Boris Tsang / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Hochschild’s talk marked the final lecture in the “Difficulty of Democracy” series sponsored by Cornell’s Ethics and Public Life program.

May 2, 2018

Bestselling Author Empathizes With White Rural American Voter in Guest Lecture

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New York Times bestselling author Arlie R. Hochschild shared an understanding of white, rural Americans’ distrust of the federal government and these voters’ hopes for the future of democracy at a lecture on Monday.

Hochschild, who is an emeritus professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, recognized the rise of the far right as early as 2011 she said, with the “polarization” of the news media. This realization inspired her to ask the question, “How do we come together without losing ground?”

While writing her novel, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Hochschild journeyed from Berkeley, CA, to Lake Charles, LA, to traverse the political divide between Democrats and Republicans.

“I was in a bubble,” Hochschild said, regarding the inspiration for her book.

“A geographic bubble, an electronic bubble … and a media bubble,” she said. “That was a bubble too. And then I realized that the whole country was in a bubble, regional, social class, race. And so I thought ‘let me get out of my bubble.’”

Hochschild said that she approached the political experience as an author, a sociologist and a liberal American with many questions and a methodological mindset.

“I had a method in mind,” Hochschild said, “which was to take my moral and political alarm systems off and to permit myself a great deal of interest and curiosity about people that I knew I had profound differences with and to try and climb an empathy wall.”

Despite her strategy, the sociologist began her work with an understanding of what she calls “the red state paradox.”

The “red state paradox,” according to Hochschild, gives a name to the phenomena in which states that receive the most government funding for social and environmental programs also display the strongest distrust of the federal government.

Hochschild said she discovered “an exaggerated version” of the paradox in the example of Louisiana, which she said was “the second poorest state in the nation.”

“Forty-four percent of the state budget came from the federal government,” she said. “And it was overwhelmingly Tea Party.”

Hochschild saw the paradox in action in Louisiana but also “came to think about politics differently.” She came to realize that “at the bottom of political beliefs on any issue are feelings and emotions.”

“When people talk about emotions it’s as if it’s instead of thinking and it’s not,” Hochschild explained. “We all have these deep stories. A deep story is what feels true about a highly salient situation and we take facts out of the deep story. We take moral precepts out of the deep story. It’s just what feels true about something that really matters.”

The retired Berkeley professor characterized the right wing’s story as one of being “cut in line,” where individuals feel that immigrants, women and minorities are “getting ahead” while their own lives stay the same.

In the five years she spent traveling between Louisiana to Berkley, Hochschild faced one of the nation’s most divisive political elections. Still, she said she gleaned hopeful prospects for reconciliation from her experience.

“I really want to confront how it is we can not adapt to bad news,” Hochschild said, explaining where she stands now. “How can we come together while holding on to our gains? The way I see it, we are in a very dark political moment and it’s not a good time to sit back.”

Since publishing her book, Hochschild has become a self-professed “switchboard operator” between “the reacher-outers on one side and the reacher-outers on the other.”

She identified productive dialogue between the two extremes of political thought as first a discussion of values and only later a move toward policy.

“Don’t think conversion, think coalition building and think on what issues can coalitions be built,” Hochschild said. “Where you wouldn’t expect it, there are issues where we can come together.”

Hochschild’s talk marked the final lecture in the “Difficulty of Democracy” series sponsored by Cornell’s Ethics and Public Life program.