The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
Katherine J. Cramer
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Hillary Clinton might be President today if she’d read articles Katherine J. Cramer wrote prior to 2016. A Wisconsin native, Cramer has studied political attitudes in rural Wisconsin since 2007. She’s informally visited with residents, engaged in extensive conversations, and listened closely. What she’s learned is revealing. Now that the University of Chicago Press has published her book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, Democrats have no excuse if they don’t pay attention to her discoveries in the 2020 elections.
Cramer’s book echoes Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide our Politics (see “Irrational Populism”), which calls for “an overarching theory beyond the idea that all elites and outsiders are bad and the people are good.” In a similar vein, Cramer argues that ordinary people should understand their circumstances “as the product of broad social, economic, and political forces,” rather than the “fault of guilty and less deserving social groups.” She says, “The purpose of this book is…to illuminate how we blame each other.”
[You’re invited to help develop an overarching theory that explains those broad forces by participating in the Transform the System Dialog.]
According to Cramer, her term “rural consciousness”
signals an identification with rural people and rural places and denotes a multifaceted resentment against cities…. I heard them complaining that government and public employees are the product of anti-rural forces and should obviously be scaled back as much as possible…. It informed their frequently negative perceptions of public employees.
Cramer found that rural residents criticize city dwellers for eating more than “their share of the pie.” After analyzing the accuracy of this belief, Cramer concludes, “Even though per capita allocations do not consistently support this view, the nature of the challenges facing rural areas in the United States means that there is a reasonable basis for these perceptions.”
Compared to other countries with similar levels of economic inequality, low- and middle-income Americans are less likely to support income redistribution. Cramer concludes those beliefs are rooted in social identity—ideas about “who has power, what people are like, and who is to blame.” Those beliefs “are affected by perceptions of cultural and lifestyle differences” and can’t simply be explained as “ignorance.”
Cramer concluded that rural Wisconsinites “intertwine” personal, social, economic, and political factors. When they evaluate candidates, issues are “secondary to identities.” They are most concerned about: “Is this person like me? Does this person understand people like me?” She writes:
A large part of the conversations centered on Wisconsin residents-like-me versus Wisconsin-residents-unlike-me…. In a politics of resentment, attitudes towards social groups do the work of ideology. In this kind of politics, we see people arguing in favor of small government based on resentment toward other citizens, not libertarian principles…. Those who are to blame are not one of us.
Identifying with social groups is instinctual. Social identities enable people to “compare themselves to others” and “figure out which people are on our side.” They also shape our behavior and our beliefs, and “even influence what we pay attention to [and] what and who influences us.”
As Cramer states, “Identifying with a group does not necessarily entail vilifying members of out-groups.” But in the political realm, “the distribution of resources is often portrayed as a zero-sum game. There is only so much money to go around…. The situation is ripe for a politics of resentment…. People regularly view politics in terms of opposition to other social groups.”
Social identities, economic insecurity, and resentment interact to produce a rift about the proper role of government. Though most pundits talk about red-versus-blue states, this split is actually “on its most basic level, a rural-versus-urban divide.” Politicians can more easily exploit dividing lines when they have physical markers: “identities rooted in geographic spaces.”
“The alliance of rural voters with a party pressing for less government has roots in human action—it has not popped out of thin air….” The formation of public opinion is not a linear cause-and-effect process. Through their own “sense-making” ordinary people contribute to our “caustic political environment.”
Bottom-up and top-down processes are occurring at the same time and influence one another…. Political elites reap the benefits of the divisiveness they help create…. The weeds grow as people sow them in the minds of each other…. Certain contexts create a bounty harvest as politicians fertilize certain resentments for particular political purposes.
Rural opposition to income redistribution and anti-government sentiment are not inevitable. After the Civil War, “three things came together: a stagnant economy among farmers, enormous increases in wealth for some people…, and a [federal] government with increased power, not only real but demonstrably so—it had just successfully freed the slaves.”
As political populists developed their vigorous movement, they built alliances with African Americans. Then, “pretty quickly, enemies of populism invoked racism to combat these calls for redistribution.” Ever since, links rooted in race, place, and class have been potent. “Arguments against redistribution still benefit from the unfortunate fact that racist sentiments persist…. Without a psychological connection to the poor, middle-income voters are less likely to support redistributing resources toward them.”
Cramer summarizes what she heard:
Wherever it is those tax dollars are going, they sure aren’t going to people like me, and communities like mine. Because look at this place! This community is dying! It seems to me that I’m paying for healthcare for people who aren’t working half as hard as I am and even though I am working myself to death, I can’t afford to pay for my own health care…. The government must be mishandling my hard-earned dollars, because my taxes keep going up and clearly they are not coming back to benefit people like me. So why would I want an expansion of…bloated government programs and overpaid and underworked public employees?
In her conclusion, Cramer suggests some ideas for how best to proceed.
First, it is possible that the resources rural communities are receiving are not effectively addressing the needs of rural communities. Perhaps state, federal, and even county legislation is too often applied to all types of places equally. Maybe more programs should be tailored specifically for real needs and crafted with recognition that not all rural areas are the same….
The manner in which policy is created and delivered is important for whether people perceive it as meeting their needs or being in their interests. If the people I spent time with it had perceived that policymakers had listened to the concerns of rural residents before creating government programs, would they have felt differently about those programs?….
At root, my hope in writing this book is that more and more people redirect the energy they use to engage with public issues away from criticizing their fellow citizens and toward improving the policy process to ensure that it is responsive to the needs of all people. That is asking a lot. In an atmosphere of resentment, it is tough to take the high road and operate on a belief that all people are, at root, good and deserving of respect. Our current politics give little incentive for elected officials to pursue such behavior. It is time that those of us with the power to vote demand it of them.
Only 15 percent of Americans live in rural areas. Given the electoral map, Republican power relies on rural residents. The Democrats may continue to largely ignore rural residents, and merely seek barely enough votes to win a narrow majority in Congress and take back the White House. Without landslide victories, however, their power will be limited and unstable.
As voters become increasingly loyal to their party regardless of the party’s ideology, winning the Senate will be particularly difficult. Thomas B. Edsall calculates that in 2020, “In order to win a majority of 51 seats, Republicans need to win only five seats in the competitive purple states; for Democrats to win a majority, they need to win 11 seats in competitive states.” Given greater party loyalty, weak candidates can still win. For Democrats to seize the Senate, they must cut their losses in rural areas.
The Republicans’ notorious “Southern strategy” that exploits racism is a major factor. The percentage of working class whites who hold strong racial resentment and vote Republican has increased by about 50% since 2000. The Republican Party, Edsall writes, “has become the fervent ally of a president determined to embrace and embolden a white America hostile to immigrants, committed to an immoral racial hierarchy and eager to eviscerate the social progress of the past 60 years.”
Cramer, however, heard more expressions of overt white racism in urban and suburbans areas than she did in rural Wisconsin.
When I heard rural residents talk about ‘those people on welfare,” they were talking about their white neighbors…. When they talked about lazy urbanites, they were talking about government employees or wealthier people who did not have to work as hard as themselves. The lazy and undeserving were also often young people. In this way, the perception that government programs benefited urbanites and not rural residents was not racism as it is commonly understood.
But racism today is not simple…. Patterns of discrimination over centuries mean that race colors our impressions…. Just because blatantly racist statements did not appear in the conversations I observed in rural areas does not mean that racism does not exist in those places. Badger Poll data do suggest that self-identified rural residents are more likely to think that minorities have too much influence than are self-identified urban or suburban residents….
The persistence of racial stereotypes that contain beliefs that some racial groups are lazier than others makes it likely that [racist] arguments activate racial resentment among many people, and, therefore even stronger opposition to government spending…. The ubiquity of subconscious racial prejudice, even among people who consciously express racial tolerance, underscores this possibility.
Nevertheless, it seems that Cramer’s findings suggest that racism is not a driving, definitive factor with most rural residents. And to the degree that it is a factor, it can be counteracted by activating other aspects of the human potential. According to Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, it will be difficult for the Democrats to win the Senate if they continue to voice what he calls “President Obama’s (and Hillary Clinton’s) metropolitan triumphalism that drives away all working people.” If Democrats start listening more closely to rural residents and speak to their needs, their “Big Tent” could expand to include more rural voters, and they could better mobilize supermajorities nationwide. Not only could that strategy be more effective. It would be the right thing to do morally.
Cramer’s call for a focus on “broad social, economic, and political forces” is well-taken—as far as it goes. But she fails to consider how those forces are woven together into a self-perpetuating social system. Consequently, she indicates support for a political populism that blames (ill-defined) elites.
By way of contrast, a popular movement rooted in compassion could recognize that the System is our primary problem. That social system is mutually constituted. Everyone is responsible. As individuals, we reinforce the System with how we treat each other. A “blue wave” in 2020 could be a step toward transforming each element of the System—individuals, families, and informal communities included.
Many, if not most, elites will likely resist any such movement. But we can oppose those who do without demonizing them. We can insist that they too, in the long run, will benefit from a more caring society. The better we do, the better they do. The better you do, the better I do. The better I do, the better you do. One for all, all for one.