I had to jump down to the one and two star reviews of this book to make sense of what book the four and five star reviews were reading. Perhaps purely as a form of sociology this book succeeds. But the absolute embarrassingly flawed premise of this book, backed up by the promoting of the same mythology it seeks to understand, and the complete erasure of gigantic parts of the country are not only wrongheaded and bizarre, but actively harmful.
Update: I thought about it more and dislike it even further.
The premise here, not brought on by the Trump 2016 election, but by the rise of the Tea Party in the late 2000s and especially by 2012, this book seeks to understand the gulf between the Right and the Left, by giving members of the Right unfettered access to tell their own stories. And it turns out that according to this book, they see themselves as victims of culture wars, victims of affirmative action, and victims of liberal elitism. Ok fair enough about those feelings. Yes, I also agree that they are complex individuals and have a lot more going on about them than caricatures in the media.
This book plays exactly into the hands of the right-wing mythmaking in this country. For both this book and that apparatus, hard-working equals white, Southern equals white, rural equals white, middle-class equals white, Christian equals white, moral equals white, and all the other values that are being discussed in this book co-opt all the language of morality and encode them to mean white. And while this book does slightly press upon the idea of whiteness as being a defining factor, it barely interrogates the ways in which whiteness is not A factor but THE defining factor of how this happens. Even the Republican party admitted that this was their bread and butter in the wake of the 2012 election loss. Their conclusion? Rely less on alienating non-whites from their platform. Their strategy moving forward? Whiteness. Turns out none of them are racist, because they always say “I’m not racist, but….” So without pressing up this and following up in meaningful ways, that’s the story. I know they aren’t going to say it. But to write a book about the Tea Party and barely acknowledge that it was completely in response to having a Black president is ahistorical and bad.
So the other thing this book patently ignores is, well, the last 70 years of history. The telling of this story began (in the modern sense) with the election of John F Kennedy and the coalescing of conservatism into the 1964 Barry Goldwater candidacy. The mainstreaming of the John Birch Society and eventually coupling that with white Christian fundamentalism in the late 1970s, the rise of Fox News in the 1990s, and the right-wing social media frenzy of the 2000s/2010s is why we’re here now. If we want to treat the right as fully-fledged members of society with agency, I also agree that we should not infantilize them and treat them like they were duped, or low information, or confused, or voting against their own interests. Instead, they have agency. They saw the same world as the rest of us and made their choice.
I get that people were scrambling for understanding after 2016, but the answer is a lot more complex than “We stopped listening to these people”. Maybe we did, but for fifty years they’ve been consolidating local power and using that to exert minority control over the country in order to enact a paranoid white conservative Christian theocracy and only through devoted and tiring efforts, not by the Democrats (although by many many many Democrats and Democrat politicians) as a group, but people who recognize extremism when they see it is it right now “only really very bad” instead of as “bad as they wanted it” and it’s getting worse. So I don’t know the answer. But again, if they are fully vested in this reality and are making active choices, I don’t seek to understand them all that much. No one’s ever asked me why I vote the way I do and felt bad for me because I feel so downtrodden. Where’s the conservative sociologist reaching out to me? Oh he’s also talking to conservatives.
I understand the situation is more complex than I’ve made it out to be, and Arlie Hochschild is earnest and well-meaning (but she’s also a UC Berkeley professor who’s lived in the Bay area for like 40 years) but all the same people she interviewed here have counterparts in the same communities who reached very different conclusions about the world. Yeah, we live in a dystopia, but I don’t really feel like reaching out to the one hell bent on making sure they reap the benefits of that dystopia. Especially since I grew up with them and still live around them. I sincerely hope we’re done playing these games.