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Sociologist Arlie Hochschild Looks In Kentucky For Solutions To Bridge Partisan Gaps

Arlie Hochschild
Paige K. Parsons

Berkeley-based sociologist and writer Arlie Hochschild has spent much of her career looking at the chasms in America that divide people of different incomes, races and political beliefs. But for her next project, she’s looking at programs that bridge those gaps. And she’s starting in Kentucky.

“I’ve spent the last five years doing research in Louisiana, among people who are in struggle in many ways and have been experiencing the divide between blue state California and red state Louisiana,” Hochschild said. “And the project left me sad — can’t we do better than this? What are the positive ways forward?”

Which is what lead her to Louisville-based tech companyInterapt.

Interapt has been running an apprentice program in Eastern Kentucky, teaching people to write code and then providing some employment opportunities.

“At the end of the day, what we’re doing is we’re providing them with the opportunity to participate in the tech economy, to participate in having a job and participate in building skills that can lead to a meaningful career and becoming a productive member of society,” said Interapt founder and CEO Ankur Gopal.

Hochschild is most recently famous for her book “Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” It was released in 2016, was a New York Times Bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

“Strangers” was also included in lists like the New York Times’ “6 Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” due to its in-depth analysis of the motivations underlying the lives of its characters. The book is the result of five years of research in Louisiana, and profiles several people who work in the state’s oil and petrochemical industries. The book’s characters largely identify with the Tea Party, and support Donald Trump. They generally oppose environmental regulations, even while they can see the environmental devastation that industry has created on their land.

Hochschild looks at these people and their lives through the lens of searching for what she calls a “deep story.”

“What is a deep story, it’s a story that feels true about a situation that’s extremely salient,” she said. “So you take facts out of the deep story, you take moral precepts out of the deep story. It’s just a story that feels true about a situation that matters.”

In Louisiana, the deep story that seemed to resonate was waiting in line for the American dream.

“And then the line hasn’t moved a lot. And then they thought they saw line cutters who were moving ahead,” Hochschild said. “Well, who would those be? Blacks, who finally were given through federal affirmative action, plans, jobs that had always been reserved for whites. Even more threatening in a way were women, the majority of the population, who are now, as they felt, a federal affirmative action plans, given access to jobs that had been reserved for men and then immigrants and refugees, they even felt public sector workers were, in a way, cutting in line.”

But after years of examining the ways in which the country is divided, Hochschild said she’s looking for something new in her next project. Instead of examining the divides, she wanted to look for programs and ideas that bridge the gaps.

“There’s so much that’s exciting about this project, the collaborative kind of results-oriented get-it-done spirit that was in a way a model for how we can heal the partisan divide in our country, and I’ve been very interested in ways we can heal that divide and productively get together and move forward with good jobs that can change lives,” she said.

Hochschild sees the Interapt program as one way to get people out of their divided mindsets. She said ultimately, she’d like to see a national program that would mandate mixing of different ideas.

“What we need is ways of coming to know each other just humanly, getting together,” she said. “And we used to have a compulsory draft that did that for men, we used to have labor movement that did that for workers, public schools, less and less do we have these institutional ways of coming together across different stories.”

Like an exchange for high school students — sending people from the coasts inland, Northerners to the South, and vice versa.

“Maybe I’m dreaming here, but in the course of this you train students in civics, in respectful dialogue, in active listening, in how to climb an empathy wall,” she said. “I think we all can do it and would be deeper people if we did. And to take on, in that spirit the big questions that are facing the country. How can we move forward? How can we develop? Are we sort of losing touch with the sort of fundamental principles of democracy?”

In the meantime, Hochschild is seeking to answer some of those questions by interviewing Interapt’s Eastern Kentucky apprentices. And she’ll be looking for their deep story, too, which will likely be different than the one she found among petrochemical workers in Louisiana.

“It’s a way of understanding, so we all have our deep story and I come to it with a great curiosity about what the deep story might be here,” she said.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.