The ‘deep story’ white conservatives tell themselves


One of the questions that many people ask themselves is how it is that so many people buy into what the conman Donald Trump is selling them even when it seems that he is working against their own interests. University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild says that it is clear that Trump is the culmination of a process that first came to the forefront with the Tea Party. She had earlier decided to try to set aside her preconceptions and explore the Tea Party phenomenon and spent five years having in-depth interviews with people in the heart of Tea party country and Trump’s election came during her research.

She has produced a book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right where she sets out her findings.

The book fixates on a paradox: Calcasieu Parish in Louisiana, where she spends much of her time, is one of the most polluted regions of the country, ravaged by the oil and petrochemical industries. Residents mourned the loss of the pristine bayous of their youth, of their favorite fishing and hunting spots. Yet to her surprise, they remained deeply hostile to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental regulation. Why was that?

On the surface, the reasons were what the people she interviewed told her. But she said that underneath those commonly heard explanations there was a deeper story the conservative white residents were telling themselves.

They felt left behind or even kept down by a federal government that no longer looked out for them — that was against their interests at every turn. When Donald Trump enters the scene midway through the story, she’s none too shocked that he finds fertile territory here.

There’s something hugely important to them that many liberals can’t see. And that something is that they feel like almost like a minority group, forgotten and set aside, displaced.

They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.

And the main point is that they feel the government, the federal government, has been an instrument of their marginalization.

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

As I have said many times before, it is very dangerous when the majority develops a minority complex, the sense that it is a beleaguered and oppressed group. They still have power over the minorities whom they view as oppressors but in addition now feel a sense of righteous entitlement to use that power against their perceived enemies. Demagogic politicians down the ages have exploited this sense of victimhood to rouse up the majorities to get elected to office.

Comments

  1. rich rutishauser says

    PZ linked to a video the other day that (at least on the surface) ties into this; https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2019/03/23/conservatives-always-have-pyramids-in-their-heads-i-guess/

    It is seriously hard to feel bad for these people though, no matter how many studies, books, etc are written telling us how they feel oppressed. They can’t focus long enough to see who is doing the actual oppressing but manage to step on the throats of anyone they perceive below them and come up with elaborate conspiracies to justify it.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    that something is that they feel like almost like a minority group

    At the risk of seeming rude: duh. Perhaps for an encore this researcher can investigate the toilet habits of Ursidae or which particular sect Jorge Bergoglio favours.

    Why might they feel like a minority? Time and again I keep hearing about how important it is for women and people in real minorities to see themselves represented -- on TV, in films, on the boards of top companies. It’s really important that a young black girl sees someone like her in a position of power and influence so she can realise and aspire to something like that.

    When I see poor working class white Americans represented in popular culture, they are either out and out villains or objects of ridicule -- modern day circus freaks. Possibly that representation gets to them after a while.

    They felt left behind or even kept down by a federal government that no longer looked out for them — that was against their interests at every turn

    Hang on -- aren’t they right about that? I keep hearing about how the federal government is lining the pockets of the military-industrial complex and cutting favourable deals for large corporations like Amazon and Apple and Google and looking the other way while the rich buy their kids into top educations. They sure as shit aren’t doing that for the benefit of the average redneck -- or have I got that wrong? Is getting rid of Obamacare going to help poor white Americans somehow?

    They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large

    And that feeling is absolutely correct, as any objective inspection of current popular culture would confirm.

    They feel that they’re seen as rednecks

    They are absolutely correct in this too.

    the main point is that they feel the government, the federal government, has been an instrument of their marginalization

    And. They. Are. Right.

    They still have power over the minorities whom they view as oppressors

    Go to the dilapidated home of a laid-off steelworker with no healthcare and no prospects in the kind of polluted, declining towns they’re on about here, go and tell them all about how they have power over you, Mr. Retired Professor. I dare you.

    Literally the only power people like that have is their vote. And in the US, they have just two places they can put it. One with a party that offers them nothing, or one with a party that offers them nothing but at least looks like it might make it even worse for folks already worse off than them. And for a bonus, voting that second way? That annoys the kind of people that ridicule them as rednecks, and ignorant, etc. It is the one and only power they have, and failing to understand that put Trump in the White House.

    If you’re on the left and you need a sociologist to write a book to explain this shit to you, you are part of the problem and Trump is your fault.

    We have a similar problem in the UK, with Brexit -- hordes of people hit hard by Tory austerity, “tired of experts”, duped by people who’d cross the street to avoid them into voting against their interests, simply because that vote is the only power they’ve ever had. Our first-past-the-post electoral system means most people’s vote doesn’t really count for anything (due to the concept of the “safe seat”). Because of that, there’s massive disillusionment with democracy. And in 2016, the entire establishment lined up behind a Remain vote -- every living Prime Minister, the vast majority of parliamentary MPs on all sides, every economist, every pundit not in a billionaire’s pocket, every scientist, engineer, doctor, lawyer, constitutional expert. And on the side of Leave -- chancers, clowns and literal Nazis. And the British public -- the fucking stupid, ignorant, old, white, working class, powerless British public -- saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity to say “No” to the people in charge. And here we are.

    We will get nowhere winning these people round by coming over all wide-eyed at the idea they think successive governments have screwed them over. You will win them over only by saying yes -- we’re here for the poor white folks too, and here’s what we’re going to do for you… then delivering a list of stuff they actually want. It worked for Tony Blair in 1997 in the UK. It could work for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in 2020. But tell them they’ve got power, and you’ll lose them before you start.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    It is seriously hard to feel bad for these people though

    Yeah. Fuck ’em.

    Great strategy.

  4. says

    And this is the biggest problem with the electoral college and the senate. Even though they don’t have the majority of the votes, their votes still allow them to damage your country like they do.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Hochschild seems to have lost her anthropo-/socio-logical detachment, adopting her subjects’ point of view. She must not have spoken to any progressive Southerners who could tell her about the ubiquitous paradox of wonderful, friendly, neighborly people who carry around big balls of hatred inside.

    … they see people cutting ahead of them in line. … people are cutting ahead unfairly.

    Sure, everything’s okay so long as blacks (et alia) remain at the rear.

    But shame on anybody who accuses them of racism!

  6. sonofrojblake says

    the ubiquitous paradox of wonderful, friendly, neighborly people who carry around big balls of hatred inside

    … and, y’know, actual guns, outside.

  7. consciousness razor says

    I think we need to be clear that it isn’t merely a “sense” or a “feeling” of being oppressed. It’s real, and they’re not mistaken about that at all. People like this are sometimes (certainly not always) mistaken about who or what is the source of their oppression. And the ways they react to this, which often involves harming other groups, is of course very problematic as well.
    But it would not be good to try to convince them that they’re not actually treated like shit. They are, and they will realize that perfectly well, no matter what rhetorical tricks you have up your sleeve. We have no business trying to invalidate that, to sweep it under the rug, to distract them with some other topic that we’d rather talk about, etc. And all this abstract talk of “privilege” and so forth does understandably sound totally alien to people, when it fails to make contact with what they know their own shitty lives are actually like.
    So what do we do? I think the focus should be on the inappropriate ways they’re diagnosing the problem and how they’re trying to remedy it. They do not understand their ailment and are trying inadequate and harmful treatments. In that respect at least, there is plenty of room for sympathy.
    And if this is more or less the right story, it’s nothing new under the sun — it’s not a new phenomenon which is specific to Trump or Tea Partiers or Republicans or the US. People have dealt with that kind of thing throughout history, sometimes in productive ways, sometimes not. If we do something to “solve” it, locally and in the short term, we also shouldn’t be too shocked when it happens again, since we know it’s happened a million times before.

  8. machintelligence says

    sonofrojblake: ” You will win them over only by saying yes — we’re here for the poor white folks too, and here’s what we’re going to do for you… then delivering a list of stuff they actually want.”
    Possibly, but these are folks who will laugh in your face if you say “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

  9. Steve Lion says

    So how do we explain the wealthy and near wealthy amoung us who voted for and continue to support this abomination that has become our government?

  10. Owlmirror says

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned paying attention to these issues, it’s that intersectionality is important, and that there are multiple axes of privilege and oppression, and different ways that bigotry, bullying, and social cruelty can play out.

    Just because a group has white privilege doesn’t mean they aren’t being oppressed on the axis of class, and vice versa.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    “Southern Whites don’t get to complain”

    They do get to vote Trump, though, and that kind of thought-free reaction to the very ideas their lives might not be perfect is the reason I don’t blame them when they do. You *refuse* to get it, don’t you?

  12. says

    sonofrojblake @2:

    When I see poor working class white Americans represented in popular culture, they are either out and out villains or objects of ridicule — modern day circus freaks. Possibly that representation gets to them after a while.

    And, yet, they take it out on the people trying to get minorities represented rather than the people ridiculing them. Oh, but let me guess…you’re going to tell me those are one-in-the-same? Yeah, sure, I’ve definitely seen so-called liberals mocking southerners for being “inbred” and it’s deplorable. But, let’s be honest, the people ridiculing them the most are the rich white guy conservatives. I have little doubt that someone like Trump would have taken pleasure in ridiculing such people up until the time he wanted their vote. (Like you also said, “duped by people who’d cross the street to avoid them.”)

    sonofrojblake @12:

    that kind of thought-free reaction to the very ideas their lives might not be perfect is the reason I don’t blame them when they do

    What “thought-free reaction” are you talking about here? The thought-free reaction of them voting for Trump? Or are you suggesting the suggestion that they don’t get to complain is a “thought-free reaction”? Why? Just because you disagree with the reaction?

    sonofrojblake @2:

    go and tell them all about how they have power over you, Mr. Retired Professor. I dare you.

    And what, exactly, is that supposed to prove??? You, Mr. Condescending Brit, dare tell us who have lived in conservative America what that part of the country is like and what did that do? You’ve largely managed to anger me more and to largely ignore any point you may have actually had. I suspect that is much the same that would happen if Mano told white people that they have power over him. But it doesn’t mean Mano is wrong just because what he might say angers someone, just like it doesn’t make you wrong that you’ve angered me. Unless you want to admit to being wrong. Then be my guest!
    I grew up in rural North Dakota. Sure, my immediate family were some of the few liberals in the area and, yeah, I was homeschooled much of my upbringing because my parents were concerned about my dropping grades which, in turn, isolated me somewhat from the conservative bubble that was all around me. But I was still surrounded by it. My maternal grandparents and the rest of my family on that side are conservatives. I went to a small college in South Dakota that a lot of conservatives attended. I’ve been directly exposed to the American conservative mindset. Have you? With that, here’s one major thing you get wrong:

    One with a party that offers them nothing

    No, that party offers to retain what they believe their place to be in the hierarchy. Seriously, go watch the video rich rutishauser references @1. I don’t “refuse” to get it. No, I get it. I lived it. I don’t need a Mr. Condescending Brit nor Mr. Arrogant Condescending Brit who maybe has not actually lived among rural American conservatives telling me, who has actually lived there (and still lives nearby conservative America here in Cedar Rapids, IA), how it is. They believe in the hierarchy in that video, which is why they fight against those helping minorities and vote instead for those who increase the disparities. There was an insightful quote from the article that Mano did not include and that is, “There was also kind of stoicism at work here. These were people who don’t have a vocabulary of being a victim, of victimhood. They very much disliked people who claimed to be victims.” Compare that, though, with a part Mano did quote about how “they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.” So they knew — they knew!!! — that people were, and still are, indeed being victimized, but those people were just expected to accept their lot. But not them, apparently! Yep. That’s definitely the conservative mindset I was exposed to. That then brings me to a second big thing you get wrong:

    You will win them over only by saying yes — we’re here for the poor white folks too, and here’s what we’re going to do for you… then delivering a list of stuff they actually want.

    And that’s what the Republicans give them! They want their place in the hierarchy preserved! So, sure, they’d be fine with, say, single payer health care if that system discriminates against minorities. Or, rather, has “trapdoors,” as the article framed it, for those they consider unworthy. Well, I sure AF ain’t going to do that for them. So I’m not going to win their vote. Guess we’ll have to get non-voters to the polls instead…which is what I’ve been telling people for pretty much this entire decade.

    tl;dr: One, you, sonofrojblake, seem to hold a belief that conservatives are suffering from something similar to what has been called “economic anxiety” and are ignoring the strong roll racism and religion plays into their lives. Newsflash: Racism and religion are very important to them! Two, you’ve taken a rather condescending tone towards those of us who have actually lived in conservative America when you currently do not and may never have yourself.

  13. consciousness razor says

    Leo Buzalsky:
    Is it the case that poor people (of whatever description) are victims of inequality, that they live in an oppressive society controlled by the wealthy?
    Yes, that is blindingly obvious.
    Is it also the case that people in rural areas are routinely discouraged and disrespected and disregarded by those in urban areas, mainly concentrated on the coasts?
    Yes, no fucking doubt about that.
    The end.
    sonofrojblake may not know this about the US from firsthand experience, but I do. And if you’re from ND and IA, then so do you. It may take a bit of reflection to realize it and come to terms with it, but I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you thought we were talking about something else, all I can say is that you have no reason to be confused about that anymore.

  14. bmiller says

    consciousness razor: I am not sure you fully get Leo’s points. I don’t disagree with the class angle of your analysis. But what you and sonofjake miss is how important the racial and toxic religious aspects of this unhappiness is.

    Even if everything you say in your summary is true, part of the problem is that one of the key things the WWC is bemoaning is the loss of racial and class privilege over “the lesser”. Their vaunted rural values includes hard core fundamentalist religion, which they insist must be actively promoted in public schools, government, and the culture generally. Even to the discomfort of minorities and dissenters. They are distraught that “traditions” of racial profiling, gay-bashing, wife-beating, etc. are in poor repute.

    I would also note that they themselves engage in exactly the same kind of dismissal…often violently…of people who don’t really fit in to their precious small town culture. m

  15. says

    CR and roj need to take a seat.
    Rural white americans brought this on themselves by refusing to keep up with modernity and continually voting for policies that explicitly fucked them over — but they didn’t care, because those other people (read: blacks) was getting fucked over harder.

    They do NOT get to support bigotry and segregation and white supremacy and then claim to be “victims”.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    Rural white americans brought this on themselves

    Victim blaming.

    It wasn’t the oligarchs, the Trumps, the Bushes or the Reaganomics. They brought it in themselves. Morons.

    On one level, I actually agree. They’ve been sold a lie their entire lives. Most of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it. I actually agree most are unreachable by reason and that non-voters are where progress is to be made. Leave out the victim-blaming, though, eh?

  17. Mano Singham says

    robertbaden,

    The origins of the term ‘redneck’ are quite complex. According to this article, although it is most commonly used now in a pejorative sense, “the term—originally an allusion to the sunburned red necks of farmers—was not always used as a slur amongst whites. For example, wearing red neckties and kerchiefs to political rallies, some southerners claimed the label as a “badge of class pride for a county’s populist voters.” In the 1970s, being a “redneck” became fashionable, and the term redneck chic, which seems to have little to do with outwardly disparaging race or class, was born.”