A liberal author tries to cross over an 'empathy wall' in Louisiana

May 3, 2017

The present partisan divide in America seems more bitter than at any time in recent memory. To try to better understand it, liberal sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent five years conducting what she calls an “empathic study” of her political opposites in Louisiana.

“I was concerned about a growing split between left and right across the country, and I realized that I lived in an enclave — a geographic enclave, a media enclave, an electronic enclave — and that we all do,” Hochschild says. “So, I decided to get out of my enclave in Berkeley, California, and go [somewhere] as far right as Berkeley, California is left; to take my moral and political alarm system off and really try to cross over an empathy wall.”

Hochschild documented her experiences and insights in a book, "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right."

She was particularly curious as to why so many Louisianans oppose federal environmental regulations. Some of what she found surprised her.

“The people I came to meet love the birds and the water and the grand cypress trees, the ‘queens of the wetlands.’ They love nature,” Hochschild says. “It wasn't that they didn't know about the pollution. Of course, they did. Louisiana has the second-highest death rate from cancer for men.”

But many of the people she met equate the federal government with the North, and the North “was always wagging its moral finger at the South,” Hochschild says. “They felt that environmentalists were the last in a series of Northerners coming down to tell them the right thing to do.”

Louisianans also distrust the federal government because of their experience with protective agencies in their own state, Hochschild says. Louisiana is an oil state, and industry “outsources, in a way, the moral dirty work to the state,” Hochschild says. “So, the state actually pretends to protect the citizenry from hazardous waste and pollution of air and water and ground, but it doesn't actually protect it very much ... So, they felt the federal government is just a bigger, badder version of a state government.”

In addition, many of the people Hochschild spoke with see the federal government as an instrument of what Hochschild calls the "line cutters." This concept is part of the “deep story” that Hochschild believes underlies much of the anger and distrust Southern whites feel toward the government.

Hochschild says, “The right’s deep story is this: You're waiting in line, as in a pilgrimage, looking at the top of a hill at which stands this much-desired American dream. You’re not in the back of the line, but it hasn't moved for many, many years. Some people I interviewed hadn't gotten a raise in two decades. So, your feet are getting tired. You feel like you don't bear grudges to any particular group. You're a good person. You've worked hard. You've played by the rules, and you deserve the prize at the top of the hill.”

“Then, you see some people that seem to you to be cutting in line,” Hochschild continues. “Well, who are they? They are blacks, who now, through a federally mandated, affirmative action program, have access to jobs that used to be reserved for whites. Even worse, women, who through federally mandated affirmative action, now have access to jobs that used to be available only to men. And then you have immigrants and then you have refugees. So, all these intruders.”

In another key moment of the right's deep story, President Barack Obama, “supervisor of this line, seems to be waving to the line cutters," Hochschild says. “'In fact, isn't he sponsoring these line cutters, and isn't he a line cutter?' Many people said to me, ‘How did a single mother, his mother, pay for a very expensive education at Harvard and Columbia. Something fishy.’ So, they felt that he, too, wasn't obeying the rules.”

“They don't think of themselves as racist, and they are insulted when they turn on the television and see that they are viewed this way,” Hochschild says. “Race was, of course, an enormous part of the story, and I do talk about it in the book, but it was woven together with the sense of decline and fear, and a sense of being invisible to the authorities.”

Among many instances of industrial pollution she discusses in her book, Hochschild looks into a sinkhole that appeared in Louisiana in 2012. It formed in a cypress grove just outside of a town called Bayou Corne. The hole was created by a collapsed underground salt dome cavern operated by Texas Brine, a company that was extracting sodium chloride for plastic production. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated from their homes. A mandatory evacuation order was not lifted until 2016.

Hochschild spoke with Bayou Corne resident Mike Schaff, whose home was ruined in the disaster. Schaff continues to oppose federal environmental regulations, in spite of his self-professed desire to protect the environment.

“It's poignant, because the first thing Mike told me is, ‘The problem with federal government, is, it takes community away. It supplants community. We ought to do for each other the things that government does for us. We're better off if we have local-type community,’” Hochschild says.

“But it wasn't the presence of government that took a community away from Mike Schaff,” insists Hochschild. “It was the absence of government regulation that took community away from Mike Schaff.”

Hochschild says she and Schaff talked about this later on a fishing trip with her son David, a member of the California Energy Commission in charge of renewables, and a progressive Democrat.

"David said, 'In California, we have much tighter regulation and less pollution and you could have that, too,'" Hochschild relates. “When he put it that way, Mike said, 'Well, it's not fair that some states are the polluted states and have the worst health. We should live in the United States, where every state has the same degree of health and cleanness of the environment.’”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

From Living on Earth ©2017 World Media Foundation