Inside the Sacrifice Zone

Donald Trump in front of the Samaritan’s Purse mobile kitchen at an event for flood victims, Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, August 2016
William Widmer/The New York Times/Redux
Donald Trump in front of the Samaritan’s Purse mobile kitchen at an event for flood victims, Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, August 2016

As the country’s major political parties have become foreign countries to each other—with their own languages, press, moral philosophies, realities—a new kind of political literature has emerged, inspired by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). These books are written not by historians but by sociologists, anthropologists, and reporters; a partial list would include Joe Bageant’s Deerhunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007), Kate Zernike’s Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010), and Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012). These are studies of political groups, but they are not chiefly political in nature; they tend to be written in the manner of Coming of Age in Samoa or Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Our present-day investigators file intimate reports from exotic locales like Flagstaff, Arizona, and Middletown, Ohio, where they embed among the natives.

Though both parties consider their opposite number to be the un-American interlopers, only observers on the left seem to be writing these books; we’re still waiting for “What’s the Matter with Manhattan?” or “Brattleboro Elegy.” Often the author is a reformed member of the lost tribe: Frank and Bageant grew up in the places they later chronicled as outsiders, which allows them a degree of scorn their more clinical colleagues avoid. But all of the authors approach their subject with a puzzlement lined with despair. How, they ask, can so many people live in an upside-down reality, denouncing everything the writers consider virtuous, embracing everything they consider immoral? As Frank wrote on the first page of his book, “How could so many people get it so wrong?”

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land is the most satisfying example yet of this fish-out-of-water approach, with a premise out of Preston Sturges. A distinguished, sunny-dispositioned, white-haired sociologist from Berkeley travels to southwestern Louisiana to observe the Tea Party in the seat of its misery and hellfire rage. Before embarking on her five-year research mission, Hochschild tells us, she was not friends with a single conservative or southerner. “Who were they?” she wonders. “How did they come to hold their views? Could we make common cause on some issues?”

She is forced to reconcile everything she knows—“New York Times at the newsstand…organic produce in grocery stores…foreign films in movie houses…small cars…bicycle lanes, color-coded recycling bins…gluten-free entrees”—with everything they know: prayer, fried food, plus-sized clothing, and the economic and cultural dominance of the petrochemical industry. In preparation she rereads Ayn Rand, though she fails to encounter anyone who shows the slightest interest in literature; at a bookstore in Lake Charles she finds that three aisles are reserved for Bibles.

Hochschild hopes to overcome what she calls the “Empathy Wall” that separates political groups, preventing deep understanding of the other side. “Is it possible,” she asks, “without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics; that is, to cross the empathy wall? I thought it was.” But while Hochschild tries to tear down her empathy wall, the Tea Partiers speak fervidly of trying to erect a great wall on the Mexican border—a national antipathy wall. When she introduces herself to one of her subjects, explaining that she is a sociologist from Berkeley who hopes “to understand the deepening divide in our country,” he replies: “Berkeley? So y’all must be communist!” Hochschild tries to reassure her readers that he is only kidding.

Hochschild is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Tea Partiers, just not enough for their satisfaction. A gospel singer named Madonna Massey, an avid Rush Limbaugh listener who believes that the Rapture will arrive within the next millennium and that the City of Heaven is a cube in the sky 1,500 miles square, complains to Hochschild that “liberals” malign her unfairly. “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

Hochschild’s research appears to confirm this characterization to the letter; she even notes euphemistically that in Lake Charles there are “fewer petite sizes” in the clothing stores. But she is steadfast in her refusal to accept the common stereotypes. She makes a point of being on good terms with the people she studies. She refers to them as her “friends,” dedicates the book to them, and praises them for being “caring,” “bright,” “warm, intelligent, generous—not like people out of the frightening pages of Ayn Rand.”

Yet these warm and caring people say the darnedest things, particularly when it comes to immigrants: “The Syrians should stay, take a stand, and fight for what they believe in. If you flee, in my mind, you’re a traitor unto yourself.” Or: “Have you ever seen a Muslim charity event for people in need, or soup kitchen for the homeless? A Muslim Thanksgiving? Where is the Muslim name on the Declaration of Independence?” One person argues that handing out guns would be the best way to bring peace to the Middle East: “If everybody had a gun and ammunition, they could solve their own differences.”

Hochschild shows such an excess of good faith that it comes to seem a form of naiveté. She cites, for instance, several academic and international studies finding that strict environmental regulation does not kill jobs, as Tea Partiers believe, but stimulates economic growth. “If this was the growing consensus among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economists,” writes Hochschild, “I wondered why my Tea Party friends weren’t hearing about it.” How could Madonna Massey have missed the latest findings of the OECD?

Hochschild chooses southwest Louisiana for her “journey into the heart of the right” because it represents the most graphic version of what she calls the Great Paradox:

Across the country, red states 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 enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states. Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua.

The more conservative you are, the worse off you are likely to be and the sooner you are likely to die. This holds even on the county level, Hochschild finds, after an analysis of EPA data shows a correlation between political views and exposure to pollution. Yet the very people most damaged by conservative policies are most likely to vote for them.

Nowhere is the abuse as frightening as in Louisiana—with the exception, perhaps, of its neighbor to the east (“Thank God for Mississippi!” is the unofficial state motto). Louisiana is the second-poorest state and second-to-last in human development, which is a measure of individual freedom. The state’s rate of fatal cancers is about 30 percent higher than the national average. For all its antifederalism, Louisiana is fourth in accepting government welfare, with 44 percent of its budget coming from Washington. (Many of Hochschild’s Tea Party friends are beneficiaries of federal welfare programs.) Louisiana has the highest rate of death by gunfire (nearly double the national average), the highest rate of incarceration, and is the fifth-least-educated, reflecting the fact that it spends the fifth-least on education. It is sixth in the nation in generating hazardous waste, and third in importing it, since it makes a side business out of storing other states’ trash.

Louisiana’s governor is among the most powerful chief executives in the nation, a legacy that dates back to Huey Long’s administration, and under Governor Bobby Jindal’s dictatorship, between 2008 and 2016, the state’s prospects declined with unprecedented severity. After he reduced corporate income taxes and expanded the exemptions granted to oil and gas companies, the state’s revenue tumbled roughly $3 billion. He transferred $1.6 billion from public schools and hospitals to oil companies in the form of new tax incentives, under the theory that the presence of oil and a robust petrochemical infrastructure were not incentives enough. (The Louisiana Legislature is not only soaked with oil and gas lobbyists—during a recent session there were seventy for 144 legislators—but many lawmakers themselves hold industry jobs while serving in office.) Jindal fired 30,000 state employees, furloughed many others, cut education funding by nearly half, and sold off as many state-owned parking lots, farms, and hospitals as he could.

Despite these punishing cuts, he managed over the course of his administration to turn a $900 million budget surplus into a $1.6 billion deficit. National agencies downgraded the state’s credit rating. The damage was so great that it helped to bring about one of the most unlikely election results in recent American history. Jindal’s successor is John Bel Edwards, a Democrat—the only one to hold statewide office. Edwards is vehemently pro-life and agnostic about climate change, but he is determined to hold the oil and gas industry responsible for funding their share of coastal restoration. He currently enjoys a 62.5 percent approval rating. Almost a year into his first term, however, despite several emergency measures, the state remains in arrears.

The paradox that most baffles Hochschild is the question of environmental pollution. Even the most ideologically driven zealots don’t want to drink poisoned water, inhale toxic gas, or become susceptible to record flooding. Yet southwestern Louisiana combines some of the nation’s most fervently antiregulatory voters with its most toxic environmental conditions. It is a center of climate change denial despite the fact that its coast faces the highest rate of sea-level rise on the planet.

Hochschild discovers a walking personification of these ironies in a Cajun oil rig engineer named Mike Schaff. In August 2012, Schaff was entering his home in Bayou Corne, about seventy miles west of New Orleans, when he was jolted by a tremor. His concrete living room floor cracked apart. The sound, said a neighbor, was like a “garbage truck had dropped a dumpster.”

More than a mile beneath the bayou, a Houston-based drilling company named Texas Brine had drilled into a vast salt dome, ignoring warnings from its own engineer, with the complicity of the state’s useless Department of Environmental Quality. (In Louisiana, environmental regulators are, in the words of an EPA investigation, “expected to protect industry.”) Texas Brine drills for salt, which it sells to chlorine manufacturers, but other companies had used sections of the salt dome to store chemicals and oil. Texas Brine drilled too closely to an oil deposit and the structure ruptured, sucking down forest and causing seismic damage to the homes of 350 nearby residents. Officials began referring to Schaff’s neighborhood as the “sacrifice zone.”

Texas Brine refused to take responsibility for the accident. It claimed that earthquakes were common in the area (they are not) before blaming a different salt dome tenant for the collapse. If that wasn’t enough, Texas Brine asked the state for permission to dump toxic wastewater into the very sinkhole it created. Jindal did not visit the site for seven months, though it is only forty miles south of the capital. Four years later the sinkhole is 750 feet deep at its center and has grown to thirty-five acres. Methane and other gases bubble up periodically. Residents who defied evacuation orders avoided lighting matches.

Stacey Ryan, one of the last residents of the heavily polluted town of Mossville, Louisiana, February 2016. Ryan—a descendant of Jacob Moss, the former slave who in 1790 founded one of the first settlements for free blacks in the South—did not want to move, but he was eventually forced to take a buyout from the South African petrochemical company Sasol, which had made his land unlivable as it expanded its facilities into the town.
William Widmer/Redux
Stacey Ryan, one of the last residents of the heavily polluted town of Mossville, Louisiana, February 2016. Ryan—a descendant of Jacob Moss, the former slave who in 1790 founded one of the first settlements for free blacks in the South—did not want to move, but he was eventually forced to take a buyout from the South African petrochemical company Sasol, which had made his land unlivable as it expanded its facilities into the town.

After seeing his house, neighborhood, and way of life destroyed by corporate greed and state-sanctioned contempt for the natural environment, and many of his neighbors diagnosed with cancer, Schaff was forever changed. “They think we’re just a bunch of ignorant coonasses,” he told a Mother Jones reporter. Schaff became an environmental activist, railing against the “disrespect that we have been shown by both Texas Brine and our state officials themselves.” He marched on the statehouse, wrote fifty letters to state and federal officials, granted dozens of interviews to local, national, and foreign press. When state officials claimed they had detected no oil in the bayou, he demanded that the EPA check their work.

But Schaff continued to vote Tea Party down the line. He voted for the very politicians who had abetted Texas Brine at every turn, who opposed environmental regulation of any kind. He voted to “abolish” the EPA, believing that it “was grabbing authority and tax money to take on a fictive mission…lessening the impact of global warming.” The violent destruction of everything he held dear was not enough to change his mind.

Schaff’s story is an extreme but representative example of what so many Louisianian voters have brought upon themselves. “The entire state of Louisiana,” writes Hochschild, “had been placed into a sinkhole.” When confronted with the contradictions in their political logic, Hochschild’s subjects fall into “long pauses.” Cognitive dissonance reduces them to childlike inanity. When asked about catastrophic oil spills that result from lax regulation, one woman says, “It’s not in the company’s own interest to have a spill or an accident…. So if there’s a spill, it’s probably the best the company could do.” Madonna Massey says: “Sure, I want clean air and water, but I trust our system to assure it.” Jackie Tabor, whom Hochschild describes as “an obedient Christian wife,” says: “You have to put up with things the way they are…. Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” which is a gentler way of saying that premature death is the sacrifice we make for capitalism. Janice Areno, who worked at Olin Chemical without a facial mask as an inspector of phosgene gas and suffers mysterious health ailments that she believes are “probably related to growing up near the plants,” finds comfort in an anthropomorphic analogy: “Just like people have to go to the bathroom, plants do too.”

But Hochschild is not interested in merely documenting the familiar ways in which this stratum of white Americans has consistently voted against its own interests, economic and otherwise. She wants to understand the cause. She finds all of the familiar explanations lacking. She rejects the argument that billionaires and oil companies, through sophisticated and elaborate public relations campaigns, have bamboozled an entire population into voting against government regulation by exploiting religious and cultural anxieties. Thomas Frank, quoted by Hochschild, described this strategy as follows:

Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes…. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat packing. Vote to strike a blow against elitism, receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.

Hochschild finds this “too simple an idea.” Her skepticism does seem justified in light of the Republican Party’s recent capitulation to a businessman opposed by the Koch brothers and nearly every other major right-wing éminence grise, and unendorsed by a single CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

Hochschild is also unpersuaded by Colin Woodard’s argument for regionalism as the main factor in shaping political views, and Alec McGillis’s argument that those in red states who most need government services vote at a much lower rate than wealthier conservatives. She finds incomplete Jonathan Haidt’s view, in The Righteous Mind (2013), that Tea Party voters are not misled, but instead care more deeply about cultural values than economic principles. While each of these theories may have some merit, she writes,

I found one thing missing in them all—a full understanding of emotion in politics. What, I wanted to know, did people want to feel, think they should or shouldn’t feel, and what do they feel about a range of issues?

This is politics as advertising: emotion over common sense. Such an analysis is overdue at a time when questions of policy and legislation and even fact have all but vanished from the public discourse, replaced by debates about the candidate’s character, “temperament,” and brand. (A Columbia Journalism Review analysis of the first presidential debate found that it “focused more on personality than any other in US history.”) How, then, do Tea Party voters feel? They’re angry, bitter, resentful—that much is obvious. Hochschild goes further, however. She develops for them what in brand marketing is referred to as the “back story,” a story that provides a unifying emotional logic to a set of beliefs. She calls it the “deep story.”

The deep story that Hochschild creates for the Tea Party is a parable of the white American Dream. It begins with an image of a long line of people marching across a vast landscape. The Tea Partiers—white, older, Christian, predominantly male, many lacking college degrees—are somewhere in the middle of the line. They trudge wearily, but with resolve, up a hill. Ahead, beyond the ridge, lies wealth, success, dignity. Far behind them the line is composed of people of color, women, immigrants, refugees. As pensions are reduced and layoffs absorbed, the line slows, then stalls.

An even greater indignity follows: people begin cutting them in line. Many are those who had long stood behind them—blacks, women, immigrants, even Syrian refugees, all now aided by the federal government. Next an even more astonishing figure jumps ahead of them: a brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird, “fluttering its long, oil-drenched wings.” Thanks to environmental protections, it is granted higher social status than, say, an oil rig worker. The pelican, writes Hochschild,

needs clean fish to eat, clean water to dive in, oil-free marshes, and protection from coastal erosion. That’s why it’s in line ahead of you. But really, it’s just an animal and you’re a human being.

Meanwhile the Tea Partiers are made to feel less than human. They find themselves reviled for their Christian morality and the “traditional” values they have been taught to honor from birth. Many speak of “sympathy fatigue,” the sense that every demographic group but theirs receives sympathy from liberals. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one Tea Partier tells Hochschild. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”

When Hochschild tells her deep story to some of the people she’s come to know, they greet it rapturously. “You’ve read my mind,” says one. “I live your analogy,” says Mike Schaff. She concludes that they do not vote in their economic interest but in their “emotional self-interest.” What other choice do they have?

Hochschild suggests that economic despair is the central motivation behind the Tea Partiers’ rage, while admitting that race, gender, and class biases contribute. But it’s difficult not to consider racial fear the formative aspect of this story, given our national history and the repeated expressions of racial disdain by her subjects, all of whom are white. Further evidence can be found in Donald Trump’s ability to cast off fundamental Republican economic views without sacrificing Tea Party support, while emphasizing positions dear to the hearts of white supremacists. Either way, race and the economy have for the far right become inseparable. Who’s to blame for lost jobs and opportunities? African-Americans boosted by affirmative action, immigrant laborers, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese.

Whether by calculation or intuition, Trump has emphasized the core elements of Hochschild’s deep story more tenaciously than any previous Republican presidential nominee. In doing so he has overcome a bitter contradiction at the heart of the Tea Party. Though they hold the notion of victimhood in the deepest contempt, Hochschild writes, they have been forced to brave “the worst of an industrial system, the fruits of which liberals enjoyed from a distance in their highly regulated and cleaner blue states.” The Tea Partiers live in a single giant “sacrifice zone.”

They may not have it worse than some other demographic groups in America today, but they have fallen the furthest. Hochschild quotes the economist Phillip Longman’s finding that fifty-somethings today are the first generation of Americans who, “at every stage of adult life,…have less income and less net wealth than people their age ten years before.” Trump’s pitch is simple: under his leadership, the Tea Party losers will be winners. They will win so much that they’ll be sick.

While Hochschild’s Tea Partiers contemplate a triumphant, if hazy, future, she leaves her readers with Grand Guignol images of their present day. We visit the tranquil bayou home belonging to Harold and Annette Areno, who, in the last two decades, have found themselves hemmed in by a chloride hydrocarbon manufacturing facility, a coal-fired power plant, a hazardous waste landfill, and the Conoco Docks, the site of one of the largest chemical leaks in North American history. The family’s cows, goats, and chickens fall over dead after drinking from the bayou, and the turtles go blind, their eyes turning white.

We watch Bob Hardey, mayor of Westlake, as he dutifully tends a family cemetery that is about to be surrounded on all sides by a humungous Sasol gas-to-liquids plant to which he has sold much of his property. Louisiana has given the facility permission to emit benzene at eighty-five times the entire state’s “threshold rate.” And we meet a safety inspector at a Ford battery plant who is called a sissy by plant employees for wearing a respirator. When the workers cackle he sees that their teeth have been eroded by sulfuric acid mist.

We come to know Hochschild’s subjects intimately: their thoughts, their prejudices, and most of all their fears, which form the foundation of their worldview. But we never get the sense that they know themselves. On the rare occasions in which Hochschild directly challenges their views, they tend to respond with platitudes taken from Fox News or by changing the subject. While acknowledging the strands of “greed, selfishness, racial intolerance, homophobia” in her subjects’ nature, Hochschild emphasizes their virtues, many of them shaped by biblical teachings: “their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance.”

Of these, endurance is the defining quality, and the most tragic. Their suffering is not merely a personal or demographic crisis but a national tragedy. It threatens to capsize the entire republic. The Tea Partiers can’t be blamed for making a virtue of their anguish. Their situation, after all, is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Their suffering seems fated to last until Judgment Day—which should not be confused with Election Day.