Much has been written, especially since the November election, about the gaping political divide in this country and how those in both camps do not even talk to each other, indeed often do not even know anyone of the other side.
This book is one of several recent efforts to bridge that divide, and I personally found it the most compelling.
Author Hochschild is a self-described liberal sociologist from Berkeley, California. She has authored several books, including “The Second Shift,” “The Time Bind,” and “The Outsourced Self.”
In spite of the recent currency of the topic, Hochschild did her research on this book over five years. As many have pointed out, there is a “Great Paradox,” in that many working class and poor people have, for several election cycles, voted for conservative pro-business Republicans who would not necessarily be expected to vote for policies that actually improve those voters’ lives.
The author’s argument, somewhat different from some others who have addressed this topic, says this may not be due to ignorance or social issues overriding economic ones, but rather due to a particular emotional script that becomes the way we view the world.
To research this question, Hochschild recognizes that there is a huge “empathy gap” between Progressives like herself and Tea Party Republicans. To remedy this gap for herself, she spent several months of qualitative research with people in southwestern Louisiana, around Lake Charles, and she eventually came to call them friends. This area has long been oil country, and it has been badly treated by both big oil companies and state government.
Some of the people she interviews at length have suffered great medical and economic consequences from exposure to toxic chemicals and weak government regulation and oversight. The author walked into this culture thinking that these people would blame the big oil companies, not the government, for their plight, but she was surprised. To them, big government was seen as the major problem.
The heart of Hochschild’s argument is the unexpected power of what she calls the “Deep Story.” The deep story is a narrative of how things feel, regardless of objective reality. She says we all have a deep story which becomes the prism through which we view the world. Until we understand the deep story of the other side, she says, we cannot bridge the empathy gap.
What is the Tea Party deep story? Imagine standing in a long line leading up a hill. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream of progress. Most of the people around you in line are demographically similar, heavily white working class. The line is long and often seems to move very slowly. To make things worse, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these appear to be minorities, women, immigrants, refugees, even protected endangered species.
Sometimes there is evidence of someone helping people cut in line, most notably President Obama and, more broadly, government agencies and individuals.
Whether such a script bears any relation to reality is not the point. Rather, it is what large numbers of people feel. Not only that, but versions of this deep story are regularly promulgated by other sources, such as Fox News. When Hochschild shared this deep story with her Louisiana friends, it totally resonated. They told her that’s exactly how they felt.
As long as government is seen as helping people “cut ahead in line” instead of protecting the “little guy,” that deep story will guide one’s interpretation of events. No matter that poor states like Louisiana consistently receive more in services than they pay in tax revenue, its citizens believe the opposite, because that’s how it looks through this deep story lens. Although well-written and easy to read, this is a scholarly book with extensive notes and bibliography.
There is also a helpful appendix fact-checking common impressions about government activities.
Hochschild does not neatly wrap all this up and show us where to go from here. I sense she still struggles with how to reconcile the Tea Party deep story with a reality that is quite different. However, she has performed a valuable service in helping us progressives to see why Trump had such strong appeal in 2016. This is the most compelling argument I have read on this topic.
I strongly recommend it to liberals, who are puzzled and aghast at the recent election, but also to conservatives, who should read it and see if her description of the deep story is what they are feeling. In any event, Hochschild has taken some concrete steps to work at bridging the yawning empathy gap, and for that she is to be congratulated.
Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K- State.