Thoughts on reading ‘Strangers in their own land’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Neoliberalism and the self-harm faithful

PART II – The Great Paradox

What Arlie Russell Hochschild calls the “Great Paradox” might itself spring from our difficulty in determining exactly what POPULISM is [or of what political wing; right or left, it is]. Populism has been both of or at least partially of the ‘left’ – the early farmers populist party in 1890s U.S. history with the moves for a fairer, more equal society or even the Chartists of the UK in the 1830s; they wanted suffrage for all [men], Louisiana’s Huey Long liberal progressive mandate in Depression America – and of, or partially of the ‘right’. Arguably, Trump’s populism – right wing and neoliberal – is the more dominant political strain now. YouTube has an interesting little video on the difficulty of pinning down exactly what populism is.

There is only one textual reference to ‘populism’ in Hochschild’s book:

‘To begin with, I read what other thinkers had to say about the rise of the right. At one extreme, some argued that a band of the very rich, wanting to guard their money, had hired “movement entrepreneurs” to create an “astro-turf grassroots following.” In The Billionaires’ Tea Party, for example, the Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham had found that home-grown “citizen groups” challenging climate change were funded by oil companies, and argued that POPULIST [my emphasis] anti-government rage was orchestrated by corporate strategy. [But] Others argued that extremely rich people had stirred the movement to life, without arguing that grassroots support was fake. The New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer describes the strategy of billionaire oil baron brothers Charles and David Koch to direct $889,000,000 to help right-wing candidates and causes in 2016 alone. “To bring about social change,” Charles Koch says, “requires a strategy” that uses “vertically and horizontally integrated” planning “from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organizations to lobbying to litigation to political action.”

P. 13. All quotes from Hochschild’s book are drawn from the Kindle Edition

Is the recent use of populism by the right a fact of modern American – and other nation state – life? I think that Hochschild would agree that it is.

Hochschild calls this modern evocation of populism – in the pre-President Trump era of which she is writing – the Great Paradox.  Hochschild’s perceptions of modern American Populism’s ambiguous soul are that it’s decidedly right wing and reflects the great divide in American politics.

She uses statistical anomalies to outline what it is she means by the GREAT PARADOX: ‘…[earlier] there was a paradox underlying the right–left split [my emphasis]. Since then [2004] the split has become a gulf. Across the country, red states [REPUBLICAN dominated] are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrolment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states [Democrat dominated](p. 8).

Hochschild is puzzled by the fact that the very people – in this 21st century – who would benefit from a more liberal, more interventionist and regulatory government are those who do not vote – it would seem – in their own interest.  They reject governance that would apparently improve their lives.

The paradox is that a populism exists that seems actively engaged in undermining itself. This is the puzzle Hochschild’s book sets out if not to solve then at least to make sense of. And this is the populism that Trump used to assert the paradox on the U.S.

Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading expert on populism, gave a lecture in 2017 at the Council of Europe entitled “How Populism endangers Democracy – and how to fight it”. Müller argues that populist leaders say that “they and they alone represent what they call the people, the real people… the silent majority”. Very Trumpian, very Viktor Orbán [Hungary], very Andrzej Duda [Poland] and very much Scott Morrison [PM of the 2018-2022 Liberal National Party coalition government in Australia], who referred to the silent majority as “the quiet Australians”.  

And very much the people of Hochschild’s book.  Note: ‘…the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify [my emphasis] all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” [immigrants, blacks etc.] are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!” Added to that is a potent promise—to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant’ (p. 226). Trump, in the observer of this political rally’s mind, has empowered the real America.

Hilary Clinton made a terrible mistake in labelling many of these ‘real Americans’ deplorable. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” she said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” Those who were not deplorable, Clinton said, “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”[1]

Clinton claimed America needed to understand and have empathy for those who felt this way. And Hochschild notes that this is true [she also implies that America forgot pretty much all of Clinton’s speech bar that one awful slip – the “basket of deplorables”]. A great paradox indeed. And irony. Of course both Clinto and Hochschild would agree that if we are to feel empathy – to understand – then we need to establish how these Americans, these people, FEEL about the story of their lives. To, as Hochschild sees it, see that:

‘At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel—happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian  refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief. And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president in 2016, can appeal, saying, as he gazes upon throngs of supporters, “See all the passion”’ (pp. 15-16). The paradox then – in my opinion – comes down to not being able to apply rational thinking to a state that is fundamentally emotive. If Americans [and Hungarians, and Brits, and Poles, and Australians…] can feel that they have been ostracised from their own homeland [and that government as is and was is NOT the way to reclaim their homeland] then our societies need to feel their way into how to respond. The great division – if resolvable – calls for great emotional intelligence, not just the application of logic. Hearts need to be won back.

[1] See

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