Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist and author, set out to learn about the Tea Party before Donald Trump was elected president.  She decided to travel to Louisiana because it typified the popularity of rise of the Tea Party in the South.  Its disregard for environmental regulation, championing of low taxes, and sorted racial history all led to a fertile environment.  Hochschild’s produces a fascinating portrait of the people caught in the rise of the Tea Party in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016).

Hochschild finds a warm welcome and produces flattering portraits of the people of Louisiana.  She confronts the central paradox of the book—why do people take positions so opposite their economic interests?  She views the large corporate monopolies (such as the oil companies in Louisiana) as the “Walmarts” of commerce and wonders why small businesses would support these practices.  After all, it’s been a centrally-held position that people vote with their pocketbooks.  She finds that Tea Party advocates vote for identity.  She begins by exploring that perhaps the pairing of social issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion with capitalist ideas explains these votes.  But she finds more.

Hochschild offers a metaphor to explain the support of voters for positions undermining their own position (e.g. opposition to Medicaid expansion).  She envisions people in line for the American Dream.  If they picture people cutting in line through affirmative action or other government-approved practices, they want to strike out.  This “cutting in line” serves as a metaphor to explain objections to government assistance and regulations of all kind.  This explains why Tea Party advocates can rail against Social Security—even while accepting benefits—or EPA regulations protecting the waterways while they witness repeated poisoning of the bayous.

“While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land,” writes Hochschild.  (228).   This is a fascinating book which illuminates but doesn’t demonize.