A couple of weeks ago when I gave you Dr. Patty Gabow’s letter to Senator Alexander I reported that I was reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. In that book Russell seeks to be empathetic with the very religious, very conservative, angry people in Louisiana who have consistently allowed their politicians to give tax breaks and other benefits to polluting industries in exchange for jobs. It was initially hard for Hochschild to understand how conservative Louisiana voters could reelect politicians who neglected infrastructure, education and the public welfare to help polluters who dumped carcinogens into their waterways and destroyed much of their coastline and fishing industry.
She attempted to understand their mindset by spending several years visiting them frequently and getting to know them as friends. Her book is a wonderful story that creates sympathy for people who seem to be tragically trapped by culture, a difficult to understand pride, a sense of honor, and the need for good jobs. She visited them at work, in their homes, and in their churches. She attended their political rallies and gained their confidence through her questions that were presented without judgement and without attempts to change their minds. After she got to know many of them at the level of friendship that was associated with real personal concern and empathy, she attempted to articulate what she calls their deep story.
She felt that perhaps her ability to understand and articulate their world view would be a start toward healing the divisions that exist within our society. She evolved a series of metaphors that she called their “deep story.” The deep story is described in a central chapter of the book, but I found that it was accurately condensed in an excellent review of Hochschild’s book by Jason DeParle who writes:
Hochschild detects other passions and assembles what she calls the “deep story” — a “feels as if” story, beyond facts or judgment, that presents her subjects’ worldview.
It goes like this:
“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”
Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them.
And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother,” and he’s cheering on the line cutters. “The president and his wife are line cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”
In the last chapter of the book in an attempt to relate to her new right-wing friends Hochschild wrote a letter to them trying to close the gap between her world view and theirs. In her letter she admits that most liberals are not satisfied with the nation’s political choices any more than are those on the right. She tells them that she is aware of what they want: a vital community life, full employment, the dignity of labor, and personal freedom. She assertively points out that historically Democrats have more often supported the goals and life they want than have Republicans. She states that progressives have their own deep story. She feels that there are parallels between the liberal deep story and the deep story of the right.
As she gave her view of the liberal or progressive “deep story” I found that my deep story was similar to hers but also a little different. So what you read is a blend of her deep story and mine. In our deep story it is as if liberals are not standing in a line but are feeling misunderstood as they congregate around a large town square or park. Around the square are wonderful shared public assets like creative science museums for kids, public art and theatre programs, libraries, schools, and I would add hospitals and clinics. There is state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all. They’re fiercely proud of it. Some of them helped develop and build it. Outsiders or new folks in town can join those locals or insiders standing around the square because many of today’s insiders remember that they were outsiders in the past. Everyone believes that incorporation and acceptance of differences feels like an American value represented in the Statue of Liberty.
It sounds idyllic, but the liberal deep story is laced with fear. They are afraid of a warming environment and all the disasters that might occur. They also worry about marauders who want to invade the public space and recklessly dismantle it and selfishly steal way bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings. They fear that what they enjoy together might be dismantled, degraded, or stolen. Those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who dismantle it transfer the bricks that were once the foundations of public assets into private McMansions. That’s the gist of the liberal fear of the privatization of the public space.
Hochschild moves from the metaphorical to the specific:
Given our different deep stories, left and right are focused on different conflicts and the respective ideas of unfairness linked to them. The left looks to the private sector, the 1% who are in the over class, and the 99% among whom are an emerging underclass. This is the flash point for liberals. The right looks to the public sector as a service desk for a growing class of the idle “takers.” Robert Reich has argued that a more essential point of conflict is in yet a third location between main street capitalism and global capitalism, between competitive and monopoly capitalism. “The major fault line in American politics” Reich predicts, “will shift from Democrat versus Republican to anti establishment versus establishment.” The line will divide those who “see the game as rigged and those who don’t.”
Ironically both sides of the political divide are struggling to address the same new and frightening face of global capitalism. In an age of extreme automation and globalization, how can the 90 percent for whom income is stagnant or falling respond? For the Tea Party, the answer is to circle the wagons around family and church, and to get on bended knee to multinational companies to lure them to you from wherever they are…. For the liberal-left the best approach is to nurture new business through a world-class public infrastructure and excellent schools.
Hochschild’s analysis adds some light to the discussion about healthcare. The resources that might provide universal access, or at a minimum the care that we provide to the underserved and disadvantaged through Medicaid, are resources that might end up in metaphorical McMansions. I would add that if the real challenges that face us all are globalization and automation then having a healthier nation is necessary if we are to adequately respond to the external challenge that we share. That is nebulous but perhaps a better way to add things up than saying that those of us who have resources are so self interested that we would rather focus on our own needs than on the needs of the collective.
I would be more specific than Hochschild and say that except for some minority of the one percent who have enormous wealth none of us will ever be able to be more secure individually than we are collectively. I do not think that is a liberal idea. I think it is good self serving strategy.
Notwithstanding deep stories, where do we go from here? What might we expect? Strategically I always imagine how I might deal with the worst outcome. If the shape of things to come is the passage of Mitch McConnell’s oppressive bill to repeal and replace Obamacare or more accurately Medicaid, what will we do?
I hope what we will do in the short term is to come together in a way many of the cities and states have responded to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. In some states Medicaid may continue at levels near those obtained under the ACA but it will be a big stress on state budgets. One outcome that would be positive would be for providers to begin to realize that the cost of care is a core issue over which they have some control. In any problematic moment a good first question is to ask “What part of the problem am I (we)?”. The answer to that question may lead to actions that you can take to begin a resolution. Finally, the repeal of the ACA followed by a loss of access to care for tens of millions of people and the reduction of resources or the increase in expense for those who retain coverage in the aftermath of the bill may mobilize a political response built out of a new understanding of how important good healthcare for all is to our collective success and happiness.
I am encouraged by the conversations that the repeal and replace process has generated. I hope that whatever happens will be a “new beginning” that causes us to be more considered in how we articulate to those who see the world differently what we are willing to share of ourselves with each other to find a way to a better world. My deep story is associated with a deep belief in the sense of community that is a best expression of what it means to be American. I hope that whether Obamacare is repealed and replaced or through some miracle we reach the nadir of division and begin to work together to improve healthcare access and cost through a process of repair that starts with what we have learned from the beginning efforts of the ACA the shape of things to come for every one will look like the Triple Aim. If so the outcome would be built on a renewal of the idea that the strength of America is our passion to persist in our imperfect pursuit of the high ideal of equality and opportunity for everyone. We will be reminded that this noble concept arises from our belief in the intrinsic worth of every human being and that we are all entitled to a better life that we all can share together.