Unfinished sympathy


I have lived most of my life in the progressive camp but in recent years I began to want to better understand those on the right. How did they come to hold their views? Could we make common cause on some issues? These questions led me to drive, one day, from plant to plant in the bleak industrial outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with Sharon Galicia, a warm, petite, white single mother, a blond beauty, on her rounds selling medical insurance. Unfazed by a deafening buzz saw cutting vast sheets of steel, she bantered with workmen, their protective gear lifted to their brows, their arms folded. She was an appealing and persuasive fast-talker. (“What if you have an accident, can’t pay bills or can’t wait a month for your insurance to kick in? We insure you within twenty-four hours.”) As they reached for a pen to sign up, Sharon talked to them about deer hunting, about the amount of alligator meat in boudin—-a beloved spicy Louisiana sausage—-and about the latest LSU Tigers game.

As her story unfolded while we drove between plants, Sharon recounted how her dad, a taciturn plant worker, had divorced her troubled mother, remarried, and moved into a trailer a thirty-minute drive away, all without telling her brother or her. I left alive with questions. What had happened to her father? How had the fate of his marriage affected her as a little girl, then as a wife and now as a single mother? What were the lives of the young men she talked to? Why was this bright, thoughtful, determined young woman—-one who could have benefited from paid parental leave—-an enthusiastic member of the Tea Party, to whom the idea was unthinkable?

I thanked Sharon directly, of course, for allowing me to follow her in her rounds, but later in my mind I thanked her again for her gift of trust and outreach. And after a while it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined. It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge. We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.

The English language doesn’t give us many words to describe the feeling of reaching out to someone from another world, and of having that interest welcomed. Something of its own kind, mutual, is created. What a gift. Gratitude, awe, appreciation; for me, all those words apply and I don’t know which to use. But I think we need a special word, and should hold a place of honor for it, so as to restore what might be a missing key on the English speaking world’s cultural piano. Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

When opportunities arose to visit groups in Virginia and Arizona, we seized the chance to meet with grassroots Tea Party leaders and members who, almost without exception, were very welcoming and gracious to us. We came from afar, and they all knew or suspected that our political views are different from theirs. But they were still willing to let us get to know them individually—-not just in brief phone interviews or hurried snippets at big protest events, but at much greater length at their regular meetings and social events, in visits to their homes, and in hour-long personal interviews.

Through all our travels, we not only observed real-world groups in operation. We also met some special people. We got to know a blogger and former stay-at-home mom living in small-town Massachusetts who, having been active in politics during college, returned to formal politics through her local Tea Party and now works full time at a local social conservative organization. We spoke with a refugee of World War II now living in Virginia, a woman who came to America knowing two words of English and who was taken in by a family she describes as “hippie sheep farmers.” One of us (Vanessa) visited the home of a married couple in Arizona, sunbird migrants to the area, who shared not only their political views, but pictures of their grandchildren and stories of their RV travels across the country. And the other one of us (Theda) corresponded over many months by email with a gentleman in Virginia, who later helped arrange our visit to the Peninsula Patriots. When we traveled south, we were invited to his home for lunch and had the chance to meet the adorable little grandson that he and his wife, both in their seventies, have adopted and are rearing.

We found each person we spoke with admirable and likeable in his or her own way. Though their politics puts them toward the far right of the U.S. political spectrum, the Tea Parties we have met are at once as typical and as eccentric as any other group of Americans you might run into. Indeed, should the focus not be on politics, the Tea Party meetings we attended could easily bring to mind a run-of-the-mill meeting of a homeowners’ association, or a Bible study group, or a get-together at the VFW hall or the Elks’ club. We hope that as we try to put the Tea Party into historical and national context, we also convey a human story—-and we are very grateful to all who spoke with us for taking the time to participate in our research.

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

As an exciting use of my free time, I have been reading two related books about the modern conservative movement. One, by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson (the former a prominent sociologist at Harvard) was the definitive primer on the Tea Party movement at a time (2012) when the movement was nascent and initial impressions about it were contradictory. The other was written by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a similarly prominent and prolific sociologist on the opposite coast (she is a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley). She tries to answer the question posed in Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: why do Republicans vote against their own self-interest? The book was published at a propitious time, when liberals across the country were seeking to understand how a Trump election could have happened. (It brings to mind Pauline Kael’s quip after Richard Nixon’s re-election: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”) David Brooks, an indisputable master of the genre, even cited it approvingly.

The sociological approach to politics is to embed oneself with the people driving the political movement. Hochschild spent several years talking with and profiling strident conservatives (and eventual Trump supporters) in Louisiana. Skocpol and Williamson attended Tea Party meetings and conducted interviews with Tea Partiers. The left-wing style of sociology is rather different from the right-wing style in temperament. In Hillbilly Elegy, venture capitalist and National Review contributor J.D. Vance denigrated his own people as white trash, explaining, “We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being.” Hochschild, Skocpol, and Williamson are far more sympathetic to their interlocutors, as exemplified in the excerpts I quoted above. The people they profile are “bright, thoughtful, and determined”. They are “admirable”, “likeable”, and “special”. They are full of good humor. They embody family values. They are generous with their time. And, most importantly, they are willing to build the “empathy bridge” that these ivory-tower sociologists want to traverse.

The danger of empathizing too greatly with one’s subjects is that one is tempted to portray them in a misleadingly flattering light. The other danger is that politics is conflated with, and reduced to, interpersonal feelings. This is particularly evident in Skocpol and Williamson’s book. Here’s a representative passage:

We never got the sense, however, that any of our Tea Party informants actually knew any Muslim-Americans personally or even foreign Muslim visitors of whom they disapproved. Their statements and fears in this area were highly abstract.

And that matters, because findings from statistical studies and even interviews can oversimplify the nuances of racial attitudes and relationships in real-life America, including in the lives of Tea Party members. Perhaps one of the most revealing moments in our interviews was a discussion with Mandy Hewes. We had asked her if there were any government programs of which she approved, and she responded by telling us about her [adopted] son, Terrence…an African-American child suffering not only from parental mistreatment but also from a learning disability. Though Terrence had come to their family at age 13, Mandy referred to him as her son, and was proud to report that Terrence had graduated high school, was working, and still called her every week….

The stereotype of Tea Party activists as unreconstructed racists—-as people who react to politics and policy only through racial oppositions—-simply does not jibe with the life story of this very conservative white woman who opens her home to minority teenagers from troubled backgrounds.

Skocpol and Williamson even engage in the New York Times-esque use of euphemisms when talking about Tea Party attitudes towards people on welfare: “For Tea Partiers, deservingness is a cultural category, closely tied to certain racially and ethnically tinged assumptions about American society in the early twentieth century.” (If you recall, the NYT once wrote about how congressional Republicans “[are] used to agonizing over how to handle the president’s offensive comments and racially tinged remarks”, prompting Adam Serwer to comment on the Times’s “ludicrous and expanding menu of complex euphemisms for describing racist behavior”.)

There are several mutually reinforcing impulses that influence how both sociologists and journalists portray the people they are profiling. First is the matter of access. Skocpol, Williamson, and Hochschild are evidently grateful for being provided a window in the lives of their subjects. It is not unreasonable to infer that this access compromises their ability to tell the truth; no one wants to publicly condemn people who have so graciously let you into their world. Second, sociology is a discipline founded on empathy; sociologists often tell empathetic stories about groups not traditionally viewed in that light. Journalists, I’m sure, are susceptible to the same emotions. These writers see their subjects, particularly in the case of the Tea Party, as the type of good-natured, humorous, elderly, well-educated people who are part of their own families. Faced with an “other” who is not really an other—that is, someone who could be you if she were raised in slightly different circumstances—, the first impulse becomes to explain and empathize rather than condemn and ostracize. And third, there is, as I had mentioned before, the error of conflating personal goodwill with political attitudes. And not only that: personal feelings in one domain do not necessarily transfer to another. John McCain adopted a Bangladeshi daughter. He also implied that being a “decent family man” and being a Muslim were mutually exclusive. Rush Limbaugh had a wife (well, actually, several). He also coined the term “feminazis” and called a woman a slut for advocating for birth control. Many Republicans are married to minorities or are minorities themselves (as we discussed last time). They also sanction an abhorrent administration full of abhorrent people. To say that these people support and traffic in bigotry is not to deny that they can be personally charming and generous towards individuals in groups that they seek to harm. It is instead to say that these sorts of interpersonal interactions are the least important components of bigotry. Ironically, both the sociologists and the bigots suffer from a similar mistake: they are too kind to the people they know and not enough to the people they don’t. It is reminiscent of the “my black friend” defense of racism: even if that friend does exist, his existence might have very little to do with your attitudes towards other black people. It also brings to mind the rather arbitrary distinctions drawn between model minorities and others, between “illegal” immigrants and legal immigrants, and between those in your community and those outside. It is funny to me that Skocpol and Williamson write that “findings from statistical studies” can “oversimplify” the “nuances” of racial attitudes. What could be more simplistic than sitting down with someone, hearing the best story they have to tell about themselves, and concluding that you, particularly as a white person, have plumbed the depths of their soul and diagnosed them as racism-free?


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