Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
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In 1960, when a survey asked American adults whether it would “disturb” them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered “yes.” But in 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered “yes.”
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For the Arenos, religious faith has moved into the very cultural space in which politics might have played a vital, independent role. Politics hadn’t helped, they felt, and the Bible surely had.
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People on the right seemed to be strongly moved by three concerns—taxes, faith, and honor.
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For both Lee and the Arenos, at issue in politics was trust. It was hard enough to trust people close at hand, and very hard to trust those far away; to locally rooted people, Washington, D.C., felt very far away. Like everyone I was to talk with, both also felt like victims of a frightening loss—or was it theft?—of their cultural home, their place in the world, and their honor.
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Many workers in the petrochemical plants were conservative Republicans and avid hunters and fishers who felt caught in a terrible bind. They loved their magnificent wilderness. They remembered it from childhood. They knew it and respected it as sportsmen. But their jobs were in industries that polluted—often legally—this same wilderness. They had children to take care of and felt wary of supporting any environmental movement or federal government action that might jeopardize them. The general talk around town was that the choice was between the environment and jobs.
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In 2012, all three were watching speeches by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He wouldn’t help the country clean up dirty rivers, they thought, but as an opponent to the right to abortion, he was for “saving all those babies”—and that seemed to them the more important moral issue on which they would be ultimately judged. Harold walks me to my car. I get in, open my window, and fasten my seat belt. “We’re on this earth for a limited amount of time,” he says, leaning on the edge of the window. “But if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never ...more
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“We have to take our country back from a government that has ignored our Constitution, dismissed our conservative values, and spent our tax dollars like drunken sailors. Of course, that’s unfair to the sailors,” Landry declares to a nodding crowd.
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In all the speeches, between the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning and invitations to gumbo cook-offs at the end, I am again struck by what both candidates avoid saying—that the state ranks 49th out of 50 on an index of human development, that Louisiana is the second poorest state, that 44 percent of its budget comes from the federal government—the Great Paradox.
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Louisiana produced 31 pounds of toxic release per person to air, water, and land in 2012. By comparison, the United States as a whole produced 11 pounds per capita.
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Louisiana is the nation’s sixth leading state in generating hazardous waste, and it is third in the nation for the amount of hazardous waste it imports from other states.
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Some 90,000 fishermen had lost their livelihood and were offered jobs to clean up the spilled oil, using their own boats, in the Vessels of Opportunity program. However, their protective gear was inadequate against the oil and the dispersant Corexit, and some developed skin lesions, blurred vision, breathing difficulties, and headaches.
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Why? Loss of drilling revenue was one thing. But federal government “over-regulation” was another. “It’s not in the company’s own interest to have a spill or an accident. They try hard,” one woman told me. “So if there’s a spill, it’s probably the best the company could do.”
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With regard to alcohol, Louisiana is one of the most permissive states in the nation. You can pull into a drive-through frozen daiquiri stand and buy daiquiris in “go-cups”
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An unlicensed vendor can sell handguns, shotguns, rifles, or assault weapons, and large-capacity magazines.
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Looked at more closely, an overall pattern in state regulation emerges, and the Great Paradox becomes more complicated than it first seemed. Liquor, guns, motorcycle helmets (legislation had gone back and forth on that)—mainly white masculine pursuits—are fairly unregulated. But for women and black men, regulation is greater.
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Louisiana incarcerates the highest proportion of its population of all the states in the union, and those inmates are disproportionately black.
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Yet when people spoke indignantly of regulation, it was not abortion clinics and prisons that came to mind, but rather what the government was telling them to buy in stores.
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“Part of the psychological program is that people think they’re free when they’re not,” he said. “A company may be free to pollute, but that means the people aren’t free to swim.”
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General Honoré had told me that talk was of jobs, jobs, jobs, and there was “just enough in it” that people believed it. He’d told me that the “psychological program” involved the belief that there was a terrible choice between jobs and clean water or air. But how many jobs depended on oil? And was it either-or?
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Meanwhile, the city government of Lake Charles launched its own Ozone Advance Program, which focused exclusively on what private citizens could do. They could drive shorter routes in their cars or walk. They could quit idling their car engines. They could mow their lawns less often. The plan called for a “school flag program”—green for good, yellow for moderate, red for high-ozone—to let “the community know that . . . if you have somebody that has difficulty breathing, today’s not a good day to be outside.”
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“I’ve had enough of poor me.” As he explains, “I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to a local public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work.”
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And Governor Jindal’s $1.6 billion incentive to lure industry to the state? “Good idea,” Hardey says.
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These are valuable, large storage depots for the many chemicals used in oil drilling, fracking, and plastic manufacturing. Texas Brine rents six caverns. Dow and Union Carbide owns others into which they have pumped fifty million gallons of ethylene dichloride (EDC). While it surprised me to learn how far down into the earth free enterprise went, such underground storage systems have long been accepted practice in the Gulf region; the National Petroleum Reserves have themselves long been stored in a similar way.
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Beyond this, there were different expectations of business and government. Companies made money and were beholden to stockholders; it was understandable if they tried to “cover their ass,” people told me. But the government was paid to protect people, so one could expect much more of them.
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In a 2005 study of the Calcasieu Estuary, Louisiana state scientists inexplicably concluded that it would be dangerous for children aged six to seventeen to swim in estuary waters, but not dangerous for “children six and under.” Such reports were also nearly unreadable. One typical report read: “Analyses reported as non-detects were analyzed using method detection limits that were higher than the comparison values used as screening tools.”
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The report was shocking but it also made a certain grim sense. If the companies won’t pay to clean up the waters they pollute, and if the state won’t make them, and if poverty is ever with us—some people need to fish for their dinner—well then, trim, grill, and eat mercury-soaked fish.
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The more money we give him, the more reason he has to be a yes man to Jindal and oil. To me, a public servant who doesn’t make very much is more likely to be dedicated to what he’s doing.” Mike’s idea of dedication was modeled on the church.
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I thought I was looking at an open-and-shut case for good government. But my new friend saw in this advice on how to prepare a contaminated fish an open-and-shut case for less government.
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so too Mike Schaff and other Tea Party advocates seemed to be saying, “I’m above the government and all its services” to show the world their higher ideals, even though they used a host of them. For everything else it is, the government also functions as a curious status-marking machine. The less you depend on it, the higher your status. As the sociologist Thorstein Veblen long ago observed, our distance from necessity tends to confer honor.
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Churches typically ask parishioners to tithe—to give 10 percent of their income. For many this is a large sum, but it is considered an honor to give it. They pay taxes, but they give at church.
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Google offers its employees breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including on weekends, as well as on-site fitness centers, massages, napping pods, medical care, and car detailing. This offers a much desired private sector social world—one partly based on a different worship: work.
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Still, in Madonna’s worldview, it seems that one has the police to protect one’s property, Rush Limbaugh to protect one’s pride, and God to take care of the rest.
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“The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? I don’t know; some would say, ‘Let it go.’” Then she adds, “I’m giving you my Bible answers. I’m not well educated.” Madonna attended two years of Bible College in Mississippi and explains, “This is not what you’d learn at your university, but mine is a true belief.” This belief offered her a graphic image of the creation of the earth in seven days. It put the age of the earth at six thousand years. The City of Heaven, she told me, was a cube 1,500 miles square, divided into 12 bejeweled stories, each 120 miles high with gates, the largest one of ...more
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According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 41 percent of all Americans believe the Second Coming “probably” or “definitely” will happen by the year 2050.
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To some, Fox is family. One woman, a great reader who is highly attuned to world news, tells me she listens to Fox throughout the day. When she turns the ignition in her SUV, Fox News comes on. When she sits at her computer in her study at home, she tunes in to Fox via a small television to the right of her monitor. At the end of the day, sitting in a soft chair next to her husband, before a large screen, she watches the five o’clock news on Fox. “Fox is like family to me,” she explains.
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I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person if I don’t feel sorry for that child.”
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Surprisingly, everyone agreed that if things were to be fixed, the federal government had to get involved. But if the federal government got involved, right-wing flags went up. It was too big, too incompetent, too mal-intentioned.
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since the 1960s, the share of men ages twenty-five to fifty-four no longer in the workforce has tripled. This stalled American Dream hits many on the right at a particularly vulnerable season of life
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“I’m a capitalist,” he said. “When they get the medical device out of production and into the market, my wife and I will be millionaires.” As with other men I spoke with, the repeated term “millionaire” floated around conversations like a ghost.
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You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.
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For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither the factory floor nor an Occupy protest. The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive.
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In truth, her home team is the right wing of the elephant, the Republican Party. Her loyalty to it defines her world.
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“I worked hard all my life. I started at age eight and never stopped,” Janice begins. In the course of her work life, she had learned to tough things out, to endure. Endurance wasn’t just a moral value; it was a practice. It was work of an emotional sort. Not claiming to be a victim, accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of a loyalty to free enterprise—this was a tacit form of heroism, hidden to incurious liberals. Sometimes you had to endure bad news, Janice felt, for a higher good, such as jobs in oil.
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“He was never on disability or unemployment,” she says proudly.
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Janice is stoutly proud that, like her dad, she never “took a dime from the government. . . . For five years at the telephone company and forty-three years here . . . I never one time ever drew an unemployment check or got any government assistance,” she says, adding, “I did get a small student loan when I was going to college—back then the government didn’t just give it to you—and I paid every nickel of it back.”
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However, she and others like her speak of seeing with “my own eyes” parents driving up in Lexus cars to drop their children at a government-supported Head Start program. The government is trying to get her to feel sorry for people like that, Janice feels. She’s not having it. Get a job.
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Beyond that, her solution is to get children “churched” and to limit the fertility of poor women.
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Underlying Janice’s reasoning is her idea about inequality itself. Some people may just be destined to remain at the end of the line for the American Dream.
Andrew Capshaw
Zero sum game or not?
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She is badgered for sympathy, she feels, and made to feel bad if she doesn’t grant it.
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she was now obliged to defend herself against the idea that these views were sexist, homophobic, old-fashioned, and backward. She also needed to defend her notion of the line itself. She didn’t want to appear to critics as hard-hearted regarding the poor, immigrants, Syrian refugees.
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