In 2016, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild released her study of Louisiana bayou Republicans, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, to great fanfare. In “What’s the matter with Kansas?” fashion, the explicit aim of the study was to understand why rural conservatives voted against environmental regulations that would improve their quality of life by curbing the pollution that wreaked havoc in their communities. This question, however, served a more open-ended and ambitious goal: to figure out what makes red-state Republicans tick.

Hochschild took a novel and rigorous approach to the question. Recognizing the problem of a vast cultural gulf between rural conservatives and the social scientists seeking to understand them, she endeavored to explain her research subjects on their own terms. Setting out to “climb over the empathy wall,” she spent five years living part-time in the Louisiana bayou, attending community events, befriending Tea Party activists, and watching Fox News day in and day out, embedding herself in the red-state Republican world as thoroughly as possible. Far from providing armchair analysis, she sought to present her readers with the view from within.

To summarize her conclusions, Hochschild introduced the concept of the “deep story.” The deep story, she argued, is a cultural narrative people hold about the world and their place in it. It is a “feels-as-if” story through which they interpret events and channel emotions. Everyone has a deep story, but the particular story she uncovered among her research subjects went something like this:

All their lives they had been working hard, waiting in line for their turn at an American dream that felt forever out of reach. Yet all of a sudden, with the aid of liberal government and media, “line cutters”—women, racial minorities, immigrants—were being waved ahead, gaining access to jobs or social status before it was their turn. To add insult to injury, the line cutters and their liberal allies then turned around to heap scorn on the rural conservatives they had left behind, ridiculing their folkways, beliefs, and values. This left them feeling like “strangers in their own land.”

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Hochschild proudly reported that when she presented her Tea Party friends with this deep story, they enthusiastically affirmed it, seemingly validating her answer to the question of what makes red-state Republicans tick. Critics on both the Left and Right may find some fault with Hochschild’s conclusions, but her project nonetheless comes far closer to providing real, empathic understanding than most scholarship on the topic.

There is one question Hochschild never addresses head-on: is the deep story of her Tea Party friends true? Some may argue that this is the wrong question, even a category error. What matters about the deep story is that people believe in and act on it, since what people regard as real is real in its effects. As a matter of sociological theory, this may be correct, yet the response isn’t quite satisfying. The story does not seem so abstract as to be impervious to empirical investigation. 

Hochschild apparently doesn’t think so, as she devotes an entire appendix to debunking many of the factual claims she heard from her research subjects that seem to support their narrative. 

Furthermore, Hochschild’s initial research question was effectively why people vote against (what she takes to be) their own interests. She answers that they are acting based on their deep story—and so not, presumably, the reality of their situation. It seems to follow that a deep story in greater accord with reality—that is, one that was truer—would produce more beneficial political outcomes. The question of the deep story’s validity is thus not only intelligible but socially consequential.

Though Hochschild does not affirm the truth of her subjects’ deep story, she grants some of the circumstances that make it seem plausible. Stagnant wages have, indeed, put the American dream further out of reach. White American Christians are in real demographic decline. Popular culture does not cater to their sensibilities. These social and cultural changes give rise to emotional reactions that require some narrative to help process them. Social, political, and media ecosystems further contribute to the development, embedding, and maintenance of shared narratives, which, in turn, shape partisan attachments. The paradox of her Tea Party friends’ ostensibly self-defeating political commitments may be lamentable, but it is not inexplicable.

Hochschild was wrapping up her research just as Trump emerged on the political scene. The book was released just a few short months before the 2016 election. The timing was perfect in one sense, ill-fated in another. On one hand, the Trump election put the academy on alert that their understanding of American culture and politics, and of the Right in particular, had been woefully off base. This lent a sense of urgency to precisely the sorts of questions Hochschild was asking. 

The book seemed tailor-made for the moment. On the other hand, that same academy was in no mood for the scaling of the “empathy wall” that had been a central element of Hochschild’s project. They had their own anger and mourning to work through, and building bridges of understanding with their political opponents was not part of that process. The result was that in subsequent scholarship, the concept of the “deep story” gained some traction, but that of “climbing over the empathy wall” did not. This was unfortunate since a sincere attempt at empathy was not only a normative consideration but a methodological prerequisite for the appropriate use of the deep story.

Six years later, sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry were to make a very different use of the deep story in their work The Flag and the Cross. This book begins by reviewing the events of the January 6 Capitol Hill riot, which they attribute to the book’s central subject—white Christian nationalism. White Christian nationalism, they inform us in the introduction, is a deep story that runs as follows:

America was founded as a Christian nation by (white) men who were “traditional” Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on “Christian principles.” The United States is blessed by God, which is why it has been so successful; and the nation has a special role to play in God’s plan for humanity. But these blessings are threatened by cultural degradation from “un-American” influences both inside and outside our borders.

Despite explicitly drawing on Hochschild’s theory of the deep story, Gorski’s and Perry’s usage differs from hers in important ways. First, as described above, Hochschild was rigorous and transparent in the process by which she developed and validated her account. How Gorski and Perry arrive at the deep story of white Christian nationalism, in contrast, is left wholly mysterious.

Second, it is doubtful that a single living soul adheres to the deep story as they have written it. Most of those to whom it is being attributed would angrily object to the inclusion of the parenthetical “white” and its implications. (A few might keep it but protest its demotion to parentheses.) Furthermore, anyone who adheres to this general story is unlikely to include scare quotes around what they sincerely believe to be Christian principles or un-American influences.

These choices of wording and punctuation are not trivial. The power of the deep story as a sociological concept lies in its potential to describe people on their own terms and provide a view from within. It works precisely because it treats self-understandings, rather than supposed hidden or subconscious motives, as its starting place. In their telling, Gorski and Perry betray a fundamental unwillingness to attempt the empathic leap required to make the idea work. They can only offer another condemnatory view from without (though with the added insult of purporting to be from within). The result is a haphazard and perverse application of the deep story concept as articulated by Hochschild.

Third, as an explanation of what motivated the January 6 rioters, this particular deep story is a strange place to land. Of all the ways we might diagnose the pathologies clearly on display in that day’s events, it is not obvious that an excessive, David Barton–esque sacralization of the American founding mythology, and a slanted understanding of the founders’ religious beliefs, are where things went wrong, nor does the book offer any empirical support for such a claim. Indeed, what little research is available contradicts it. To make the connection, Gorski and Perry rely on the sheer shock value of the (admittedly shocking) religious imagery on prominent display in photos of January 6, but this falls far short of the standard for social scientific evidence.

Even if we put these concerns aside and take the deep story they offer at face value, it does little to elucidate the improbable range of phenomena they attribute in whole or in part to white Christian nationalism. These include, non-exhaustively: King Philip’s War, the Ku Klux Klan, vaccine skepticism, the Electoral College, gun culture, American imperialism, American isolationism, libertarianism, judicial originalism, pocket Constitutions, the Tea Party, the Southern “Lost Cause” narrative, the national anthem, premillennial eschatology, Fox News, QAnon, conservative Christian preoccupation with sexual morality, religious freedom advocacy, Catholic integralism, post-apocalyptic fiction, Marvel comics, and John Wayne fandom. As a list of things that make progressives uncomfortable, one could do worse. But the prospect that these disparate phenomena can be subsumed under some enduring social entity called “white Christian nationalism” stretching from colonial times into the present, and that this entity is embodied by the deep story recounted above, should strain any grounded sociological imagination well past its breaking point.

In the end, this is all beside the point, because the purpose of The Flag and the Cross is not to provide a sober-minded, coherent scholarly account of the cause-and-effect processes linking American religion and right-wing politics. Such a project would be poorly suited to the mood of the Trump-era academy. The aim is not to enlighten the ignorant or convert the skeptic so much as to stir the heart of the believer. As Jemar Tisby urges in the foreword, this is work that must not simply be read, but “absorbed and applied.” The book acts as a denunciation of evil and a call to arms, the expression of an angry yet erudite id. It was written for a moment that calls not for analyses but declarations, a time to rise out of the armchair and into the pulpit. This is clearest in the concluding chapter, entitled “Avoiding ‘The Big One,’” in which we are assured we won’t be so lucky with the next insurrection and are warned of an impending American “Jim Crow 2.0” and a descent from Trump’s America to Putin’s Russia. The choice laid before us is stark and Manichean: “To the left lies a path toward multiracial democracy; to the right lies a path toward continued white dominance.”

Precisely because Gorski and Perry opt to suspend the scholarly virtues of objectivity and circumspection and lay their cards on the table, however, their work is quite effective in revealing a deep story, albeit not the one they intended. It is the deep story of the Trump-era progressive public intellectual, one that draws on critical theory and the Frankfurt school, certainly, but no less from more popular figures like Howard Zinn and Margaret Atwood (whose trade, after all, is in stories). One can detect it in other works of the same genre as The Flag and the Cross, in progressive think pieces, and in Q-&-As at academic conferences. It goes something like this:

The forces of capital and reaction are ever in league, bent on rolling back progress and imposing a social vision that would make the Nazi and the Klansman feel at home. Behind a façade of internal division and moderated rhetoric, they coordinate their efforts via dark money and dog whistles. It was once thought that these forces were fading, but Trump’s election proved they had only been quietly gathering strength before launching a fresh assault. The barbarians are at the very gates. It is incumbent upon public intellectuals imbued with the ability to recognize these sinister designs to use the weapons at their disposal—the publishing house, the op-ed, the academic conference, the interview, the speaking engagement—to educate and mobilize the right-thinking public against these dangers. The survival of American democracy itself hangs in the balance.

Just as the deep story of Hochschild’s Tea Party friends shaped their politics, that of the Trump-era academy has shaped its scholarship. Certainly, there is plenty of fodder to lend it plausibility, not least the photos and footage from January 6 used as the jumping-off point in The Flag and the Cross. We must once again ask, however, not merely whether the story is plausible but whether it is true. If the assessment of the threat to democracy is broadly accurate, these scholars are indeed morally obligated to throw themselves fully into the fray and take the rhetorical dial to an eleven. Any less would be complacency in the face of rising fascism.

If the story is substantially false, however, then scholarship structured around it is misguided and irresponsible. At best, it serves to obfuscate the reality that social science is intended to elucidate and undermine the public credibility of the academic enterprise. At worst, its influence will be to throw further fuel on the fires of polarization, make radicals of moderates on both sides of the political spectrum, and hasten the very social collapse it aims to prevent. Thus, much hinges on the truth or falsehood of this deep story.

The question here is not whether the modern political Right is sick—that almost 70 percent of Republicans still reject the results of the 2020 election serves as an irrefutable testament to this fact. The issue, instead, is one of diagnosis. Put simply: is the Right’s chief problem that it is composed primarily of power-mad, racist authoritarians? Here the evidence is thin. Research consistently confirms that most Americans, Left or Right, are not particularly radical or even ideologically coherent. When it comes to social attitudes, Democrats and Republicans alike tend to move in the liberal direction, albeit not at the same rate. Most Americans across the political spectrum affirm the value of democracy (while doubting that opposing partisans do the same). And the idea that the Right is united around any social vision at present is little more than the stuff of wishful thinking among conservative intellectuals and strategists. In assessing the political Right of recent years, we would do well to recall that adage that in our fractured age may pass for charity: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

If there is anything uniting the Right’s disparate factions, it is fear and loathing of the Left. We may summarize this feeling in one final deep story, as told by media scholars Anthony Nadler and Doron Taussig based on interviews with conservatives of all stripes. It bears some resemblance to Hochschild’s account, but with a broader application:

On the right, there is a powerful story—let’s call it “The Shunning”—about conservatism as an identity under threat of humiliation, social stigma, and formal exclusion. . . . Privileged liberals [in this story] are rarely depicted casting their scorn at   one issue position. Rather, they are shown holding in contempt broad social groups supposedly associated with conservatism—blue-collar workers, Christians, white people, older people, people who live in rural areas. Disrespected and under attack, members of these groups are invited to find solidarity in their conservative identity, and moral support from the right-wing media that defends it.

Despite containing no social vision of its own other than a persecution narrative, this deep story has been sufficiently powerful to bring out voters and win elections repeatedly, if not consistently. Progressive academic commentators are aware of the power of such narratives on the Right and seek to understand them, predictably landing on such explanations as right-wing media manipulation, misinformation, and demagogue worship. There can be little doubt all these factors play a role.

But here, the commentators might try stretching their sociological imaginations just a bit further, and in an inward direction. If they want to know what sustains the conservative sense of grievance, a good place to start would be to reread their own work and consider how it sounds from the other side of the empathy wall. 

Ultimately, the deep stories of the conservative voter and the progressive public intellectual feed one another.


The Flag and the Cross is only one entry in a flourishing subgenre of bombastic polemics from both academic and popular presses purporting to lay bare the evil lurking in the hearts of their authors’ opposing partisans. (One can find many of these works conveniently listed in the “Pluralist Resistance Syllabus,” alongside some very worthwhile studies of American religio-political conflict.) Several of these works, despite advancing arguments that often reduce to tendentious and nakedly partisan interpretive assertions, have met warm critical receptions, with their claims regularly repeated in high-profile publications and even congressional testimony.

We are thus left with the curious spectacle of prominent academics with substantial cultural platforms gathering at conferences to ask one another: What could have possibly given all these power-mad, racist authoritarians the idea that America’s elites have contempt for them? This is only a puzzle if these authors assume their work is somehow hermetically sealed off from a larger political discourse in which the targets of their polemics are also participants. This would be a strange supposition, however, given the evangelical zeal and undeniable success with which many of these scholars have disseminated their condemnations into that discourse. It may be time to consider the possibility that Fox News has had some assistance in rendering the conservative deep story of “The Shunning” plausible to its viewers.

Ultimately, the deep stories of the conservative voter and the progressive public intellectual feed one another. As long as academics continue to use their platforms to publicly heap scorn on the Right and obtain tremendous professional rewards for doing so, the conservative narrative of being under political and cultural siege will remain plausible and provide ongoing justification for engagement in aggressive populist politics. As long as right-wing voters continue to endorse or even tolerate absurd conspiracy theories or policies and rhetoric antithetical to liberal democracy, progressive intellectuals will have fodder for narratives of the threat of a new fascism.

There is no obvious way out of this impasse, but any path toward a healthier cultural politics will depend on the crafting of better, truer stories. It may be objected that deep stories are not crafted at all but arise organically, operating outside of conscious awareness and doing their work behind the scenes. There is something to this. But once recognized, they can be scrutinized and thereby reshaped. Unfolding eventselections, wars, political scandalsprovide fresh inputs into the stories we tell, thus creating opportunities for cultural elites to tell them more responsibly. In Hochschild’s story about her Tea Party friends, the Obamas featured prominently and Trump not at all. It is fair to assume that if she conducted the same study today, the story she landed on would sound somewhat different. The same will be true in a few years. The tragedy of October 7 and the ensuing Israel–Gaza war seems to have sparked some soul-searching within the academy that shows signs of producing a real shift in self-understanding. 

If the stories can change, it stands to reason that they can improve—or deteriorate. Responsible cultural elites of the Left and Right alike would do well to consider not only what claims they make explicitly, but what kinds of stories underlie those claims, and whether these are the right stories to tell.

Image by zimmytws and licensed via Adobe Stock.