Strangers in Their Own Land: Psychology of the American Conservative

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A review of Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

I wanted to do this review after thinking how the leftypol milieu over-focuses on the young alt-rightists and not enough on the basic older boomers who make up the majority of the right. After reading this book, I have become convinced that I really, really do not understand the rightoid mentality as much as I thought I did.

The book largely chronicles an older, white liberal woman who goes on a “diner safari”, touring the bible belt and talking to conservatives, mainly in the early 2010s, and trying to figure out why they believe what they believe. A lot of the book is anecdotes about conservatives in Louisiana dealing with the aftermath of industrial pollution in their area. The book covers how the residents cope with it using religious belief, and also one crazy story about how the oil company hired ex special forces agents to infiltrate and break up an environmental group.

The right deeply, deeply, believes in the authenticity of a hierarchical society as much as the left deeply, deeply hates it. They simultaneously want a hierarchy and desperately want to not be at the bottom of one. They would rather take their chances being in the middle of a capitalist hierarchy, than throwing out hierarchy altogether, which they don’t really think is possible and even if it was they wouldn’t like it. This is really what ties all types of rightoid thought together, from libertarians to fascists to regular conservatives. You notice in Ayn Rand novels and ancap fantasies they’re always the ones running the place with bags of money, not just a normal worker.

What really comes across is a sense of male aggrievement. It’s not totally economic, it’s about access to “social honor” a.k.a. respect. You often hear, in profiles of Trump voters that they felt “disrespected” by “college educated elites”. Which totally makes sense in a day-to-day job, the manager is likely to have a degree, while the men on the shop floor don’t. Social honor is a sort of substitute for wage compensation. Even if the blue collar man’s actual wages are low, they can claim a measure of increased status through a hard, tough, physically demanding job like a firefighter, navy seal, etc. And that gives them respect. That’s why they freak out so hard about “defund the police”, because a policeman is one of the few jobs left that is a good job, that a high school educated/dropout blue collar man can get, with good wages, benefits, a union, and most importantly, respect in the community. At a very base level, its one of the few jobs where a person without a degree MUST be respected and can boss around a person with a degree. In a world of declining or stagnating blue collar wages, talking about toxic masculinity or defunding the police is decreasing the social honor of manliness and therefore the social honor component of their jobs. Same applies to the military. Soldiers are respected “for their service” which is also why they defend the military so hard, against peace activists or whatever. They see being ‘anti-war’ as a bunch of upper middle class PMCs/PMC kids waging a class war against the blue collar male.

some defenses of ‘traditional masculinity’ are incoherent

They have stagnating wages, their jobs seemingly being attacked, and to top it off the new, politically correct orthodoxy puts them as a straight white male as the most privileged and therefore paradoxically the lowest on a new totem pole. But unlike the white collar male, the blue collar male doesn’t have access to higher wages, and more importantly the white collar male doesn’t inhabit a world in which access to social honor is contingent upon “manliness” aka being a tough guy, its more based on their intellectual achievements, academic credentials, fancy job title, and so forth. The blue collar male, on the other hand, has an immediate social sphere that puts a high value on a ‘masculine’ traits, and therefore when they perceive the more dominant culture labeling this macho habitus as toxic, feels as though it’s an assault on the only thing they really have left. This explains the over-the-top angry responses to what, at the end of the day, are mostly pretty mild critiques by the liberal left.

This is probably why so many cops are assholes too who “demand respect”, everyone knows the stereotype of the high school bully who becomes a cop. It’s a profession more likely to attract people who want people to be forced to respect them, which is why they get so ungodly pissed if someone talks shit to a cop (i.e. “contempt of cop”).

‘member South Park?

The rage isn’t based just on economics, its based on the fact that they are coping with stagnant wages through access to social honor, and the culture (which they see as being controlled by Hollywood and liberal media) is shifting in a direction that no longer values the things like “being churched”, working hard, a man and father, etc. It’s a sense of rage at the cultural vertigo that seemingly happened overnight, things that used to make them honored are now a source of shame. In an increasingly secular nation, being religious is no longer that special or valued, and maybe even a source of anti-LGBTQ bigotry. In an increasingly diverse nation you now have to compete with women and minorities on the job market, increasing competition. Merely being born a white male with indoor plumbing is no longer enough to guarantee a great job as it was in the post ww2 boom years. For these men, America no longer seems to give honor for adhering to a traditional conservative lifestyle, which combined with idpol becoming the new orthodoxy and stagnant wages, even though white male wages are still pretty high, even blue collar wages, they feel like they are being socially “demoted” in terms of the respect, attention, and focus of society, which is enraging to some.

For these conservatives, ‘the left’ is more threatening than corporations because they threaten to impugn the moral character of blue collar and rural whites by changing the culture so that things which used to demonstrate morality of the person (work, regional pride, anti-abortion, church-going, faith-based belief) are beginning to be seen by a wider America as not relevant or even immoral. So while the left argue that they fight for their economic self interest, the right promises to fight in their “emotional self interest”. The left promises higher wages, but the right promises a reclaiming of dignity to soothe an aggrieved masculinity.

A lot of the rest of it generally boils down to the fact that a lot of older boomers have the post WW2 boom as their reference point, and feel a lot of generalized nostalgia and mourning for the passing of mid 20th century Americana. Sometimes it seems like they want some Fallout-after-gentrification or Jetsons type universe where the 1950s somehow lasted for a thousand years, technology maybe gets better (not green tech though, since climate change is fake) but social mores and culture stays basically the same. Of course, this is impossible.

 

lol

The conservatives have no trust in the federal government and trust their local neighbors and private organizations more, because even though they aren’t opposed to federal programs in the abstract, in reality they only want a government that would do things in the interest of “people like them” aka conservative christians. As it stands they see the federal government as an extortion racket made up of colluding “cosmopolitan elites” to tax their money and give it to “lazy” black people on welfare, and “lazy” government employees in exchange for votes. So even though they don’t like corporate America, they hate the federal government 999999x more.

It’s also a gigantic cope. They believe in the innate authenticity of wealth and power. Don’t believe this bullshit about liberty. So they totally 100% buy into the capitalist meritocracy but on the other hand they aren’t getting ahead, so by their own logic they lack merit. So because the reality of capitalism doesn’t look like their ideal, whats the deal? Their answer is that the government must be helping some other people “cut in line” like minorities, women, foreigners, etc. There is a deep and seething resentment that not only does their hard work not get them ahead, but that “liberal feeling rules” mandate sympathy for people of color, immigrants, etc. and as blue collar white males they feel “marginalized” and left behind.

 

There’s also the protestant work ethic on steroids. The exact part of capitalism leftists object to, forced wage labor, is the exact part that they love. Because from the secularized-Calvinist point of view, work is a virtue in and of itself therefore a system like capitalism, with no safety net, that forces people to work is inherently more moral. The mentality of the white right boils down to this: they are more pissed about people that they feel are “below” them getting ahead than they are at the wealthy ahead of them. They fear that if women and minorities get ahead then it will put them dead last in the social pecking order.

To use a metaphor from the 2012 movie “Django Unchained”, the conservative has the same mentality as Stephen, the slave driver/house slave on the plantation. Not only does he oppress his fellow slaves and discipline them for going against the masters, its not merely out of some cynical desire to maintain his higher position, but because he genuinely believes that the way things are on the plantation are natural and good. That slavery is the right way to run things. And that the occasional beating is the price you have to pay for the master’s generosity in providing food, etc. Django is like the communist who shows up, he refuses to bow to the system, to be buck broken, and that’s both terrifying and infuriating to Stephen, the idea that this impudent negro could have the audacity to rise above his place without waiting in line, like Stephen, seems unfair, like CHEATING by throwing out the rules of the game to begin with. Stephen trades servility to those above (whites, his master, etc.) in exchange for an ability to punch down on those below him (lower slaves). By transgressing the boundary as a freeman, Stephen really feels like Django is CHEATING him out of his “right” to feel superior to other negroes, to be a mini-slavemaster in his own domain. And that, is the psychology of the modern American conservative.

 

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