It’s our story and I’m sticking to it.

Everybody knows the line, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” I discovered today that it comes from a Saturday Night Live regular I had never heard of—Kevin Quinn. I haven’t messed with it much in producing the title for today, but as you will see, the one minor alternation is crucial.

To introduce it, let me introduce a line from Dellarobia Turnbow, the protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous novel, Flight Behavior. Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist is visiting Tennessee to try to find out why the Monarch butterflies decided to winter there this year. While he is there, he discovers the whole culture of science denial and it puzzles him. He wonders why people cluster around beliefs that can be shown to be false.

Here is what Dellarobia says in return. “I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around,” [1]

story-4Ominous, isn’t it? But it is the reason I changed Kevin Quinn’s sign-off line from “my story” to “our story.” If there is an “our story” and if joining with others in the community to support it is the way people can tell whether you are “one of us,” then joining in is crucially important. Being right about the changes in butterfly migration and the reasons for it, is not crucially important.

Here’s what I want to tell you today. In the last month, I have read two very good studies of Tea Party voters. Both scholars say that it isn’t how they vote that defines them. It is who they are as a community and how they see the world that defines them. The vote for Tea Party candidates or even for Donald Trump is just an artifact of their identity.

The first book is called Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and mourning on the American Right. It is by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who has been a favorite of mine ever since The Managed Heart: the Commercialization of Human Feeling, was first published in 1983. The second is The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. [2] It is by Katharine J. Cramer and was researched the same way Hochchild’s book was: you go out and meet people unlike yourself and sit down and talk with them many many times. Then you write a book about as much of their lives as you were able to grasp, holding your personal empathy in one hand and your conceptual categories in the other. [3]

Hochschild studied people in Louisiana; Cramer in Wisconsin. They came, very carefully story-3and professionally to the same conclusion. But I found that same conclusion, much more graphically expressed in Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Had Hochschild and Cramer studied Dellarobia Turnbow, they would have come to exactly the same conclusion each reached about the groups they studied.

That conclusion is this: the membership in the group and the shared consciousness it generates are crucially important. The views you express are just a way of saying out loud “who we are.” Or, as Dellarobia puts it, “the teams (communities) get picked first, and then the beliefs get handed around.” Your prior commitment is to the people and their worldview and given that, you accept whatever beliefs go with it.

Please note that nothing is this way of making decisions requires that the beliefs are plausible from a factual standpoint. But because of what determines these view, the facts supporting them just don’t come up. Here’s an example that caught my imagination. Dellarobia and her husband, Cub, are discussion the influx of butterflies, followed very shortly by the influx of scientists studying butterflies.

Dellarobia: Dr. Byron says it’s due to climate change.

Cub: “What’s that?”
She hesitated, [then]

Dellarobia: “Global warming.”

Cub snorted. He kicked up a cloud of dusty frost. “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this.” It was Johnny Midgeon’s [local talk show host, very conservative] line on the radio, every time a winter storm came through.

There are a few important things to note here. The first is that Dellarobia cites Dr. Byron, who cites thousands of world-class scientists. Cub responds by reverting to a favorite boogeyman, Al Gore, and accepting the fact that there is frost on the ground as a refutation of the global warming, to which Al Gore insistently pointed.

story-2Two further things. There is a resentment of Al Gore the person in this remark. Gore is invited to “toast his buns” on the frost. Not a very dignified reference, surely, to a man who lost the presidency by one vote. Even “toast his toes” is not so demeaning. And all such expressions are beside the point anyway, unless the point is to derogate Gore.

And finally, the author notes, on Dellarobia’s behalf, that the line came from Johnny Midgeon a conservative local talk show host. So apart from what the line says, just citing Midgeon, who is “one of us” is a way for Cub to belong to the group. Cub doesn’t even have to know what Midgeon’s line means, although in this case, he probably does. Just citing the line, which expresses contempt for a well-known popularizer of the global warming hypothesis, is enough to establish membership.

Now take a man like Cub Turnbow and put him in a political setting. Cub wouldn’t hear these particular speeches because they are from candidates in Louisiana, but he would hear appeals to membership just like these.

Congressman Boustany: “We’ve been through hurricanes together. We’ve been through a moratorium on oil drilling that hurt jobs. We’ve been through a financial and economic crisis.”

Congressman Landry: “If it ain’t good for y’ll, I ain’t voting for it.” You can take a high school graduate—and I know some people that didn’t even finish high schools…work that tail off in the oil and gas industry and make better money than most people make anywhere else in this country. I’m tired of government being in my business. When I was struggling and needed help, I never went straight to the government…The answers to [our] problems are right here in places just like [the town of] Rayne.

Those are real life examples. In one of the poorest and sickest parts of one of the poorest and sickest states in the U. S., the appeals are to “some people that didn’t even finish high school” who are making good money; they are to anti-government feelings; they are to “neighbors helping neighbors,” which is always a good idea, but here it means accepting federal money and refusing federal regulation.

And, to return to Kingsolver’s fictional world, as a way to close off this argument, Ovid Byron’s wife, Juliet, puts it this way.

“The key thing is…once you’re talking identity, you can’t just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won’t diminish it. That just galvanizes it.”

And she’s absolutely right. Once political views like these “get to identity”—and that is the central message of both Hochschild’s book on Louisiana and Cramer’s book on Wisconsin, “the condescension of outsiders” is just more fuel on the fire.

The obvious solution would have been not to let it “get to a matter of identity.” We didn’t do that. The next step would be to remove political calculation from being no more than a reflection of community prejudices. Democracy requires that the performance of the government be evaluated so that the winners can be returned to office and the losers turned out of office. In standard democratic thought, that is what elections are for.

“Once you’re talking identity” undercuts all that. And that means it undercuts elections that are based on performance or even on promises of performance. It leaves us with nothing more than us v. them.

OK, I’m discouraged now.

[1] She describes her own team, the team her husband, Cub, belongs to this way. “Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and care of our own.”
[2] There is another book called the Politics of Resentment, I learned today. This one is by Jeremy Engels and has the subtitle “A Genealogy.” It was written following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and 19 other Arizonans in 2011.
[3] I’ve done that kind of research. It isn’t easy. And the more clearly you know how to understand the experience, the less sure you that you really heard those people and their story.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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