Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Arlie Hochschild - How the ‘Great Paradox’ of American politics holds the secret to Trump’s success

In the heartland of the American right, people harmed by polluting industries have instead come to hate the government whose environmental regulations protect them. Now they’re voting for Donald Trump 

A deep story is a story that feels as if it were true. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I do not believe that we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.

... As a result of the things he suffered, saw, and was ordered to do as a pipefitter in the petrochemical plant, Sherman became an ardent environmentalist. Calcasieu Parish, in which he worked for 15 years at PPG, is among the 2% of American counties with the highest toxic emissions per capita. According to the American Cancer Society, Louisiana has the second-highest incidence of cancer for men and the fifth-highest male death rate from cancer in the nation.

But Sherman has recently volunteered to post lawn signs for the Tea Party congressman John Fleming, who favours cutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), weakening the Clean Air Act, and oil drilling on the outer continental shelf of the US, as well as opposing the regulation of greenhouse gases and backing less regulation of Wall Street. Sherman is a regular at meetings of the DeRidder Tea Party, wearing his red, white and blue party T-shirt, which features an eagle sharpening its talons. So why was Sherman the environmentalist eager to plant lawn signs for a politician calling for cuts in the EPA? If I could answer this question, maybe I could unlock the door to what I came to call the Great Paradox.

I had begun my five-year journey to the heart of the American right carrying with me, as if it were a backpack, a great paradox. Back in 2004, there was a paradox underlying the right–left split. Since then the split has become a gulf.

Across the country, conservative “red states” are poorer and have more teenage mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrolment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in liberal “blue states”. Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between Nicaragua and the United States. Red states suffer more in another important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.

The right now calls for cuts in entire segments of the federal government – the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Interior, for example. In January 2015, 58 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, which is responsible for the collection of taxes. Some Republican congressional candidates call for abolishing all state schools. In March 2015, the Republican-dominated Senate voted 51 to 49 in support of an amendment to a budget resolution to sell or give away all non-military federal lands other than national monuments and national parks. This would include forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. Joined by 95 Republican congressmen, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the most polluted states in the union, has called for the end of the EPA.

The Tea Party’s turn away from government may signal a broader trend. During the depression of the 1930s, Americans turned to the federal government for aid in their economic recovery. But in response to the great recession of 2008, the majority turned away from it. As the political divide widens and opinions harden, the stakes have grown vastly higher. Neither ordinary citizens nor leaders are talking much “across the aisle”, damaging the surprisingly delicate process of governance itself. The United States has been divided before, of course. 

During the civil war, a difference in belief led to some 750,000 deaths. During the stormy 1960s, too, clashes arose over the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s rights. But in the end, a healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out. And to get there, we need to figure out what’s going on – especially on the rapidly shifting and ever-stronger right.

Lee Sherman’s work at PPG was a source of personal pride, but he clearly did not feel particularly loyal to the company. Still, he did as he was told. And one day in the late 1960s, after his acid bath, he was told to take on another ominous job. It was to be done twice a day, usually after dusk, and always in secret. In order to do this job, Sherman had to wield an 8ft-long “tar buggy”, propelled forwards on four wheels. Loaded on this buggy was an enormous steel tank that held “heavy bottoms” – the highly viscous tar residue of chlorinated hydrocarbon that had sunk to the bottom of kitchen-sized steel vessels. A layer of asbestos surrounded the tank, to retain heat generated by a heater beneath the buggy. Copper coils were wound around its base. The hotter the tar, the less likely it was to solidify before it was dumped.


Working overtime in the evenings, under cover of dark, his respirator on, Sherman would tow the tar buggy down a path that led towards the Calcasieu Ship Channel in one direction and towards Bayou d’Inde in another… read more: