In STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND, Arlie Russell Hochschild does her level best to empathize with members of the Tea Party whom she met during her five years of research in Louisiana. Her attempt to view the grievances of conservative (and white) Southerners from the inside leads her to this summation:
“As strangers in their own land, [they] wanted their homeland back, and the pledges of the Tea Party offered them that. It offered them financial freedom from taxes, and emotional freedom from the strictures of liberal philosophy and its rules of feeling. Liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the downtrodden at the back of the line, the ‘slaves’ of society. They didn’t want to; they felt downtrodden themselves and wanted only to look ‘up’ to the [financial] elite. What was wrong with aspiring high? That was the bigger virtue, they thought. Liberals were asking them to direct their indignation at the ill-gotten gains of the overly rich; the right wanted to aim their indignation down at the poor slackers, some of whom were jumping the line.
“One cultural contribution the South has made to the national right may be its persistent legacy of secession.1 In the nineteenth century, the secession was geographic: the South seceded from the North. Between 1860 and 1865, the eleven Confederate states established themselves as a separate territory and nation.2 The modern-day Tea Party enthusiasts I met sought a different separation—one between rich and poor. In their ideal world, government would not take from the rich to give to the poor. It would fund the military and the national guard, build interstate freeways, dredge harbors, and otherwise pretty much disappear.
“So in the Tea Party idea, North and South would unite, but a new cleavage would open wide: the rich would divorce the poor—for so many of them were ‘cutting in line’. In the 1970s, there was much talk of President Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which appealed to white fear of black rise, and drove whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican. But in the twenty-first century, a ‘Northern strategy’ has unfolded, one in which conservatives of the North are following those of the South—in a movement of the rich and those identified with them, to lift off the burdens of help for the underprivileged. Across the whole land, the idea is, handouts should stop. The richer around the nation will become free of the poorer. They will secede.
They seem nice, don’t they? I don’t want to suggest that Ms. Hochschild’s empathy has been wasted on people whose single most identifying characteristic is their adamant refusal to empathize with others (or at least with “Others”); but yes, come to think of it, I do want to suggest that.
1 I assume Ms. Hochschild has her tongue firmly planted in cheek when she describes secession as a “cultural contribution”.
2 “established...a separate territory and nation” is how Southerners describe secession, but neither Abraham Lincoln nor the United States Congress ever acknowledged that status; for them, the Southern states were simply in widespread rebellion against the legitimate national government in Washington.