You’re in a queue. You have been for some time – decades, even. And it’s hot here, too, under the blazing sun. 

In front of you, the line of people stretches up a hill, as though you’re on a pilgrimage. You try to be patient, although by now you’re thinking things could hurry up a bit. You surely deserve it after all these years. 

Suddenly, you see people walk up and shamelessly force their way into the queue ahead of you. In fact, some of them even turn around and swear at you.

Then the supervisor shows up. Is he going to say something? No. He doesn’t reprimand the queue-jumpers. He just gives them a friendly wave. 

The kindling and the match

This story is from Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild.

For this book, the professor emerita of sociology immersed herself in the American political right wing. Over the course of five years, she regularly stayed in ultraconservative “Bayou Country” in Louisiana. She herself comes from lefter than left Berkeley, California. She couldn’t have left her bubble any further behind. 

In Lake Charles, Louisiana, she entered into conversation with people on the far right, still adherents at the time. She spoke to gospel singers and truck drivers, attended barbecues and church services.

She had been studying the kindling – now she saw the match

She also visited a meeting of Trump supporters in March 2016. Throughout her time in the US American South, she had been studying the kindling – now she saw the match. Her book appeared in September of that year. In November, Trump won the election. 

Queueing for the American Dream 

Hochschild distilled a “deep story” from all the conversations she had in Louisiana – a story that might not be completely true, but that certainly feels it. Hochschild argues that the role of emotion is often left out of political analyses. But “to understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes,” she writes.

Her interviewees felt as though they were standing in a queue. When she presented this story to them, they recognized themselves in it. “I live your analogy,” said Mike Schaff, one of the main figures in her book. 

What are these people, the right-wingers, queueing for? For the American Dream. For prosperity and security, after all the setbacks in their lives.

And who’s jumping the queue, according to them? Women, African Americans, refugees, civil servants – people who are given preferential treatment by the government in the form of affirmative action, benefits and high pay. 

And who’s giving the queue-jumpers a friendly wave, in their eyes? The president at the time: Barack Obama. 

Turn off your alarm system

Maybe this is already making the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and you’re coming up with reasons why this story isn’t true. Or you might respond emotionally, maybe even physically, because you don’t agree.

Hochschild is used to this kind of reaction. After all, she’s a liberal herself. But instead of going into discussion mode, she turns off her “alarm system”. Instead of firing back with counter-arguments, she asks questions.

Take her conversation with Madonna Massey – blonde curls, flowery skirt, easy laugh – for example, at a meeting of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana. “I follow the Rush doctrine,” Massey says. She’s talking about Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio presenter. 

This isn’t someone Hochschild agrees with – far from it. For her, it’s like telling that you follow the Kanye West doctrine. 

But Hochschild swallows her own convictions and tries to climb over the “empathy wall”. She doesn’t start a debate with Massey, but invites her for a cup of coffee instead. 

Instead of firing back with counter-arguments, she asks questions

In the conversations that follow, Massey talks about how she agrees with Limbaugh’s remarks about “feminazis” and “environmental wackos”, as well as how she’s in favour of capitalism and against government interference. “The American Dream is not due to socialism or the EPA,” Massey tells her. 

Eventually, they get to what might be the most important reason Massey is a fan of Rush Limbaugh: “Liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

Limbaugh defends her and her ancestors against this kind of insult. He is their protector. 

At a certain point, Massey asks Hochschild a question. “The next time I saw Madonna, she was interested to know if it had been hard for me to hear what she’d said,” Hochschild writes.

No, Hochschild replies, she is here to learn. And that question alone – whether it was difficult – gives her the sense she’s being approached as a human being. 

The Great Paradox

Hochschild speaks to many people whose problems could, in her eyes, at least, be easily solved by the government. Take the huge sinkhole, which formed because of a collapsed salt dome cavern. The sinkhole could have been prevented by more regulation – just like much of the environmental pollution that plagues the area. 

Despite this, people here vote overwhelmingly for less regulation. Hochschild calls this contrast “the Great Paradox”. 

She finds the answer to this mystery in stories – in the “deep story” about standing in the queue, but also in the stories people tell about themselves. There’s the Team Player who is loyal to the industries that create jobs, the Worshipper who believes that capitalism comes before saving the planet, the Cowboy who thinks risk is simply part of life.

Strangers in Their Own Land is hard to summarise, because it’s an experience. Like in a novel, Hochschild pulls you into all kinds of engrossing stories, so that – just for a moment – you’re in someone else’s shoes. 

A diplomatic mission

The book teaches you about the US American political situation, which is useful for the upcoming elections. Emotion will play an important role in these elections, too, and not all political analyses will be as rational as Hochschild’s. 

But the value of Hochschild’s book goes beyond this. She shows you how to have a constructive conversation with people who don’t share your views: by showing genuine curiosity and treating them as human beings. Social media could do with taking a page out of her book. 

She shows you how to have a constructive conversation with people who don’t share your views: by showing genuine curiosity and treating them as human beings

Not everyone agrees with this approach, Hochschild said during a 2016 interview with Ezra Klein. It can feel as though you’re surrendering, laying down your weapons and walking over to the enemy. But, she says:

Whether it’s about corona, climate or benefits, let’s carry out these diplomatic missions more often. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with each other, but at least you’re making a genuine attempt to understand the other person.

I follow the Hochschild doctrine.

Translated from the Dutch by Hannah Kousbroek.

Dig deeper

Two cups, one yellow with an cartoon of Trump giving the finger with the text ‘because fuck this shit’, one pink one with ‘Vote Hillary, like Obama with a vagina’ Democrat or Republican, on the big polarising issues, you actually agree The evidence is clear: once US Americans drop their labels, they are more aligned on what they actually believe their government should do – yes, even on healthcare. Read this piece by Zaid Jilani here