Book Shelf: Strangers in Their Own Land


  • In a “great paradox,” Conservative red-state voters often oppose government programs that could benefit them.

  • Generally, members of the American Right oppose federal programs such as welfare and Medicaid even while participating in them.

  • Louisiana, where the author interviewed people holding rightist views, is the second poorest state and one of the most polluted.

  • Louisianans’ primary motivators are “taxes, faith and honor.”

  • Right-wing voters in Lake Charles, Louisiana, match a profile of the “least resistant personality,” those most likely to accept “unfavorable land use” nearby.

  • Oil provides only about 10% of jobs in Louisiana.

  • Louisianans interviewed felt liberals “badgered” them to feel particular ways.

  • They also felt as if they followed the rules to reach the American Dream while others broke in line in front of them.

  • Rightists might vote to promote their emotional – rather than economic – self-interest.

  • President Donald Trump makes his supporters feel part of an inclusive group.

3 Key Points

  • Why highly significant yet unpredictable events, called “black swans,” areunderappreciated;

  • Why people continually see misleading patterns in data; and

  • How to embrace randomness and come to terms with black swans.


More and more, Americans feel like strangers to one another over what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “an increasingly hostile split” in attitudes. A professor emerita of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana repeatedly over a five-year span starting in 2011 for field research on the American Right. She attempts to analyze and understand the emotional motivations of her new “Tea Party friends.” Conservatives might feel Hochschild failed to take their perspectives on board; liberals might see a paradox in her effort to develop empathy for people who can appear to lack empathy for themselves. Hoschchild conducts fascinating research and conclusions to US voters of any ideology and to all non-Americans who seek greater insight into the sometimes contradictory, sometimes inexplicable behavior of the US electorate.


The “Great Paradox”

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild undertook 10 research visits to Louisiana between 2011 and 2016. She gathered 4,690 pages of transcripts from interviews with 60 research subjects. Hochschild sought to understand her subjects’ lives and their feelings to gain insight into “the emotional draw of right-wing politics.”Hochschild chose environmental pollution as the issue through which she hoped to gain broad insights into rightist points of view. She asked why Louisianans, whose state suffers pollution, tend to oppose regulations to clean it up. Generally, sociologists wonder why conservative red-state voters fail to support government programs that could help them – sometimes even if they are beneficiaries of those programs.“

My keyhole issue had taken me 4,000 feet down into the Earth. And following it down the hole was the Great Paradox: the Tea Party feared, disdained, and wanted to diminish the federal government. But they also wanted a clean and safe environment – one without earthquakes sending toxins into aquifers or worse.”Environmental protection is an example of this great paradox. Across the US, people who live in highly polluted states – often Republican-dominated – tend to vote against environmental protection measures that could improve their communities. At the county level, exposure to pollution correlates inversely with concern about pollution as an issue – even though people in these counties recognize that it poses a danger. Hochschild sought to understand why right-wing voters so regularly and passionately vote against their own interests.“The Tea Party was not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of seeing and feeling about a place and its people.”

Louisiana Poverty and Pollution

Louisiana is the second-poorest state after Mississippi. It ranks number 49th in the 50 states on an index of human development – based on measures of life expectancy, education as well as income – and 46th on public education spending per student. The federal government provides 44% of the state budget – only Mississippi relies more heavily on federal funding. Yet Louisiana also hands out a greater percentage of “taxpayer money than any other state.”In 2014, Governor Bobby Jindal awarded $1.6 billion in incentives to industry, along with decade-long tax exemptions. Louisiana slashed its state budget an equivalent amount and laid off 30,000 workers, including teachers, nurses and safety inspectors. Louisiana ranks among the most polluted states in America. Its men suffer from cancer at rates far higher than average. Yet Louisiana allocates only 2.2% of its state budget to environmental protection.“Louisiana was poor before oil came, and we’re poor today.” (Dr. Paul Templer, former head, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality)

Lake Charles

Hochschild conducted her fieldwork mostly around Lake Charles, Louisiana, about 30 miles north of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The site of the largest chemical spill in US history is a few miles to the west along the Mississippi River where, in 1994, workers discovered a leak that had released 1½ million tons of ethylene dichloride into the water.

“One has the police to protect one’s property, Rush Limbaugh to protect one’s pride and God to take care of the rest.”In 2012, at nearby Bayou Corne, the Houston-based Texas Brine company was drilling – contrary to state regulations – into an underground salt dome under the Bayou and inadvertently drilled through a side wall. The accident caused a sinkhole that by 2015 had spread to 37 acres, bubbled up with methane, released oil and toxins into the aquifer, and necessitated the relocation of an entire once close-knit community. The so-called “sacrifice zone” encompassed the homes of 350 residents, now turned into “energy refugees.”One family had farmed 40 acres on the edge of Bayou d’Inde for generations; then, industry moved to their locale. Afterward, all but one member of the family suffered cancer; only two survived. Their animals all perished after drinking bayou water. Even the cypress trees died.“When I was a kid…if someone was hungry, you fed him. You had community. You know what’s undercut all that?...Big government.” (Louisianan Mike Schaff)

Conservative Louisianans

The people Hochschild surveyed in Louisiana cared about their faith and the church, their community and traditional values. Nearly all of them attended church, some twice a week. Many voted on the basis of political candidates’ religious views rather than based on their economic policies or environmental commitment. Some Louisianans told Hochschild that they believe in “end times.” One expressed his desire that his “10 great-grandchildren” live on a healthy, thriving Earth, but admitted to recognizing that the Earth may no longer exist. Lake Charles’s churches assume roles in their congregants’ lives that the government fills for more secular people, providing playgrounds, fitness centers, summer camps, sport teams and soup kitchens. Many people believe the government undermines or destroys a sense of community.

Louisianans “are actually victims, doing emotional work and suffering damages so that we can all have the products of the petrochemical industry.” Many of those on the right felt taxes were too high and resented having to pay them. They believed their taxes often paid for benefits that went to undeserving people. Many viewed the government as greedy, incompetent and corrupt. They dramatically overestimated the portion of the population that the government employs, as well as the level of federal spending on Social Security, Medicare and welfare. In spite of their opposition to such federal programs, many Tea Party supporters participated in them. As Lousiana Mike Schaff said, “Most people I know use available government programs, since they paid for part of them. If the programs are there, why not use them?”These Louisianans are primarily motivated by their views about “taxes, faith and honor.” They derive honor from “work, region, state, family life and church,” as well as sacrifice, endurance, hard work and charity. Given their belief in accepting what you can’t change and carrying on, those studied found honor in having the necessary “moral strength” to persevere.“Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system.”

“Locally Undesirable Land Use”

Many Louisianans resign themselves to an extraordinary degree to living with unpleasant circumstances. They closely match a definition of the “least resistant personality” that a California consultancy developed for California’s Waste Management Board. According to the consultants’ report, individuals who accept rather than resist locally undesirable land use tend to hold conservative views, vote Republican, advocate for the free market, lack college education, and live in small Southern or Midwestern communities, among other traits.“That’s not the Mississippi’s water. That’s Monsanto water. Exxon water. Shell Oil water… Industry owns the Mississippi now.”

Often, these Louisianans believed the oil industry brought the state jobs and economic progress. Their opposition to government regulation seems to stem from the belief that regulation hampers industry and reduces jobs.In truth, the petrochemical industry provides only about 10% of jobs in Louisiana. Rigorous environmental protections, in fact, make a state more competitive globally. After 40 years of oil drilling, the state’s poverty rate has decreased by only one percentage point. “In 1979, 19% of Louisianans lived below the poverty line; in 2014, it was 18%.” Some Louisianans believed unfettered free-market forces could bring about safe conditions without regulation.“The Sabine River is a public river. But if you can’t drink in the river, and you can’t swim in the river…then it’s not your river. It’s the paper mill’s river.” (Louisianan Paul Ringo)


Many conservatives believe liberals are trying to make them accept left-wing rules and browbeating them to feel a certain way. One woman pointed to TV journalist Christiane Amanpour crouching beside a sickly African child. In the woman’s view, Amanpour implied the US caused the child’s plight. The woman objected to any message suggesting she was morally inferior if she didn’t feel compassion for the child. Some Louisianans thought they might feel misplaced sympathy for seemingly deserving people who might be deceiving them.“A company may be free to pollute, but that means the people aren’t free to swim.” (General Russel Honoré)

Louisianan Republicans’ Emotional Life

Many of Hochschild’s subjects agreed that the following imaginary “deep story” conveys their feelings. A deep story shows symbolically “how things feel” to people. Its intent is to provide a nonjudgmental framework for helping people who disagree to understand each other’s views.In this fictitious story, many people stand in a long line waiting to reach the American Dream, and thus gain security and honor after long hardship and suffering. That the line has stalled conveys the frustration that older workers – particularly white men without a college education – might feel. Since the 1970s, their wages have dropped 40%. The people in line feel liberals are attacking their morality and values.

“In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think.”

They notice other people aren’t obeying the rules. Some cut in line. Some immigrants, women, refugees and even animals get undeserved benefits at the expense of those who play by the rules. They imagine that President Barack Obama cuts in line. The resentful, obedient people see Obama helping other line-cutters. Feeling suspicious, dishonored, disparaged and taken advantage of, they band together. In this vision, the right sees the US government as an “ally” of the line-cutters. They view the free market, on the other hand, as their ally.

“Partyism, as some call it, now beats race as the source of divisive prejudice.”

Because they cling to this mirage, Hochschild’s subjects fail to perceive the truth about corporate power and interests. Lake Charles’s conservatives support industry, Wall Street, deregulation and the free market. In reality, these interests do not align with theirs. They don’t support federal programs that could, and do, help them.

“Team Players”

Some people in Hochschild’s study group show endurance and willingness to work hard. They feel that the “team” – be it the Republican Party, a corporation or the free enterprise system – brings good things to their lives and merits their loyalty. Willing to endure the downsides of the system, these Team Players work long hours and accommodate difficult working conditions without complaining. In their view, environmentalists dwell on negative conditions that a Team Player would face with bravery, while focusing on the positive. Team Players view willingness to work as a moral quality that confers deservingness. They feel little or no sympathy for people who don’t work.“What I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest.”

“Worshippers” and “Cowboys”

Other rightist Louisianans – call them Worshippers – focus on the necessity of making difficult choices. They accommodate to their situation and willingly renounce some desires for the sake of others, such as sacrificing a clean environment for economic progress. Some right wingers – Cowboys – value daring and stoicism. They believe in taking risks to create as much good as possible and then, if things go badly, accepting the outcome.


Some players choose a new team and become Rebels. While remaining members of the right wing, they align with environmental causes or political reform. One Rebel became an environmental activist after losing his home to the Bayou Corne sinkhole, but he stayed in the Tea Party. A man who’d worked dumping Pittsburgh Plate Glass’s toxic waste developed disabilities as a result of chemical exposure. The firm fired him for absenteeism. But, still, he remained an active Tea Party member and supported an anti-EPA congressional candidate.

President Donald Trump\

While many of Hochschild’s subjects respect Trump’s business accomplishments, as voters they broke about half for Trump and half against. His supporters admire his leadership. His detractors find him frightening or “mean.” Emotion is the crux of Trump’s appeal. Some right-leaning people developed certain emotions, including grief, discouragement, shame and alienation, in the face of various cultural, economic and demographic trends. They find that Trump replaces these feelings with hope, elation, and a sense of security and respect. These emotions arise partly from the unity that Trump fosters among his supporters. Trump serves as a “totem” his supporters can rally around. His persecution and expulsion of out-group members strengthens this feeling of unity.

The right-wing Louisianans’ elation also results from Trump supporters’ sense of release from rules about what they are supposed to feel. Trump allows and encourages them to feel just as they do, validating their anger, bigotry, misogyny and racism. His supporters feel righteous, superior and vindicated. Their elation grows into an “emotional self-interest.” Here, finally, Hochschild finds the answer to the great paradox: Members of the right wing seek to promote their emotional, not their economic, self-interest.

About the Author

Influential sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s nine books include The Second Shift, The Time Bind, The Managed Heart and The Outsourced Self. Three of her books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year.