Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

The author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist from Berkeley, California, has attempted to understand the Tea Party movement by going to rural Louisiana. Over a five-year period she got to know the people of this region; attended political events, including Donald Trump rallies; and became friends with many hard-working men and women, all of whom live in an area that has been severely environmentally damaged by the oil industry. The result of her research is her 242 page book, Strangers in Their Own Land.

Hochschild attempted to solve a paradox: why do citizens who live in this area allow drastic cuts in public funding to the extent that Louisiana has fallen to the bottom of  the states in overall health, education, and welfare, particularly during the 8 years when Governor Bobby Jindal was governor, yet  have no objection to giving businesses over $1.6 billion in tax breaks? Hochschild developed a “deep story” that is an image of the way Tea Party people feel about their place in the political and cultural world today. Why are they so angry, and so upset with the federal government? They see themselves in a long line waiting to reach the American dream at the top of a hill.  They are patient, hard-working, devoted to family, church and community, but over the years they see the line becoming slower, and they are convinced the federal government is letting people “cut in line.” They see African Americans, females, the disabled, Mexicans, gays and now even Syrian refugees, being allowed to cut in front of them and get ahead of them. Mild discontent has grown to anger. 

Tea Party activists “feel” as though they are being left behind and isolated, yet believe they have better morals and a better work ethic than those getting in front of them. They have lost empathy for the poor and disabled, and reject the notion that big government has the correct solution for economic and environmental problems, notwithstanding that because of lack of regulations Louisiana has become an environmental disaster (you cannot drink river water; local fish cannot be eaten; cypress trees are dying; and toxic waste is being stored below the surface, with adverse effects). These people are genuine and care about their communities, but the feelings they have about being abandoned by the federal government and disrespected by the media and northern elites, has made them callous to those who do not work and who do not contribute to society. As one person stated, “ I think if people refuse to work, we should let them starve.” 

We need to appreciate the bitterness and sense of loss of  Tea Party activists, and we need to try to bridge the gap in understanding. It is clear from this book, however, that unless both sides make a good faith effort to communicate, there will be no early reconciliation.  This book should be mandatory reading for all those who are clueless as to the makeup of a Tea Party voter.