Understanding The American Right in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own LandFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2016
Publisher: New Press
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
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I read Strangers in Their Own Land in June. I haven’t been able to stop talking about it. When I first heard of this book, I immediately put it on hold at the library. I once thought the beliefs and convictions of the American far right were beyond my understanding. How could I ever understand how someone could hold values so severely divergent from my own? In Strangers in Their Own Land,  Arlie Russell Hochschild undertakes the important task of “truly listen[ing] to the other side in order to understand why they believe – and feel – the way they do”. Through Hochschild’s book, I have come to an understanding of how someone might hold the beliefs of the far right.

One friend of mine commented that they didn’t want to read this book because they didn’t want to empathize too closely with the actions the right. I don’t believe that would be an effect of reading Strangers in Their Own Land. My experience was that I could now understand the perspective and logic of the right, if not perfectly then at least to a better degree than before I read this book. I still think most of their fundamental beliefs are significantly flawed. For example, a few people spoke about their need to elect an anti-abortion candidate over one who was pro-environmental protection (even though they wanted the environment better protected) because God would judge them over the abortion issue and not the environment issue. I will likely never understand how someone can put their personal religion ahead of the rights of their fellow human beings. Yet I can now see how those feelings would influence their political actions.

Other aspects of their beliefs I do have a clearer understanding of. I have some small sympathy there because, from my perspective, these beliefs stem from misunderstanding, ignorance and fear. (If only we could facilitate better communication between the left and the right…) Hochschild crafts what she calls a ‘deep story’ halfway through the book. This is a story that “removes judgement [and] fact to tell us how things feel” (135). She writes in second person to share the experience of a Tea Party member. This narrative in the middle of the book helps put her research into perspective. Tea Partiers are emotional, feeling people, just like anyone else, and this story shows how they came to feel what they feel in today’s world.

Hochschild explores how Tea Partiers believe that liberals want them to feel bad for everyone who is ‘behind them in line’, when they feel “downtrodden themselves and want only to look ‘up’ to the elite” (219). They see people who receive social benefits as receiving a leg up, as jumping ahead in line when they don’t deserve to. One person is quoted as saying, “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.” Well. :/ There’s the fundamental difference. I believe in acknowledging privilege and trying to make the world a better place for those who aren’t as lucky as me. It’s not exactly about feeling sorry for someone, yet that’s what the right wing is hearing from the left wing.  Through Hochschild’s exploration of various social, religious, and community factors, I see now how someone might come to such right wing beliefs.

There are a lot more quotes I could use to exemplify how worked up I got while reading this book. I would shake the book and scream internally, “How can you think that?!” While I may have asked that question before, it becomes almost even more frustrating to ask that question when you can see the logic and emotions behind their beliefs, and you can see where the thread of their beliefs gets pulled away from your own. Yet that’s why this is such a good read – it took me into the minds of people I would never be able to comprehend otherwise.

The Bottom Line:

For those of us on the left who want to understand why the right wing is right wing, Strangers in Their Own Land makes for an invaluable read.

Further Reading:

  • Book webpage
  • Interview @ Democracy Now
  • Review by Lory @ Emerald City Book Review
  • Review by Susanne @ Goodreads
  • Review by Ralph Benko @ Forbes (a right-wing perspective – very interesting if you’ve read the book)
  • Review by Jason DeParle @ The New York Times

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