When sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild ventured from her home in progressive Berkeley, Calif. across the “empathy wall” to the Tea Party territory of Louisiana, Florida, and the Deep South she read Ayn Rand in preparation and braced herself. She found a world void of the New York Times, organic produce, recycling bins, and the phrase gluten-free. She also found “many warm, open people who were deeply charitable to those around them.” Hochschild discovers the deep story of the South which, in part, explains the great paradox (the success of the Tea Party, which denies the existence of climate control and belittles the Environmental Protection Agency, in states plagued by industrial pollution), and the rise of Donald Trump.
According to Hochschild, the right and the left both “value caring and fairness,” but the right favors authority and the left prioritizes creativity. Both the right and the left value freedom. The right values freedom to: to carry a loaded gun, to buy a daiquiri through a drive-through window, to talk on a cell phone while driving. The left values freedom from: from gun violence, car accidents, and pollution. These differences in values combined with the Great Recession (and what many perceive as the government’s failed attempts to fix problems), Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric presented on Fox News, and the deep story of the South led to the deep rift in America’s political world.
A deep story is one that feels real. “A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s a story feelings tell, in the language of symbols.” Hochschild uses the analogy of waiting in line for the American Dream to explain the deep story felt by many southerners: they are patiently waiting in line, doing their part, but the line is barely moving. Suddenly other people are cutting in line: women, immigrants, refugees, even the brown pelican (the Louisiana state bird). Compassion can only go so far in the face of this brutal unfairness. Southerners Hochschild spoke with perceive President Obama on the side of the line-cutters, even a line-cutter himself. White southerners feel overlooked; worse, insulted.
Feeling overlooked is nothing new in the South. In the 1860s, when wealthy plantation owners expanded their holdings of lands and slaves, sugar and cotton pushed the sharecroppers, the tenant farmers, and small farmers to the fringes, into swamps and areas where ingenuity had more value than manners. However, becoming a gentleman was still the dream, poised as these poor whites were between the wealthy and the desperate lives of black slaves, peering forward with hope and fearfully avoiding looking behind in what was an early form of line-waiting.
The 1960s and 1970s saw black Americans, women, Native Americans, gay, lesbian and transgender communities speaking up and out about their place at the back of the line. As legislation slowly came into existence to ensure and protect the rights of all peoples, the white, middle-aged southern man felt himself pushed farther back.
Being over-looked was one thing, but southerners also felt ridicule, and were tired of hearing their deep story was a lie. They were called ignorant, racist, homophobic and worse. The legacy of these two movements in the white South, a century apart, is anger, resentment, and a seething desire to seize their rightful places in line for the American Dream.
Honor is a big part of the deep story—honor in work, family, and church, in sacrifice. Conservative liberals identify up with a sense of optimism, of hope that by waiting in line, by behaving honorably, they will get to the front of the line. Much of that optimism, Hochschild explains, come from religion.
Many southerners don’t have faith in the government or politics, but they do have religion. Jackie, a wife and mother in Louisiana, felt saved by Jesus when she was 19-years-old and, while she admires Abraham Lincoln, she scoffs at government. “Presidents? You can’t see them and they don’t see you. But Jesus is always there.”
For another family Hochschild interviewed in Louisiana, the Arenos, “religious faith has moved into the very cultural space in which politics might have played a vital independent role.” While the Arenos know Republicans are big business, and won’t help with cleaning up the industrial chemicals in the Bayou d’Inde, the party still stands for anti-abortion legislation. The Arenos still see the Republican party as being with God, and God gives them the strength to deal with their problems. “Politics hadn’t helped, they felt, and the Bible surely had.”
This deep story—one of waiting in line until strangers cut in, of a president who supports the line-cutters, and of insults coming from the people ahead in line—led to feelings of anxiety, resentment, betrayal, and anger on the right. Hochschild illustrates with individual stories about real people, good people, whose deep story is simply different from that of the progressive West.
Sally Cappel and Shirley Slack are both educated wives and mothers, and formerly neighbors in Lake Charles, La. They each had keys to the other’s home. They loved each other’s children, exchanged Christmas and birthday gifts. Sally is a progressive Democrat who, in the 2016 primary favored Bernie Sanders. Shirley is a Tea Party member and Donald Trump supporter. Even after Sally moved from Lake Charles the women spoke several times a week and took trips together. According to Hochschild these two women serve as an example for our country: they demonstrate “the capacity to connect across a difference.”