March 27, 2017 04:45 PM

Voters who live amid some of the nation’s worst industrial pollution share conservatives’ disdain for the EPA.

Detail from photo by Alfred T. Palmer/Wikimedia

President Donald Trump’s recent proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent was met with approval by many Louisiana residents. The EPA has long been a sore spot for conservatives: a federal agency that many think does less to protect the environment than it does to harm the economy. This perception continues despite the fact that Louisiana is a state where environmental laxity is measured in shortened lifetimes and high cancer rates, and where most citizens can name two or three environmental calamities without even particularly trying. While this laissez-faire attitude towards industrial pollution may be de rigueur inside Louisiana, outside observers wonder why we and other red-state citizens don’t elect officials who would do more to protect our environment.

The latest of these observers is Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who recently published Strangers in their own Land (2016), an in-depth look at the lives and attitudes of citizens in and around Lake Charles. In particular, Hochschild’s book seeks to explain the phenomenon of strong support for anti-environment Republican candidates in areas that have suffered decades of toxic spills and environmental debasement.

Hochschild asks why the people who live in these polluted areas are often those most opposed to regulating polluting industries or most likely to elect politicians who give such industries a pass. Although she could have chosen a number of places in the Deep South for her research, she chose Southwest Louisiana for three reasons: because white voters here gave Barack Obama less than half the support (14 percent) that other Southern states did (29 percent), because of the conservatism of the state’s Republican congressmen and because Calcasieu Parish is one of the most polluted counties in the United States. (The EPA ranks Calcasieu Parish 60th out of 2,303 ranked counties for levels of pollution based on RESI scores).

Hochschild visited and lived in the region off and on for five years, gaining, in the process, an entrée usually reserved for friends and families. The 60 or so middle-income and working-class people that she interviewed in depth confirmed her suspicions that emotional truth plays a strong role in political support. Most of those Hochschild talked to placed their “feelings” above their thoughts, valued their place in the world more than their analysis of it and voted based on their identity rather than on their interests.

Active oil and gas wells are shown in gray; abandoned or "orphaned" wells are in red.
Source: Louisiana Legislative Auditor

Her argument, in a brisk 260 pages, does not rely on quantitative or statistical data; instead she focuses on how people feel — what she calls the “deep story” — believing that the role of people’s emotions and feelings in politics has been neglected. As she puts it, “[W]hat, I wanted to know, do people want to feel, what do they think they should or shouldn’t feel, and what do they feel about a range of issues.” Her goal was to “know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes.” It is her belief that “our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.”

The analogy that Hochschild created to describe the emotional reality of her interviewees is particularly compelling. In her analogy, Americans, like those she interviewed, are standing in a line leading up to the promised American Dream, which is just out of sight over a hill. They are waiting patiently even though it often seems to them that the line is moving very slowly, or not at all. Then, they notice that some people are cheating, cutting into line ahead of them. Who are these line-cutters? Mostly, they are minorities, women, immigrants, refugees, gays and public-sector workers taking advantage of programs and financial supports not offered to others in line. These groups — minorities, women, immigrants, gays — are the new “favored people.”

Their leader, Barack Obama, is a good example: How did he rise so high, so fast? It couldn’t have been fair; he must have had help! But who helped him? The federal government elites, those people in power who put their thumbs on the fairness scale and change the odds. They must have advanced him over other more deserving people. And now, Obama is helping his people get ahead the same way. But these people are actually less deserving than those Americans who have been waiting in line for their turn. They’ve played by the rules, but the rules don’t seem to work for them.

This “felt” story of emotions told by Hochschild, reverberates through red-state anti-government voting. Coupled with the diminished economic chances of Americans caught in the middle and lower tiers, this “deep story” inclines red-state voters to see government intervention as part of the problem, not the solution. It predisposes them to see the regulatory state, epitomized by the EPA, as designed to help the undeserving and to disadvantage everyone who works hard, plays by the rules and takes their turn.

Republicans have understood and responded to this emotional narrative by championing, at least rhetorically, the white middle and lower class voters to whom this narrative has the most appeal. Trump, in particular, understands the importance of making an emotional connection, reveling in the vociferous approval he gets at his rallies for “telling it like it is” and ridiculing the “PC police” who want to “tell us what we should say and think.” Democrats, meanwhile, rely on appeals to the head, trying to sway voters with facts and statistics, charts and graphs, and where that fails, to guilt voters into feeling sorry for those in need.

But these appeals are doomed from the beginning, unable to compete with the engaged emotions on the other side. Republicans understand that the head follows the heart, not the other way around. Until the Democrats learn this lesson and find a way to appeal to the hearts of those standing in line, funding the EPA and saving the coast will have to wait.

Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at pearson.cross@lusfiber.net.

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