[from my 2018 Goodreads review]
A liberal Berkeley sociologist, alarmed by the yawning fissure in American society between left and right, spends five years in Louisiana talking to Tea Partiers to try to understand their viewpoint. The result is a thoughtful, insightful look at what is, let’s face it, a prime mover of political events today, and not just in the USA, either.
That prime mover is, essentially, a reaction against first the 20th and now the 21st century. White male power and status are on the decline and everyone else’s is on the rise, and old white men are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.
You are patiently standing in a long line…Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream…you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster…Look! you see people cutting in line ahead of you!You’re following the rules. They aren’t…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 for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches…These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day–and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn’t be getting them now. It’s not fair.
And so with women, and immigrants, oh, and Barack and Michelle Obama.
How did he get into an expensive place like Columbia University? How did Michelle Obama get enough money to go to Princeton?
All the people she talked to, Hochschild says, respect hard work and admire hard workers. Hard work is a principle of the Tea Party (at least they pay it a lot of lip service). What could possibly exclude the Obamas from that respect and admiration, I wonder.
As her keyhole issue she looks at the environment. Big oil has replaced big cotton as the plantation industry in Louisiana, a state which makes them welcome with virtually no regulations and local communities which end up paying for most of the infrastructure necessary to maintain that welcome. The result? Pollution on a scale I didn’t even realize was possible in the United States today. There is a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana lined with refineries and petroleum products manufacturers called Cancer Alley. One of the first couples Hochschild talks to lives on Bayou d’Inde. Six of the husband’s siblings and his mother are dead of cancer, and his last remaining sister has breast cancer.
But they hate the federal government’s EPA and believe it best for the industry to self-regulate. I would bet they especially hated an EPA run by Barack Obama. And now they literally cannot swim in the waters of their own bayous. Hochschild recounts the story of a boy riding his horse into a bayou downstream of a plastics factory, where the horse was instantly coated in a kind of toxic plastic that kills it two days later.
The history of the American south factors in here as well, beginning with the Civil War, continuing with Big Cotton, and the Civil Rights movement, all seen as the imposition of the North’s will on the South. I’m sure LBJ’s Great Society fits in there, too.
And then along comes the Tea Party and validates all their worst suspicions, and along comes Donald Trump, validator-in-chief. Hochschild attends a Trump rally.
Looking back at my previous research, I see that the scene had been set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit. Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground…They also felt culturally marginalized…And they felt part of a demographic decline…His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own…Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated…As if magically uplifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land.
I like that so much of what she writes is in quotes, direct from the mouths of the people she talked to, and I liked most everyone I met in this book (They sound like they’ve got a bunch of great cooks in Louisiana, too, although you couldn’t get me near the seafood.) but it is impossible to ignore that they have created and now embrace a culture of grievance. They lost the Civil War and then the carpetbaggers took over. Big Cotton came in and dispossessed all the white sharecroppers. The Civil Rights movement sent all those pesky rights workers down from the North from whence all evil comes and tried to register black people to vote. LBJ’s Great Society took Louisianans’ taxes and gave them away to all the wrong people. These folks want things back the way they were before, when they and other people who looked like them were on top and in charge, and they voted for Trump because he promised them he could take them back to 1950. To a man and woman they hate the label “poor me” and utterly reject its application to themselves, but…
I can appreciate not liking being told what to do; that gets my back up, too. But these folks have starved their government of the money to run it for so long that bad government in Louisiana has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very thing–the only thing–that could help them, good government, they regard as the Antichrist. The result? Louisiana is consistently rated at the bottom of every social indicator there is. Hochschild includes a drawing issued by the state government showing people in Cancer Alley how to cut the poisoned parts from fish they catch so they can eat the rest.*
That’s what is left of their government can do for them. No wonder they hate it so much.
*As an Alaskan I can’t begin to describe how horrifying I find that.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.