'Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right'
Berkeley Professor Emerita Arlie Russell Hochschild ’s newly published Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right is an important book and a delight. It’s a sociological – almost anthropological – foray into the minds, hearts, and lives of the Tea Party — my own Tribe. Prof. Hochschild’s jacket biography describes her as “one of the most influential sociologists of her generation.” I’m probably the first right winger to review it.
A long time ago – 2010, a past epoch – the Washington Post invited me to represent the Tea Party in an online Q&A. I had been the co-emcee of the July 4, 2009 Boston Tea Party rally in Boston Common. The Tea Party was, then, a rising force – about to wrest control of the Congress from the progressive Democrats. The online Q&A made me feel like an alien who had just landed in a flying saucer on the national mall to be confronted by curious, hostile Earthlings.
At the start of the Q&A I revealed how the City of Boston had slow walked the 2009 permits. I told the Washington Post‘s Q&A how I reached out to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office for help. The permits appeared, miraculously, within hours. Sen. Kennedy was a true liberal, cherishing freedom of assembly and speech even by those with whom he disagreed.
My praise for Sen. Kennedy notwithstanding most of the Washington Post‘s readers still treated me as an alien belligerent.
The Tea Party, now, is but a shadow of its former self. Perhaps it has in part morphed, as suggested by Prof. Hochschild, into the Trump Campaign. I give Prof. Hochschild, a progressive Berkeley academic, enormous credit for going over what she aptly calls the “empathy wall” to investigate what she calls “The Great Paradox.” The Great Paradox has been fairly paraphrased by at least two prominent reviewers as “Why is hatred of government most intense among people who need government services most?”
Spoiler alert: most Tea Partiers feel that we need good jobs, not government services, most. And it is our view that the federal government has spent 16 years ineptly stifling job growth and betraying our trust in many other ways. More on this later.
Prof. Hochschild lit out for Louisiana to encounter some of us up close and personal. What she calls her “keyhole issue” into the paradox is that the people of Louisiana, very devoted to the land, are hostile to federal intervention against pollution and industrial practices destroying their land and water and way of life. I am as appalled as she at the record of the former government’s big tax giveaways to Big Petro, throttling of essential government services, and ignoring the environmental degradation.
Thanks, in part, to the environmental degradation caused by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- a federal agency -- Louisiana reportedly has lost an area of its landmass the size of Delaware. That's yet another source of our sometimes inchoate mistrust of government.
There are no paradoxes in nature. A paradox always means that there is some deficiency in our perspective. As Niels Bohr once said “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” So I give Professor Hochschild enormous credit for tackling her paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.
Prof. Hochschild yields many fascinating insights. I especially enjoyed her deep dive into what she calls our “Deep Story.” That said, one senses that she herself is not quite satisfied that she has resolved the paradox even to her own satisfaction. It is my pleasure here to point out the several keys which she inventoried but did not turn in the lock. Time to resolve the Great Paradox.
It’s really difficult, even undertaking meticulous field and abundant scholarly research, to appreciate someone else’s narrative. It’s even difficult for insiders to see and convey it. I have spent many years pondering our Deep Story from the inside.
Three keys to resolving the Great Paradox:
- The Great Paradox is slightly misstated. We don’t need government assistance. We need jobs. Good jobs provide both prosperity and dignity. For technical reasons good jobs cannot be provided in mass by the government civil service. Poor economic growth over the past 16 years has caused a sense of near desperation among the rank-and-file. It is the dwindling of such job growth, and with it the possibility of playing by the rules and getting a piece of the American Dream, that fuels resentment of others such as immigrants. Such resentment is inevitable in a zero sum game. Tea Partiers sense, as supply-siders like me have repeatedly declaimed, that a bad government policy mix is the perp behind job stagnation. No wonder we are somewhere between skeptical of and hostile to our pretentious government.
- Poor, sometimes catastrophic, performance by the government, especially regulators at all levels, municipal, state, and federal, has forfeited our trust in the government’s competence and even good faith. The plenary extent of the failure signals that while the diagnosis is right the remedy is defective. The vast regulatory state has failed. The prescription of More Regulatory State leaves us, at best, incredulous. There are legitimate other ways to make business — the only possible source of great jobs — keep the environment pristine.
- The first line of Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of Amontillodostates our mood to perfection: “THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” We have been remarkably patient with the injuries Big Government in Cahoots with Big Business inflicted on us. Insult, however, is intolerable.
Prof. Hochschild picks up and displays each key but she does not turn them in the lock.
As to the first key, as she observes, skilled workers employed in the oil industry and chemical plants can make $80,000/year. That is, as she points out, more than twice or three times as much as can be made in the agricultural, fishing, and tourist economy. That’s a huge differential.
I recall a column I once wrote some time ago for Global Times, the English language edition of the Beijing’s People’s Daily. One of the commentators, commenting on another comment, crisply observed, “Sounds like this was written by someone with a full belly.” If a person’s only real chance at economic security, and even modest affluence, derives from working for a petrochemical company it is unrealistic not to recognize that workers will develop a strong partisanship, even to the point of turning a blind eye to corporate misdeeds. It’s human nature.
As to the second key, Prof. Hochschild shares the left’s Deep Story as to the benevolence of government regulation. That belief remains unshaken notwithstanding her dramatic reports of repeated regulatory negligence, failure, and capture by the regulated industry. She reports, credibly, heartrending devastation of the environment and of health of workers and neighbors and of corporate abuse of the legal system to avoid paying meaningful damages for the damage from their emission of toxic chemicals into the environment. She documents repeated government failure at every level – local, state and federal – repeated government betrayal of innocent citizens. Such betrayals are by no means limited to Louisiana.
Her response? More regulation.
As Hemingway concludes The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Government benevolence is a dubious proposition. Environmental degradation was even worse in the Soviet Union. It is even worse in the People’s Republic of China. Having worked inside and close to the federal government for 30 years I know up close and personal that while policy sometimes correlates with good outcomes more often it represents symbolic gestures or represents good intentions that build a road to Hell. As Prof. Harold James, of Princeton, concluded in an important recent article in The American Interest , “Before offering up yet more technocratic fixes for what at base is not a technical problem, these folks need to get out more.”
This observation does not represent a counsel of despair. Nor does it countenance shilling for Big Business. Just, let’s get real. A corporation making a million dollars a day can afford lobbyists and lawyers and PR agencies with which to subvert the government. The rank-and-file have no such resources. It was ever thus.
Government officials, whether elected, appointed, or career civil service, are people just like us. Government is neither staffed nor inhabited by angelic creatures. Concentrating more power in the hands of officials and civil servants by no means promises benevolence. Benevolent dictatorships are only slightly less rare than unicorns.
What, then, to do? Robert Townsend, then president of Avis Rent-a-Car, wrote an iconic best seller, Up The Organization. In it he addressed the problem of runaway corporate policy and human resources manuals. These are cognate to government regulations, now running to the millions of words. Townsend: “If you have to have a policy manual, publish the Ten Commandments.”
Poisoning the habitat and imperiling the health of people is criminal and actionable to lawsuits. The rage of Tea Partiers may be inchoate but it is justified. My libertarian friends would be horrified by the failure to prosecute, both criminally and civilly, acts of force, fraud and coercion. Conservatives believe that more affluence will bring about political dynamics that will bring about cleaner air and cleaner water. This is part of our Deep Story and has a lot of historical evidence grounding it.
Regulations are almost inevitably spottily enforced due to the attendant expense and political blowback. Rather than imposing stifling regulations, better to impose prison time and stiff damages on malefactors. The law, rather than regulation, has a marvelous deterrent effect.
Corporate executives do not like to wear orange jumpsuits. Shareholders detest billion dollar damage judgments. The free market, you see, actually works if applied. That’s my Deep Story and I’m sticking to it.
There is another benefit of ending crimes against humanity and habitat by “publishing the Ten Commandments” – and enforcing by law, not regulation, those prohibiting murder, theft, and dishonesty. Doing it that way would speak directly into the Deep Story of most Tea Partiers whether religious or secular. These Commandments represent deep-seated norms of social justice cherished by conservatives as well as progressives.
As for the third key, it is not easy for progressives, who trend sanctimonious, to grasp how insulting we find what Prof. Harold James, in the same article above referenced , calls “massive condescension from the elite.” In this the elites are out of integrity with their own principles. One of the signature claims of progressives is to celebrate diversity, to oppose invidious discrimination of “out groups.”
President John F. Kennedy pioneered the federal government’s entry into championing equality with an Executive Order , signed on March 6, 1961, establishing The President’s Committee On Equal Employment Opportunity. He declared it to be the “plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin….”
Bravo! But hold on a moment! Somewhere respect for “creed” seems to have dropped out of progressives’ Deep Story pantheon. Creed, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is defined as: “a set of beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions….” That is its third definition. The first two are: “a system of Christian or other religious belief; a faith: people of many creeds and cultures, and … a formal statement of Christian beliefs, especially the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.”
I know for a fact – I’ve done it – that a red meat Tea Partier like me can get along beautifully with members of the progressive elite no matter how puzzling they find me. My own creed holds “Capitalize with the capitalists but socialize with the socialists. They throw much better parties." But now it has become an article of faith in the Progressive Creed that it is a virtue to discriminate against those with whose creeds they disagree. That’s really very ugly.
We Tea Partiers do not actually represent a threat. We want great jobs. We want effective rather than oppressive enforcement of environmental and worker safety laws. And we demand respect.
Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right is by far the best book by an outsider to the Tea Party I have ever encountered. It lays out in plain sight, although does not quite turn in the lock, the three keys to resolve the Great Paradox. Still, it makes a wonderful contribution to the national discourse. We Tea Partiers really are (mostly) as delightful as Prof. Hochschild reports. That said, our Deep Story — that of restoring America as the “Land of Opportunity” — is deeper than the one Prof. Hochschild has reported.
Do not fear us. And if there comes a day where the Earth stands still know that we come in peace. Back to my Washington Post2010 online Q&A as a member of the Tea Party to Washington, DC. It made me feel like Klaatu, the Michael Rennie, character emerging, surrounded by the U.S. Army, from his flying saucer on the national mall between the Washington monument and the Lincoln Memorial in the 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still.
The Washington Post’s readers treated me as an alien. A stranger in my own land.
America is a land that used to be called The Land of Opportunity.
Originating at Forbes.com .
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