Strangers in their own land

Laurine Blonk & Ellen Grootegoed reviewed Hochschild’s book “Strangers in their own land”.
Nominated for the American ‘National Book Award for non-fiction’ after its publication in 2016, sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s latest book Strangers in their own lands. Anger and mourning on the American right is a must-read for everyone who feels estranged after the recent victories of right-wing politics. 

Hochschild’s journey and the empathy wall

Hochschild introduces us into the lives of eight different Tea Party voters, who are living, caring and working in one of the most right-wing states in America, Louisiana.

In response to the growing gap between left- and rightwing voters in the United States, Hochschild spent five years making new rightwing acquaintances and following their lives, to climb what she calls the ’empathy wall’ that stands between them and her own leftist environment. The empathy wall is described as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances” (p. 5). Her approach, as a sociologist of emotions, is to grasp how life feels at the other side of the wall. The resulting book is an intriguing invitation for her readers to climb the wall as well.

Rather than providing a general book discussion, which already exists manifold (1), we aim to show why this book is a must-read for every care ethicist who wants to engage with the politics of distribution and recognition of care. We focus on one key term that describes a common experience in the lives of Tea Party voters: the capacity to endure, and how it adds an important perspective to Joan Tronto’s work on Caring Democracy.

No government regulation

What might a Berkeley professor expect when she embarks on such a climb, attempting to summit the empathy wall? “To prepare for my journey I re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a Tea Party bible lauded by the conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh and former Fox News television commentator Glenn Beck. Rand describes serving the needy as a “monstrous idea”. Charity, she says, is bad. Greed is good. If Ayn Rand appealed to them, I imaged, they’re probably pretty selfish, tough, cold people, and I prepared for the worst” (p. 22) Against her literature-based expectations, Hochschild was warmly welcomed in the Tea Party community; the people she met were hospitable to a stranger, opening up their homes and sharing their life stories. Additionally, the Tea Party voters turned out to be deeply involved in caring relationships with their loved ones and with local charity initiatives. However, the climb became a lot harder when she tried to understand the following: why are these people so firmly opposed to welfare and government support, especially given that they do value the care of others?

Hochschild determines that her right-wing respondents are the ones paying a big price for the current consumer culture. The cocktail of petrochemical industries in Louisiana and years of practically no government regulation caused the local environment to accumulate dangerously high levels of pollution and many residents to grow ill from exposure. The industry also caused the collapse of an underground salt dome cavern, which led to the emergence of the “Bayou sinkhole” in 2012. As a result, the population of an entire village had to abandon their homes.

The Bayou is generally a poor region and many residents vividly remember how poor their families were when they were young. At first sight, this could be a way to understand the opposition to government intervention. Residents and politicians have sided for a long time with the industries, voting against any type of government regulations for pollution, because those industries would (supposedly) provide jobs and welfare to the region. Pollution was a price that had to be paid. However, over time the right-wing Louisianans became increasingly aware that this promise did not hold true. Due to the globalization of the market, the industries increasingly offshore their manual labour, and the local residents, most of whom have little or no education, are not qualified for the increasingly available high-tech positions.

No poor me’s

The life stories of the eight people Hochschild describes are filled with struggles and misfortunes directly related to the declining labour market and the heavily polluted environment. It is here that Hochschild unravels a different part of emotional life at the other side of the wall. Government intervention is seen not only as a threat to the market, but also as being incompatible with these individuals’ main source of personal dignity.

No matter how bad the situation in Louisiana might seem, the residents do not want to be seen as victims. “Not claiming to be a victim (of pollution), accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of loyalty to free enterprise – this was a tacit form of heroism, hidden to uncurious liberals” (p. 155).

Hochschild convincingly shows us how the problems affecting the residents are dealt with on the individual level by a special type of emotional labour, endurance. For example, Janice Areno (61) had a disadvantaged childhood, but she takes pride in the fact that she worked hard, never claimed to be a victim, and never “took a dime from the government” (p. 157). This capacity to endure is highly valued among Hochschild’s respondents. People who do not live according to this practice are viewed as “poor me’s”. In this perspective, government support, such as benefits or affirmative action, targeted at women, black people and immigrants, helps to sustain, or perhaps even create, a “poor me” mentality in situations where people should be enduring. On top of that, Hochschild’s respondents feel that the government (the left in particular) is telling them – the endurers – to feel sorry for these “poor me’s” and asserting that the endurers are morally backward if they do not. These endurers experience misrecognition for their own capacity to endure an unjust situation. However, to ask for acknowledgement of their own unjust situation is to present oneself as a “poor me” too, which is out of the question.

The capacity to endure in a caring democracy

Understanding the hardships of the – often invisible – capacity to endure does not in itself help us to climb the empathy wall. It does, however, tell us something about potential pitfalls in addressing unjust situations such as these.

Care ethicist Joan Tronto, in her work on Caring Democracy, is trying to find a solution for two interweaving societal deficits: the care deficit and the democratic deficit. She proposes a broad caring perspective on society, in which care is understood as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (Tronto, 2013, p. 19). Democratic politics should focus on the assignment of responsibilities for care, and everyone should be participating on an equal footing in this deliberation.

In Tronto’s view, the private concerns of the Louisianan residents should not have remained private. They have been unjustly deprived of care and of opportunities to care for their loved ones and their own living environment. Ideally, in a caring democracy, these should be discussed as a part of the assignment of responsibilities. In Tronto’s view, everyone is on equal standing in this deliberation, and these concerns are in everyone’s interest. Who would not be willing to participate?

However, Hochschild’s in-depth investigation of the capacity to endure as a source of personal dignity shows that there might be an empathy wall hidden within this assumption too. The capacity to endure is a response to a former situation in which people were deprived of adequate care. As a result, they might not be willing to participate, because democratic politics can be seen as a practice that is encouraging “poor me” behaviour rather than acknowledging this capacity to endure.

Why? To assign caring responsibilities, we also need a better understanding of silenced and privatized caring responsibilities and needs, as Tronto makes clear. However, to understand these needs and responsibilities, they must be made public, and people who are deprived of adequate care have learned to ‘endure’ rather than publicize their care needs, responsibilities or deprivations. Tronto’s view suggests that to take part in the caring democratic politics, the endurers in the Bayou sinkhole must learn to politicize their unjust situations. Their caring needs and deprivations are not only instances of misfortune but also outcomes of policies that can be changed to improve their situation and the situation of their loved ones, both now and in the future. In other words, the vicious care deprivation–hardship–endurance-cycle must be broken. Just as respondent Lee Sherman (82) did, when he publicly announced that he had been doing the company’s dirty work for years, ordered by his boss to dump toxic waste into the Bayou d’Inde. Sherman’s personal revelation instigated a successful lawsuit against the company, as it had poisoned the local fishing water; a small victory for the fight against carelessness and privileged irresponsibility.

After reading Strangers in their own lands, we come to learn that right-leaning Louisianans regard the welfare state as the mean stepmother who unequally divides her motherly care amongst offspring. Industry may be a father who is not always there for them, but who does at least fulfil some of their needs, particularly the financial ones. There is a low expectation that any institution will recognize endurers’ struggle to lead a proper life in unjust situations. Therefore, how to transform this vicious cycle of unequal care into a virtuous cycle of equal care? One important tread is to promote care as a basic human need and right in a caring democracy, because one thing is certain: until citizens begin to demand care, institutions are able to remain uncaring. Hochschild’s thorough investigation of Tea Party Voters’ care logic especially underscores such a promotion of care, as it is an important first step in breaking the silence of endurers’ hidden care needs and deprivations.

1. See. e.g. The New York Times:


Hochschild, A. (2016). Strangers in their own lands. Anger and mourning on the American right. New York: The New Press

Tronto, J.C. (2013) Caring Democracy. Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York: New York University Press

On the authors:

Laurine Blonk, Graduate Student in Humanistic Studies and Philosophy, University of Humanistic Studies / Erasmus University Rotterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam, the Netherlands,

Laurine Blonk completed a bachelor’s degree in Humanistic Studies (Bachelor of Arts, 2014) and a pre-master’s degree in Philosophy. During her graduate studies, she has worked as a research assistant in a study on the recognition of people with mental and psychiatric disabilities in the labour market. She is currently working as a research assistant for Ellen Grootegoed’s research on the Dutch turn to care voluntarism and for a long-term study on the devolution of social care, youth care, welfare and sheltered work in the Netherlands. She has also worked as a teaching assistant in Bachelor’s- and Master’s-level courses in Humanistic Studies on existential meaning-making, phenomenology, social in-/exclusion, citizenship in a competitive society, and emotional labour in welfare state reforms.

Dr. Ellen Grootegoed, Assistant Professor of Cultural Dynamics, University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, the Netherlands,

Ellen Grootegoed completed an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree at the Utrecht University Honours College, with majors in Sociology and Psychology (Bachelor of Arts, 2005). Following this, she specialized in the analysis of social policy in the master’s programme for Social Policy and Social Interventions at Utrecht University (Master of Science 2007, cum laude). In 2007, she began conducting research in the field of care and welfare policies. Between 2007 and 2009, she worked as a junior researcher/teacher at Utrecht University in the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Science, where she performed an analysis of choice schemes in long-term care, and the combination of care and work. Between 2009 and 2013, she completed her PhD thesis entitled, “The Dignity of Dependence” at the University of Amsterdam, in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. From 2013 to 2014, she worked for the University of Edinburgh as the Chrystal Macmillan Research Fellow in Social Policy, conducting a study on the emotional labour of austerity in social work. Since 2014, Ellen Grootegoed has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Humanistic Studies, teaching both Bachelor’s and Master’s students. Her current research focuses on the turn to care voluntarism in the Dutch welfare state.

About the author: Webteam

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