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…
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