The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

by Katherine J. Cramer


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Since the election of Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been seen as ground zero for debates about the appropriate role of government in the wake of the Great Recession. In a time of rising inequality, Walker not only survived a bitterly contested recall that brought thousands of protesters to Capitol Square, he was subsequently reelected. How could this happen? How is it that the very people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services but are vehemently against the very idea of big government?
With The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J. Cramer uncovers an oft-overlooked piece of the puzzle: rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite.” Rural voters are distrustful that politicians will respect the distinct values of their communities and allocate a fair share of resources. What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are therefore actually rooted in something even more fundamental: who we are as people and how closely a candidate’s social identity matches our own. Using Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s prominent and protracted debate about the appropriate role of government, Cramer illuminates the contours of rural consciousness, showing how place-based identities profoundly influence how people understand politics, regardless of whether urban politicians and their supporters really do shortchange or look down on those living in the country.

The Politics of Resentment shows that rural resentment—no less than partisanship, race, or class—plays a major role in dividing America against itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226349114
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/25/2016
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 449,549
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Katherine J. Cramer is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is also director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and an affiliate faculty member in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the LaFollette School of Public Affairs, the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies. She is the author of Talking about Race and Talking about Politics, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Politics of Resentment

Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

By Katherine J. Cramer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34925-1


Making Sense of Politics through Resentment

I have a story I would like to share with you. It is a story that my friend Tom recently shared with me. We both live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is the state capital and home to the state's flagship public university, the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Tom tells me that not too long ago he was filling up his car at a gas station here in town. He drives a Prius, and has two bumper stickers on his car that say, "OBAMA 2012" and "RECALL WALKER."

Walker, for anyone who may not know, is our current governor, Scott Walker. He is a Republican and was first elected in November 2010. He took office on January 3, 2011, and soon after, on February 11, 2011, introduced a budget repair bill (Act 10) that called for an end to collective bargaining rights, except with respect to wages, for all public employees except police and fire employees. It also required all public employees to increase their payroll contributions for health and pension benefits (to the tune of a 10 percent cut to many of their paychecks). Over the following weekend, union leaders organized protests at the Capitol. By Tuesday, February 15, over ten thousand protestors gathered on the Capitol Square, and thousands more packed the inside. Two days later, fourteen Democrats in the state senate fled to Illinois, in an effort to block the bill. The protests continued for weeks, peaking on Saturday, March 12, when approximately a hundred thousand protestors packed the Capitol Square. Earlier that week, the legislature passed the collective bargaining provisions by removing some parts dealing with fiscal matters, which allowed them to reach quorum in the senate despite the fourteen missing Democrats. By mid-March, efforts to recall sixteen state senators (of both parties) and the governor were underway. In the summer of 2012, recall elections for nine state senators were held. On June 5, 2012, Walker himself survived a recall vote in a campaign against the same Democrat he had competed against in 2010, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee — becoming the first American governor ever to survive a recall. Then in November 2014, he was reelected, with 52 percent of the vote.

The partisan divisiveness in Wisconsin reflects broader political trends in the United States. The country as a whole has seen increasing partisan polarization since the mid-1970s (Layman, Carsey, and Horo witz 2006; McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2008; Barber and McCarty 2013). Democrats and Republicans in both the U.S. House and Senate are increasingly further apart on many issues. Also, state legislatures have become more and more polarized. Wisconsin stands out in this respect — its state legislators are further apart than most — but the trend is universal (Shor 2014). Our political leaders are increasingly taking stands that are ideologically distinctive and far apart (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2008; Barber and McCarty 2013). And members of the public are increasingly polarized as well (Layman et al. 2006; Jacobson 2010; Abramowitz 2013; Haidt and Hetherington 2012).

Some argue that the public is not actually polarized, that people are just better sorted ideologically into partisan camps than in the past (Hetherington 2009; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2010). But others observe that there is more at stake here than ideology. Divides between identifiers with the two parties in terms of religious preferences, attitudes toward race, and racial demographics themselves are deeper than ever (Abramowitz 2013, 2014). The divides are not just about politics but about who we are as people.

These divides are also reflective of the central debate in American politics today: What is the proper role of government in society and who should pay for it (Stonecash 2014)? There are those who believe government ought to be expanded in order to deal with the challenges we face, and there are those who feel that government itself is a major obstacle that should be shrunk. The emergence of the Tea Party is one manifestation of this fundamental divide.

So back to my story. It is in this contentious context that Tom is pumping gas into his clearly liberal/Democratic car. A cool vintage convertible pulls in to the station. Tom starts chatting up the driver when he gets out of his car. The man looks at Tom, looks at Tom's car, and says, "I don't talk to people like you."

This is a little shocking. Unfortunately, it is not unusual in Wisconsin anymore. It has gotten downright nasty around here. People, in casual conversation, are treating each other as enemies. And this is in a place in which people are notoriously nice. Seriously nice. But times change.

I am a life-long Wisconsinite, and proudly so. I am also a political scientist. So I know from my daily work that besides partisan divisiveness, another key feature of the times we live in is economic inequality (Piketty and Saez 2003). Yes, families at all parts of the income distribution have experienced growth in income since World War II, even when adjusting for inflation. But the growth among the wealthiest folks has skyrocketed, while it seems to have stagnated since the 1970s among the 40 percent lowest in income (Bartels 2008, 7–8).

When you consider how much the very top income earners make compared to the bulk of the population, economic inequality in the United States looks even worse. According to 2005 tax returns, the average income for the top 1 percent was $1,111,560. For the bottom 90 percent, it was just $29,143 (Winters and Page 2009, 735). Of course, since those figures were calculated, the Great Recession hit us all. And this meant a hit to household wealth — the savings, investments, and ownership of things like homes that people can tap into during rough times. Here, too, we see inequality: Those in the ninety-fifth percentile of wealth lost a great deal of wealth in the Great Recession but then recovered quickly. However, those in the bottom twenty-fifth percentile have lost a great deal — approximately 85 percent of their net worth — and not regained it.

This economic imbalance has apparently produced a widening gap in political access between the rich and everyone else. The policies our elected officials put into law reflect the preferences of the affluent, but not so much the opinions of other folks. For example, when you compare the votes of U.S. senators to the preferences their constituents express in public opinion polls, the preferences of the lowest third by income are hardly reflected at all in the senators' votes. The preferences of the middle third are reflected somewhat, but just by the Democratic Party. It is only the opinions of the wealthiest that correspond in any substantial way with senators' votes (Bartels 2008).

I offer another piece of evidence that national politicians seem to listen only to the affluent from political scientist Martin Gilens, who compared the opinions of the nation as a whole with policy outcomes. He used responses to 1,935 questions concerning a variety of policy areas from surveys conducted between 1981 and 2002 (Gilens 2005, 2012). When wealthy and low-income people had similar preferences, their opinions corresponded with policy outcomes. But when their preferences diverged, policies did not reflect the wishes of the low-or middle-income people. They reflected the wishes of the wealthy.

Similar results have been found at the state level. State-level economic policy more closely corresponds to the desires of the rich and hardly matches the desires of the poor (Rigby and Wright 2011). On specific policies, including the death penalty, abortion, gun control, level of education spending, gambling, and scope of AFDC eligibility, state policy again is unresponsive to the ideological leanings of the lowest-income residents (Flavin 2012). If our legislators are listening to anyone (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), it looks like they are listening mainly to the people with a great deal of money.

There are some who disagree with this interpretation. Ura and Ellis (2008) and Soroka and Wlezien (2008) argue that the evidence of unequal representation is not so strong, since on many policies, preferences do not vary greatly by income level and tend to move similarly over time. But even if that take on public opinion is correct, we are left with another puzzle: as income inequality has risen in the United States, low-income voters' preference for redistribution of income has moved in a conservative fashion. Their preference for redistribution has moved in the same direction as that of high-income voters, even though presumably low-income voters would benefit, directly in their pocketbooks, from more redistributive policy (Kelly and Enns 2010).

This puzzling trend is not just among low-income voters, at least internationally. Among affluent member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, when the distance in income between low-and middle-income voters is small compared to the distance between the rich and the middle-income, there is greater support among middle-income voters for redistribution (Lupu and Pontusson 2011). But that does not hold in the United States. There seems to be less support for redistribution here than in other countries with similar levels of economic inequality (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005).

Why? Why is it that most voters continue to elect officials who apparently do not represent the vast majority of us? Or if one does not believe that interpretation, why is it that many low-income voters who might benefit from more government redistribution continue to vote against it? Why, in times of increasing economic inequality, have the preferences of the lowest-income voters moved in a conservative, rather than liberal, direction? And why is it that, here in the United States, we have less support for redistribution among middle-income voters than in comparable countries?

This book provides at least part of the answer to these questions. Back in May of 2007, I started inviting myself into conversations in over two dozen communities chosen throughout Wisconsin. My aim was to listen. I wanted to hear how people made sense of politics and their place in it. I kept going back to those groups of people for over five years, through November 2012.

Their conversations enabled me to examine what it looks like when people who might benefit from more government instead prefer far less of it. Listening closely to people revealed two things to me: a significant rural-versus-urban divide and the powerful role of resentment. This book shows that what can look like disagreements about basic political principles can be rooted in something even more fundamental: ideas about who gets what, who has power, what people are like, and who is to blame. What might seem to be a central debate about the appropriate role of government might at base be something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens.

This book shows people making sense of politics in a way that places resentment toward other citizens at the center. It illuminates this politics of resentment by looking closely at the manner in which many rural residents exhibit an intense resentment against their urban counterparts. I explain how people make sense of politics when the boundaries they draw between "us" and "them" coincide with real, geographic boundaries. I show that, although this form of thinking about politics is often criticized as ignorance, these understandings are complex, many layered, and grounded in fundamental identities.

I learned, as a city girl, that many rural residents have a perspective I am going to call "rural consciousness." To folks who grew up in rural areas, a fancy social science name like that probably seems unnecessary. But it is my shorthand for referring to this: an identity as a rural person that includes much more than an attachment to place. It includes a sense that decision makers routinely ignore rural places and fail to give rural communities their fair share of resources, as well as a sense that rural folks are fundamentally different from urbanites in terms of lifestyles, values, and work ethic. Rural consciousness signals an identification with rural people and rural places and denotes a multifaceted resentment against cities.

When I heard people using this lens to interpret their world, I heard them claiming that government and public employees are the product of anti-rural forces and should obviously be scaled back as much as possible. Viewing politics through the perspective of rural consciousness makes wanting less government a commonsense desire.

We political scientists often claim that whether a person feels closer to the Democratic or Republican Party is the most important predisposition for predicting what people think about politics, including how much government and redistribution people want. But in this book, I show how partisanship can be part of a broader understanding of who one is in the world and a less meaningful identity than we often assume.

Instead of partisan identities, many of the people I spent time with in rural areas used identities rooted in place and class, this perspective I am calling rural consciousness, to structure the causal stories they told to each other — and to me — about the state of the economy before, during, and after the Great Recession. It informed their frequently negative perceptions of public employees. Even though there were public employees in their towns, and sometimes even in their groups, many rural folks did not view public employees as truly rural. They did not see them as hard working and deserving as rural folks in general, for example. This perspective provided an environment ripe for the Tea Party, Scott Walker's success, and support for small government generally.

I call this book The Politics of Resentment because there are other ways to make sense of politics than by relying primarily on ideas about which of one's fellow citizens are getting more than their fair share and who among them is undeserving. I draw attention to a kind of politics in which people do not focus their blame on elite decision makers as they try to comprehend an economic recession. Instead, they give their attention to fellow residents who they think are eating their share of the pie. These interpretations are encouraged, perhaps fomented, by political leaders who exploit these divisions for political gain.

This is a different argument than is commonly made about U.S. public opinion and its manipulation by political elites. Contrary to the arguments of political observer Thomas Frank (2004), the interpretations that I am describing are not devoid of economic considerations. The conversations I observed suggest that politicians are not distracting people from economic considerations by convincing them to focus on social and cultural issues. People are taking economics into account. But these considerations are not raw objective facts. Instead, they are perceptions of who is getting what and who deserves it, and these notions are affected by perceptions of cultural and lifestyle differences. That is, in a politics of resentment, people intertwine economic considerations with social and cultural considerations in the interpretations of the world they make with one another.

The possibility I am raising here is that we may be missing something if we think of votes in terms of issue stances, as political scientists normally do. Perhaps issues are secondary to identities. Perhaps when people vote for a candidate their overarching calculation is not how closely does this person's stances match my own, but instead, is this person like me? Does this person understand people like me? The answers to those questions include a consideration of issue stances, but issue stances are not necessarily the main ingredient.

This is a study of public opinion, but it is atypical in that my goal is not to tell you what people think, whether Wisconsinites or any other general population. My goal is not to predict voters' candidate choices or policy preferences. Instead, my goal is to better understand how people think about politics. Some public opinion scholars have argued that opinions about redistribution are not just a function of economic considerations but are, instead, the products of people embedded in particular social locations and social environments (Brooks and Manza 2007). In this book, I do the listening required to study how people combine their sense of themselves in the world with their perceptions of economic conditions to arrive at policy preferences. My goal is to uncover the understandings that make a politics of resentment possible. I want to know what it looks like when people use social categories to understand the political world, and how they connect resentment toward particular groups to the broader stance of wanting less, not more, government redistribution.


Excerpted from The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Making Sense of Politics through Resentment
Chapter 2. A Method of Listening
Chapter 3. The Contours of Rural Consciousness
Chapter 4. The Context of Rural Consciousness
Chapter 5. Attitudes toward Public Institutions and Public Employees
Chapter 6. Support for Small Government
Chapter 7. Reactions to the Ruckus
Chapter 8. We Teach These Things to Each Other

Appendix A: County Map of Wisconsin
Appendix B: Descriptions of Groups Observed and Municipalities in Which They Met
Appendix C: Questions Used during Observations


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