The Sunday Magazine

Democrats, not Republicans, are now strangers in their own land

Almost ten years ago, sociologist Arlie Hochschild ventured into the state of Louisiana and embedded herself for about five years with staunch Republicans determined to elect Donald Trump. With the Democratic primaries now underway and the impeachment trial finally over, we check in with Hochschild about the current electoral landscape.
L to R: Democratic presidential hopefuls, Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, arrive onstage for the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

It has become a truism: Americans are living in political silos as never before.   

In what has become the most factious era of U.S. politics, reaching across the political divide has at times seemed futile. But sociologist Arlie Hochschild believes that the hard work of finding common ground is something Americans need to do now more than ever. 

Hochschild is Professor Emerita in the department of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Almost a decade ago, she ventured into the Republican heartland, the state of Louisiana, and stayed there, on and off, for about five years. During that time, she grappled with what she called the "deep story" of voters who were determined to elect Donald Trump as their next president.

Arlie Hochschild is the author of Strangers in Their Own Land. (Paige Parsons)

She shared her findings in a bestselling book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Hochschild spoke to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright particularly at the end of a tumultuous week in U.S. politics.

Here are some highlights of their conversation, which have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Is the past week a foretelling of what we can expect in the next nine months? 

I think there's a good chance not. But it's been very discouraging. I think there is no question that Trump has not been chastened. In fact, with every challenge to his power and authority, he redoubles his effort and strikes back. So what's in his heart now is vengeance. I fear that.

In the years since you first went down into that red bubble, do you think the situation is the same, better or worse for those people? And have their political ideas changed?

I don't think that their economic circumstances have changed. But their attitudes have hardened. At the same time, I think with the media whipping things up and with a highly divisive president who is now saying that those who sought impeachment are "evil," people are anxious on both sides. And their anxiety makes them cling to the beliefs they have.

What would it take to get Democrats to climb, as you say, the empathy wall and understand these folks and perhaps try to win them over?

I think the first thing it would take is changing some attitudes about reaching across. One attitude that gets in the way of even trying to reach across is that trying to understand the other side is losing. To try and understand is mistaken for accommodation — that your own beliefs would turn to mush and you'd have to meet in some mushy middle. So there's a resistance to even the idea of it. 

I think we need to get rid of those attitudes and turn them around and say, "No, it's a civic duty and it's in the country's interests. It's in the interest of the Democratic Party to really understand why the whole working class has gone Republican." And it can be done. 

There are a lot of issues on which one can find common ground and I admire those that seek it.

I want to explore the constituent parts of President Trump's base. For example, as you've talked about it, it's abundantly clear that the President tells lies. How does the base respond to his character, his moral stance on things?

They don't like it. 

The person with whom I open the book — who has  worked in oil all his life, grew up on a plantation, very Tea Party and strong Trump person — I asked him, "Does Trump ever give you hesitation?" And he gave a long sigh and he said, "Where do I begin?" If you look at his Facebook page it's all just Trump, but privately, "Where do I begin?"

But they didn't see anything else for them on the Democratic side. That's what [we have] to keep in mind. Trump wasn't competing with any other voice, any other movement, that they felt heard by.

Why are they so forgiving of President Trump and his lies but not of what they see as weaknesses in the Democrats?

They feel seen by him and not by any of these Democratic candidates. I also think that the choice issue, the pro-life movement, is very strong. And the gun lobby. Those are the two big issues that put them in the Republican column. But even attitudes toward those two things seem to have hardened — not softened — in the last five years. 

What they feel is that they have, what they call, a flawed champion — a flawed leader. They're used to flaws, but God forgives flaws and they feel like he represents them.

You gave a speech to the American Psychiatric Association in which you said the left is less tolerant than the right of hearing and learning world views that differ from their own. How did you reach that conclusion?

A survey was done of what Republicans thought Democrats believed, and what Democrats thought Republicans believed. Neither understand the other but Democrats did worse. They're more in enclaves. 

Plus, education doesn't help. On the Republican side, the least educated Republicans did about the same. On the Democratic side, the least educated Democrats were three times more likely to get it right. 

The reason, I think, is that Democrats tend to live in large, urban, often coastal cities where there is a higher concentration of people like themselves. But if you look at the Pew polls on this, Democrats are more ideologically outreaching and don't believe in living in enclaves. They believe in diversity of all sorts, including political diversity. So there's a paradox there. They believe in it but they're not living it. And I think that's distorting their thinking.

Your book title was Strangers in Their Own Land. I wonder to what extent have Democrats become the strangers in their own land?

Excellent point. I think that's right. I think that Democrats have become the strangers in our own land. And it behooves us to do something about it. We're still lacking, I think, the leadership to pull that off but this isn't just a thing for leaders. I think everybody has to get busy now.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.