs as such.  But they view government as getting ever larger and more rapacious.  Most of all, they not only see government not working for them (and regarding the government of Louisiana, they definitely have a point), they see the government as working against them.

According to Hochschild, they can, to some degree, accept environmental degradation as part of the costs of progress that one has to put up with.  But what they can't tolerate is the government financially and ideologically supporting groups to push ahead of them:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.

At first reading, a quote like this might look like what is going on here is simply racism.  These people are white people afraid that they are becoming a minority in the United States and that they are going to lose their privileged status.  However, I would argue that behind this is a belief that there is a finite set of resources available to the government that are not being allocated to them in the proportions that they deserve.  Their judgement of what those proportions could be skewed by racial beliefs.  Or it could be skewed by the simple fact that they don't see their own communities and issues being addressed.  (Remember that Liberals tend to speak of blacks, gays, immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, and the Syrian refugees yet to come as communities as well).  When these conservatives identify themselves as communities, based on race, religion, history, region, or almost anything else, they are mocked by the Left (who they see as running the government and the media) as backward, primitive, rednecks, hillbillies, etc.  And they feel insulted.

Trump is appealing to these people.  They know he's a blowhard, but they like the way that he calls out the politically correct in a personal, macho way.  Even though he is, in fact, for big government, he doesn't talk like he is.  And while he will insult everyone seen as cutting in line (in the quote above) what he does not do is mock people getting benefits like Medicaid or welfare.  This plays well with the poor whites who are getting these things, because Trump tells them that being on the dole is not their fault.  It's someone else's.  Someone using the tax dollars of the formerly privileged (themselves) against them.

We have to recognize that everyone has their own interest; that they feel part of their own community; that they see their communities as different from other communities; that no one sees the resources of the state as endless and that therefore there is competition between communities for them; that even people who want strong government want it to protect their individuality; but that it is a reasonable position to also argue that a strong government is the antithesis of individuality; and that every political position is at least partially reasonable just as every political position is at least partially unreasonable.  I will argue that pulling certain groups up does not mean pushing other groups down.  But on the ground, with the groups who feel threatened, it is reasonable to see why they would feel like they are being pushed down.  It's too bad that they are counting on someone like Trump to help them.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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