How We Can Get Along Together
In her latest book, Arlie Hochschild, author of a number of interesting and exceptional works in sociology, looks into the question of why voters who understand very clearly that the ruling groups in this country do not care for them or their discomfort, nevertheless return the advocates of ruling groups to Congress year after year. Observers say: here are people who are not voting their best interest but are in fact voting to support their enemies. Often explanations of such behaviors imply major criticism of these voters. They are said to be uneducated and not thinking clearly and rationally. They are said to be uninformed. Implicit in those criticisms often is the accusation of being unintelligent. They are duped by the ruling groups in this country and made to believe that their enemies are their friends. We – the intelligent liberals – see-through propaganda but they cannot.
Hochschild is not convinced of this analysis simply because she has spent a long time in Louisiana talking to people who are supporting conservative candidates. She's impressed how aware these conservative voters are of the injuries done to them by the large chemical and oil companies that dominate the state and the state's government. Hearing the complex analyses these voters give of their own condition, no one would accuse them of being either unintelligent or ill-informed. They are not people who are easily duped.
But they still support conservative candidates who love big business more than their small time voters. How can we understand that?
Some of the people Hochschild interviewed are perfectly well aware of the tensions between their appreciation of their own condition and how the people with money and power look down on them and do to them whatever they can while they continue their political support for these very people. But they don't know where to take this. They are looked down upon, ignored, maltreated by their state government and by the large companies that are dominant in that government. But they have no hope that the liberals and the people on the left will look down on them any less, or will put great effort into saving them and making their lives better. In the last eight years they have seen no evidence of that.
So they find themselves really angry for being maltreated, for being underpaid, for making the same wages they have made for a long time. What they have left to hold on to is their established religion and the way of life that goes with that, which has no truck with gay marriage, or gender change. It has no truck with pity for girls getting pregnant at 14 and having abortions. What keeps them going in a world which they experience as hostile are their traditional values and beliefs, and that means support for the people they have always given their political loyalty to.
Here is Hochschild's conclusion from all these observations: don't look for rational arguments from poor voters. Don't in fact look for rational arguments from any voters. In the end, we are all inclined in different ways because we have different emotional attachments and pre-judgments. Whatever arguments we give are anchored in these original emotional attachments.
Other recent work in psychology suggests that people who have been powerless and suddenly experience an increase in power tend to be harsher on other people. If they newly acquire power they use it often destructively because before they did not have any. One might adapt those ideas to an explanation of why the victims of conservatives nevertheless support them at the polls. Given power, by being able to vote, conservatives will support the candidates who share their conservative values and punish the liberals who advocate abortion on demand, gay marriage and other novel social values.
The precise explanation remains to be given. What matters is the insight that people vote as they do because of their anger, their fear, their sense of loss, their lack of hope and many other emotional conditions.
There have been many calls in this campaign for national unity, for Americans to "come together" and to once again work together. What we learn here is that Americans will not come together as long as they identify themselves as the intelligent rational beings and their opponents as the emotional, uneducated ones. All of us are moved by deep-seated feelings and we will not come together unless we take the feelings of others seriously. We need to have and show respect for the feelings of others. We need to honor them, even in cases where they seem really repugnant.
Should women honor the feelings of rapists, of men who dishonor them by objectifying their bodies? Surely not. Should they say these men are ignorant swine who should not be allowed to live? Surely not. What sort of respect, if any, does a rapist deserve? Not an easy question to answer.
Obviously calling for "respect" for other people's feelings is easy. Practicing it is often extremely difficult and none of us should be criticized for saying that they cannot respect the feelings of this are that person. But the effort to respect the feelings of others rather than condemning them by some aggressive epithet – as we hear daily in this electoral campaign from all parties – is essential if this country is to heal.