When Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley Arlie Hochschild came to speak at the JFK Forum in March, she sparked a conversation around the idea of “deep stories” – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and the values we share. In this post, Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow LaGina Gause offers a “deep story” that she feels might resonate with liberals more than the one described by Hochschild. If you have an alternate “deep story,” we invite you to share with us in the comments below.
By LaGina Gause
In her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist and Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley Arlie Hochschild ventures to the right-wing stronghold of Louisiana to find answers to why people on the right vote against (what people on the left believe to be) their own self-interests. The answer is most succinctly articulated in the conservative deep story, which describes conservatives waiting in line for the fruit of their hard work and dedication. But instead of moving forward in the line they see line cutters unfairly moved ahead of them.
Like all deep stories, the conservative deep story is a metaphor that shapes how people think, feel and act. The metaphor does not need to be accurate, it just needs to feel true. And, when Hochschild asked her conservative friends about the story, they said that it felt true to them. The same may not be true for Hochschild’s liberal deep story.
In a letter written to her Louisiana friends on the right, Hochschild also offers a metaphor of how life feels to liberals:
As you get to know them, you’ll find progressives have their own deep story, one parallel to yours, one they feel you may misunderstand. In it, people stand around a large public square inside which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theatre programs, libraries, schools – a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all. They are fiercely proud of it . . . incorporation and acceptance of difference feel like American values represented in the Statue of Liberty. But in the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm.
On Thursday, March 23, 2017, Professor Hochschild came to speak at the JFK Forum.
This deep story may be how life feels to some liberals, but it does not resonate with me or many of my liberal friends. In fact, the conservative deep story of waiting in line feels more true to me than the liberal deep story of the privatizing public square. Perhaps, a reason for the disconnect is the process of creating the two deep stories. For the conservative deep story, Hochschild used the years she’d spent with conservatives in Louisiana to develop the story. She then shared the story with her new conservative friends to see if the story felt true to them. While, Hochschild has probably spent much more time with liberal friends, there is no indication that the same feedback process occurred when crafting the liberal deep story. It could also be that the deep stories are temporally constrained and the current climate leads to a different liberal deep story than the one that was written before the 2016 presidential election.
Regardless of how we got to this liberal deep story of the public market, I thought I’d take a stab at writing a liberal deep story that feels true to me, even if inaccurate, and provide an opportunity for others to amend or write their own deep story. This will not only help get us closer to a liberal deep story that resonates with more liberals, but also help to climb empathy walls that exist among liberals and between liberals and conservatives. The liberal deep story I offer is below.
Liberal Deep Story
You’re on an island with the majority of other Americans. Off the coast is a cruise liner, The American Dream. Everyone on the island is trying to get to The American Dream but there are rules and the people already on the ship set the rules. They say that if you work hard you too can achieve The American Dream. But the ship keeps getting further and further away and there seem to be fewer and fewer people invited from the island to join The American Dream. You notice that most people on the ship look alike and so do many of the people that receive the invitation. The invitees also don’t seem to work any harder than you do or other people who look like you.
People on the island begin to get angry. The rules don’t seem fair. You’re all told, “The rules are fair. It is the other groups of people on the island with you that are the real reason you can’t reach The American Dream”. Infighting begins among those on the island. People are no longer angry with people on the ship but are distracted by their neighbors. Welfare abusers, affirmative action hires, race-baiters, sexists, terrorists, … They are taking your hard-earned money, which is the only currency (they tell you) that matters for reaching The American Dream. This makes some sense. There are those who do abuse the rules to get ahead. Some of them get ahead. But, the ones that do still look like the ones on the cruise ship. Your neighbors aren’t the problem. They are stuck on the island just like you.
You and a few of your neighbors are unconvinced by the diversion. You become organized. You divert your attention back to the ship and the unfair rules set by the people on the ship. Meanwhile, the ship keeps getting further away. Some leaders become burnt out. It’s hard work changing minds and fighting the system. Some leaders descend in scandal. Then, there’s a tragedy or two that takes a life and quells support. They invite the remaining leader of the organized to The American Dream. Organization dwindles. Opposition has now died down. The focus again is on neighbors and cleavages between groups. Now what?
LaGina Gause is a Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. She received her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Political Science from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include the representation and non-electoral participation of marginalized communities. In the Fall, LaGina will join the University of California, San Diego, as an Assistant Professor of Political Science.