In a recent report, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) wrote about the changing dynamics of politics across the world, with an increase in nationalism and a decrease in confidence in political institutions. Indeed, as a result of the decline of confidence of institutions in the United States, the EIU’s algorithm that ranks the quality of democracy in countries, downgraded the United States from a full democracy to a flawed democracy. While it might be easy to think that the various events taking place around the world, such as the election of Donald Trump in the United States, are causing these sorts of reports, understanding these phenomena requires a deeper understanding of how people process politics.
Given the above as context, the books chosen for review this month look at various aspects of the political electorate in the United States. Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance, discusses Appalachian values, and a culture in collapse. Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild, presents an ethnography of Louisianans identifying as members of the tea party. She looks to understand, from an objective perspective, what anger drove members of the tea party to become such
passionate activists, and why they distrust government to such a large degree. The Politics of Resentment, by Katherine Cramer, is a study of rural Wisconsinites who, in an apparent contrast to their own self-interest, favour a reduction of government, at both the state and federal level. Each of these books shows how a decades-long process has left vast parts of the United States feeling isolated in their own country, and disillusioned with a government they feel has left them behind.
Interestingly, one theme that runs through each narrative is a sense of unfairness. Many rural and tea party folks feel that they are not receiving a just allocation of resources. There is a sense that urban areas receive more government funds, but that rural areas are paying a disproportionate share of taxes. As a result, there is a clear sense of group consciousness, an “us” and a “them” between people in rural areas like Appalachia, rural Louisiana, and rural Wisconsin and the urban centers. A quick fact-check reveals that this is not true on a per-capita basis, and yet, in survey after survey (per Katherine Cramer), rural respondents indicate at vastly greater rates than urban and suburban respondents that they feel they are being cheated of resources from state and federal governments.
The feeling of unfairness feeds a sense of lost community among these stories. Appalachia feels that a once thriving region of the United States has been decimated by politicians serving interests other than those of the citizens in their “in-group”. Indeed, Hochschild identifies what she calls a “Deep Story” about a segment of conservatives who felt that there were people “cutting in line” while their own lives were stagnating. They hold a potentially inconsistent set of beliefs, though so many of us do, about who is to blame, and the exact nature of the problem. While reading each of these books, I was struck with an old saying that “acceptance of a problem is the first step to a solution.” To me, it seems that while there is certainly a problem for residents of Louisiana (the difference in life expectancy between Louisiana and Connecticut is the same as the difference between the United States and Nicaragua), rural Wisconsinites, and people in Appalachia, identifying the problem as an unfair allocation of resources gets no closer to a solution because that is not reality.
Not only does it seem that the perceptions held by these individuals are often at odds with reality, the dichotomies of blame involved can be stunning. While the group consciousness dynamic leads the rural of Wisconsin and the tea party of Louisiana and Appalachia to blame liberals and Democrats, this often seems unwarranted. One study (per Katherine Cramer) did an analysis of the public opinion of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy, and compared those views with votes in the US Senate. It was strikingly clear that the Senate largely did not vote in accordance with the public opinions of the poor, the Democratic (more liberal) Senators often voted in concert with the middle class, and the Republican (more conservative) Senators voted most consistently with the interests of the wealthy. Reading each of these tales, I am reminded of Martha Nussbaum’s recent book, Anger and Forgiveness. It is clear that the people about whom these stories are written are deeply resentful of and angry toward people not like them and government officials. Yet, as Nussbaum points out, the utility of anger is minimal. While anger and resentment continue to motivate this movement, it is likely to see ill-conceived, and inconsistent, results.