Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Why Rural Residents Resent Us

UW Prof listens to people in 29 rural communities, learns why they like Gov. Walker.

By - Apr 25th, 2016 11:31 am
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.

The UW-Madison political science professor, an Ozaukee County native, was stunned by what northern Wisconsin residents told her in diners, coffee shops, back rooms and barns between 2007 and 2012.

“I did not expect to hear it, but many of the people I listened to in rural areas exhibited a multifaceted resentment toward urban areas,” Professor Katherine J. Cramer writes in her new book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

“That resentment was part of a perspective. I call it rural consciousness. It is a perspective rooted in place and class identities that convey a strong sense of distributive injustice.”

And that “rural consciousness” involves a lot.

“First, rural consciousness was about perceptions of power, or who makes decisions and who decides what to even discuss,” she writes. “Second, it showed up with respect to perceptions of values and lifestyles. Third … it involved perceptions of resources or who gets what.”

Cramer listened over a period that spanned the end of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s second term, the first two years of controversial Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Act 10, Walker’s survival of a recall vote, and the Great Recession. She left her UW office to bravely walk, often unannounced, into informal gatherings that bond rural residents and transmit gossip and perceptions.

Cramer does not name those she interviewed, allowing them to speak candidly, and does not name the rural communities she visited and revisited. But she recorded all interviews in the 39 groups in 29 communities, and noted the dates.

For Cramer to get into a backroom session – “the dice game” – a local attorney had to pull aside a curtain, surprising the regulars. Another group was “the loggers.”

“I got to know people,” Cramer writes. “They asked to see pictures of my daughter, and I asked to see pictures of their families in return. I got manure on my toes. I got insulted, and I got and gave hugs.

“I had to find a way to be authentic – be myself – without turning people off in this hyperpolitically charged atmosphere…I wanted to observe group conversations among people who got together on their own, not among people I had recruited.”

Every reporter knows how critical the first few moments of an in-person interview are, when you introduce yourself, who you work for and what you want to ask them about. The subject either instantly trusts you, or waves you off.

As a professor at a nationally prestigious university – but an institution many rural Wisconsin residents believe does not want to educate their sons and daughters, or is too expensive to attend – Cramer felt the anger at public employees like her.

“A man working with milking machines looks around the back of the cow at me and says, ‘I’m glad Walker did what he did. It’s about time someone takes something away from those bastards.’ The bastards in this case, are public employees. I am one of them.”

It was a reference to Act 10, which Walker pushed through the Legislature weeks after taking office in 2011. It eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees and required them to pay more for pensions and health care.

Some other comments from Up North:

“Other people don’t have a clue what’s going on up here.”

“Right now, if you ain’t working for the government… you ain’t gonna have nothing.”

Public employees “shower before work – not afterward.”

A few of Cramer’s conclusions:

*There’s a widespread perception that public school teachers, even those teaching their children and grandchildren, are overpaid government workers with benefits and pensions beyond the dreams of harder-working, overtaxed rural residents.

*Rural residents often take small-government positions that seem to be against their best interests. “…[F]olks missing teeth rarely supported government-sponsored health care reform.”

*Walker gave them “a sense of gratitude that finally someone in power was recognizing the burdens they faced. To them, someone was finally acknowledging the injustice of their hard-earned money being shunted toward the undeserving.”

What she heard scares her, the political scientist concluded:

“My fear is that democracy will always tend toward politics of resentment, in which savvy politicians figure out ways to amass coalitions by tapping into our deepest and most salient social divides: race, class, culture, place.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

35 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Why Rural Residents Resent Us”

  1. Dave says:

    To put it politely, these people can go f*** themselves.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Well that at least partially explains the feelings of resentment doesn’t it Dave?

  3. Dave says:

    These people (and those from Milwaukee’s surrounding counties as well) lost all of my respect after they put Walker back in office for a third time. I will no longer waste my time trying to rationalize or understand them. Bill Murray once said ” It’s hard to win an argument with a smart person, but it’s damn near impossible to win an argument with a stupid person.” These people do not need to be accommodated, they need to be defeated. Either that or Madison and Milwaukee somehow secede from the rest of this backwards state so they can fulfill their dreams of being Indiana’s shithole twin. I suspect the geography would complicate that.

  4. AG says:

    “What she heard scares her, the political scientist concluded:

    ‘My fear is that democracy will always tend toward politics of resentment, in which savvy politicians figure out ways to amass coalitions by tapping into our deepest and most salient social divides: race, class, culture, place.'”

    Is it ironic that this book seems to do exactly that or is it on purpose?

  5. Homer Jay says:

    That’s what 30+ years of Reaganomics, talk radio, Fox News, etc, leads to. How do you even begin to penetrate that much ‘brainwashing’?

  6. Tim says:

    Give them what they want, lets get a law that doesn’t allow tax collections to leave the county it came from. If the state collects a tax from a county, it must spend it there.

    They just KNOW that they’ve been getting shorted & the takers in “liberal” areas aren’t paying their way. Let’s see how it works out.

  7. newscommenter says:

    Way to cherry pick a few quotes and completely miss the point of the book. Articles like this only fuel the rural-urban divisiveness. Great work, Steven.

  8. Casey says:

    Couldn’t agree more Tim! Or maybe even a regional tax district like so many other State entities are set up.

  9. AG says:

    newscommenter, it fits the narrative Mr. Walters would like to portray and perpetuate (along with many commentators here). It’s a disappointing point of view that will only serve to further divide.

    The worst line of the story: “She left her UW office to bravely walk,..” as if she’s doing some sort of dangerous foreign correspondence in a war zone. Give me a break, no wonder why his “news service” office was booted from the Capitol building.

    Political differences can be trying sometimes, but the pointless divide that is created by some people is what really bothers me most.

  10. RMH says:

    I agree with Tim. I strongly suspect that the liberal “takers” contribute far more to the state coffers than they take out per capita. I’ve looked and haven’t been able to confirm that … anybody know how to find those breakdowns? I’ve seen them for states taxes into the federal government (the South for example consumes far more federal spending than it contributes), but not broken down locally within states.

  11. Rich says:

    Waiting for ‘newscommenter’ and ‘AG’ to publish their book report. Not sure what they’re trying to gin up here, looks like a pretty reasonable summary of book that’s been in print for exactly a month. I’ll assume then that they’ve both read it and are able to point out line by line where Mr Walters’ use of quotation marks surrounds something that’s not actually in the book or where he overly salted the commentary with his obviously anti-rural bias.

    All we’ve gotten so far is that “bravely walk” was overdoing it. Perhaps so, but, unless your experiences are vastly different than mine, it’s hard enough to have rational discourse about politics among family or friends, let alone strangers.

  12. Bea says:

    Of course the dairy farmer built that whole thing himself, didn’t he? No government-funded research or milk price supports or subsidies via various federal ag agency programs helped him. He built that! That said, Democrats have done a darn poor job of making the case for effective government.

  13. MJD says:

    I have literally spent hours trying to find out why people vote against their own best interest in rural areas of Wisconsin. This seems to be the best explanation I have found. For the price of bull headedness, we are now a tea bagger state. Long live Wississippi.

  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    “stunned by what northern Wisconsin residents told her in diners, coffee shops, back rooms and barns between 2007 and 2012.”

    Stunned? Really? I’ve heard worse than what’s shared in this story more times than I can count. Plus this type of reporting isn’t exactly new nor does it reveal anything earth-shattering. As far as people voting against their own economic interests, What’s the Matter With Kansas is what 12 years old now? And it’s not like that was the first time the argument had been made. Closer to home Craig Gilbert has written what feels like a thousand stories in recent years about how partisan Wisconsin is and how friends can’t talk politics anymore, etc. What does this book present that’s new or insightful? Or is it a rehash of now very familiar tales? Did the author get exactly what they hoped to find? I have not read it so I have no idea, and I detest Walker and have little fondness for Republicans in the state legislature, so this certainly isn’t a defense of them. But this story doesn’t make me want to read the book. It makes the book seem like a rehash of the familiar with little that’s fresh or provocative or revealing.

  15. D. Holmes says:

    Milwaukee has a lot of urban problems but also economic assets that far exceed those of other area of the state. We’ll still do okay regardless of rural resentment and anti-urban policies.

    What i have found whenevet i’ve worked on projects in rural areas of Wisconsin or small towns is that many of residents in these places are highly dependent on the smaller urban centers like Wausau. A lot of small farms get by from income generated by a spouse commuting 30 or 40 miles to work at a job in one of these small urban centers. Anti-urban policies end up hurting these smaller cities as well, which have far fewer assets than Milwaukee to effectively compete in the age of globalization. Eventually, rural voters might figure out they have a lot to gain from Wisconsin having stronger urban areas (just as urban residents need to have an appreciation of just how big an impact farms, forests, and recreational areas have on the state’s overall economy).

  16. William Burgess Leavenworth says:

    These folks have been shortchanged in their education, and in their health services. The Republican Party is more responsible for this than the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party owns virtually all the media, and therefore controls HOW this inequality is presented to the rural working poor. Nobody in this country works harder than the farmers, who have been pushed off the radar by the same corporate capitalists who exhort them to hatred and restricts their access to education and health care. Perhaps we should restrict the franchise to those who have worked at least a year on a farm, woodlot, fishing boat, ranch or factory floor, AND served at least two years in uniform. That would eventually bring an understanding between metropolis and countryside. Failure to bring both populations under the same democratic socialist banner will eventually result in our country’s collapse in class war, in which we, the working blue and white-collar classes, will kill each other for the profit of the oligarchy, who will watch from their mansions in gated communities.

  17. Vincent Hanna says:

    If you want to win elections, Dave’s “f&*k them” approach isn’t likely to be successful. How do you reach these voters and convince them that actually strong urban centers are beneficial to you? I’m not sure how much the book touches upon this but social issues have to be a factor here. If that’s more important when it comes to who they vote for you have a whole different challenge and their economic interests are a complete afterthought. A few months back NPR did a story on the governor’s election in Kentucky. They interviewed a poor woman living in a rural area who at mid-30s had health insurance for the first time in her life because of the then-governor. She voted for his opponent (Matt Bevin) because abortion. When asked if she was worried about losing her health insurance, she said she expected to and was very worried, but abortion was more important. I’m sure there are voters like that here (and not just in rural areas). You’ll have a hard time convincing them of Wausau’s importance to their well-being.

  18. Dave says:

    You must be delusional if you think we’re going to take back the state any time soon. 2010 happened and we lost more than we could possibly know at the time. They have now gerrymandered themselves into power for a generation and have already destroyed much of what made this state great. We’re not winning anytime soon. As soon as we can sell our house we mistakenly purchased that same ill-fated year, we’re gone.

  19. Jason says:

    I haven’t read the book (obviously), but this analysis seems to leave out explaining the (very) rural parts of the state that consistently go strongly Democrat… Ashland, Bayfield and Douglas counties. What makes those areas so different from the “true red” zones throughout much of the rest of the state?

  20. Vincent Hanna says:

    That’s a good point Jason and I wondered the same. I know I’ve read about some rural counties that vote Dem but couldn’t remember their names. Did she interview people there to find out what drives their votes? If not, why leave their voices out?

  21. AG says:

    D. Holmes and Vincent, even if I disagree with your positions your comments have been very constructive.

    I think this is a pretty cut and dry question though. Rural areas look upon Milwaukee as a city full of unemployed lazy people and/or gang bangers who collect welfare checks to get by. To them, Madison as a city full of government workers who add little value and live on bloated paychecks and benefits (or at least are in comfy jobs that don’t have the same risks in a down economy that they have). They do indeed have a culture of working hard and getting ahead through your own efforts, which is contrary to what they believe takes place in the inner city.

    Meanwhile, urban residents see rural people as uneducated people who don’t understand whats good for them. They idea that they don’t want free healthcare, even if it’s better for them in the long run, because they don’t want handouts and want to earn what they get (or in Vincent’s example, a moral belief trumps what otherwise seems like a logical political choice) is a foreign concept.

    Caught in the middle are suburbanites who are greedy, privileged, and don’t understand the struggles of either the inner city or rural dwellers.

    Instead of looking at the differences between the “classes” that divide these geographic areas, I think there is far more we all share in common. At the very least, each side could do more to understand WHY the other groups believe what they believe.

  22. AG says:

    Steven Walters sets this book up as an intellectual going into enemy territory to discover how the alien society in rural communities work and how they could be so stupid as to vote against their best interests. If you really want to understand rural communities and their politics, you should read a book by someone who believes what most rural residents believe.

    I haven’t found that book yet… but I’d compare it to “Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago” which gives someone who doesn’t live that life a peak at what life is really like in the inner city and why it’s hard to just work yourself out of it. If I could find a good rural counter part, I’d try and make you all read it. Anyone have any suggestions? (this probably isn’t the best forum to find a good suggestion on that I know…)

  23. tomw says:

    Having grown up in rural Kansas amid “these people” and having spent most of my career in Milwaukee, this is a fascinating article and I look forward to reading the book. What’s missing in this may be Frank’s latest analysis of US politics called “Listen Liberal”. People who work with their hands and on the land must feel abandoned and abused as we and the media spend so much time talking and celebrating the “knowledge based worker” and the innovation economy. We so often forget that what’s missing is the innovation which creates jobs at 27th and Lloyd that will pay a living wage and a recognition that those who grow our food may use more knowledge and technology than most of us who simply drive a lap top. Politicians need to begin campaigning as teachers more than pollsters and learn as well as teach so that we can begin to rebuild a society that understands and appreciates the role of government and those who work for it.

  24. Vincent Hanna says:

    AG, this:

    The author doesn’t necessarily share all of the beliefs of rural residents, but he is one of them and understands them and doesn’t dismiss them as dumb rubes. He moved back to his hometown before writing this. It’s very good.

  25. Mary Campbell says:

    When Act10 was being considered and protested I was in California. I had a friend whose husband actually worked for the state and would be directly impacted by this. They live “up north” as well. When I questioned her about it and tried to point out that this would apply to her and her family as well. She felt I was completely out of touch and just didn’t understand and was in full support of Walker and his policies. I am now back in Wisconsin in a relatively rural area and still hear and see some of the same things. It does make me very sad at how this state is now viewed. I miss the Wisconsin that used to be!

  26. Tony Muhammad says:

    This article answers part of a long standing question I have been pondering since January 2009 – Why is the political rift between WI common rural residents and WI two major Cities common residents – Madison and Milwaukee? Please bare with me as I explain how I discovered part of the answer to my question.

    I landed a LTE job as a Case Worker with Milwaukee Workforce Development Agency. The job was funded by a $50,000 federal grant for victims disaster relief from the 2008 Declared Storm Disaster which affected mostly South-Eastern Wisconsin residents and homes / property. Six months later the job morpth into a $9,000,000.00 dollars Federally funded program called – The 2008 Declared Disaster Unmet Needs Program.

    Ironically, the initial grant funding was found by a good hearted person (which I will not name here) assisting his Luthern or Methodist Pastor (I’m not for certain which) clean out and organize his church office. The federal grant funding check was literally used as a book marker by the Pastor.

    The good hearted person asked his pastor if he realized the check was in this particular book.

    The Pastor responded, Oh, that check! It is targeted for Milwaukee County, but I don’t know anyone I can trust there to ensure the money gets to the deserving residents so I have been holding onto it.

    How long asked the GP.

    The church recieved that funding in late 2008 to assist our parishioners in Milwaukee, but of course, we don’t have any living in Milwaukee County.

    How did you come by this check might I ask?

    One of our members that work for the State Health and Child Welfare Agency, thought the church could aide in despensing the funding in Milwaukee – they too do not know anyone in Milwaukeee they can trust. The funding is connected to future unmet needs grant funding coming later this year to the State of WI. from the Federal Govt. to assist South Eastern and Western residents who have unmet needs from the 2008 Storms.

    The Pastor asked his parishioner, GPs – Do you know anyone in Milwaukee you can trust? Perhaps you can relieve me of this grant check targeted for Milwaukee? I totally forgot that check was in the office and needed deliviering to help a few residents of Milwaukee.

    I sure do said the GP. May I get back with you in a few days with the name of a dear friend that works for a job agency in Milwaukee? Please do, said the Pastor.

    To make a long story short, the 9 million dollars arrived to the State of Wisconsin in June 2009. Wisconsin Annual Conference United Methodist Church of Sun Prairie, WI. was awarded the administration of the grant funding or what was left of the 9 million after State and County agencies across WI got their shares.

    What was left of the total funding (9 mil) after State agencies “skimming act,” was roughly 3.9 milllion for those State residence truly deserving of the Federal funding. I later learned about the Wisconsin “home rule,” which supposely justifies Wis.government agencies high-jacking federal funding to pad their budgets regardless of victims needs for which the funding was granted.

    Please don’t anyone respond with – What about program administration cost? I will respond anyway, lol.

    UMC did not recieve anywhere near the millions for their administration services. As a matter of fact the personnel administrator’s and coordinators recieved a small stiphen that measely supplement their positions with UMC, a long with, the Red Cross of Milwaukee which provided office space where I and other Case Workers worked from here in Milwaukee servicing Milwaukee County resident that qualified their unmet needs to be awarded funding assistence.

    You see readers, common people regardless of race, creed, and residential localities across America realize their tax dollars combine that should return for the maintence of their perspective localities then combine with their day to day career payrolls and hourly wages for work performed minus day to day expenses don’t balance.

    Rural America espeically, view the billions perhaps untold trillions (I personnaly believe our Federal government and its many agencies and departments, is long overdue for a complete audit) of tax payer dollars spent on poverty in this country, is going into a bottonless pit housing a money eating Dragon, and so do I. I prefer city living but wish I could afforded to live in a rural area somewhere America.

    Regardless if Rural Americans are poor or considered lower or upper middle-class based mostly on family land ownership these people have pride in their work ethics AND so do City dwellers that work hard day in and day out, quite as it is kept a secrete by liberals and conservative politicans. One claiming the poor can not help themselves the other claiming the poor are lazy individual’s alway’s begging for freebies in our society.

    And yes – we (rural and city dweller’s) may go without front teeth if we can not pay for denture replacements out of our own pockets instead of applying for Badger Care or traveling miles away or a few blocks in the city to a County or State funded clinic offering free dental services.

    When the common people of America wake up from all the divisiveness in our society that pit them against one another then realize they are all in the same boat of “political trickery,” I fear for America that it may repeat its past history of revolt against TYRANNY, but this time around it will be against “Political Tyranny,” or as I am fond of describing politics, Tyranny by Trickery!

  27. QX4guy says:

    I will withhold commentary about Professor Cramer’s findings and Mr. Walters’ commentary until I read the book. That said, I suspect that her “walking and talking among ‘them'” DID take gumption. She had to be aware it was a very touchy subject and that as an ivory tower dweller she’d naturally experience hostility from some of the more rabid rural citizens. Unless, of course, she quickly and convincingly demonstrated that she was “on their side”. And if she did that, in my opinion, she would have eroded any research-centered credibility underlying the book.

    I take issue with those whose knee-jerk reaction is essentially “screw them, they are dumb”. Farming and related activities in rural locales are essentially small business, and in my experience those who run small businesses successfully anywhere are “street smart” and driven to overcome obstacles and nuisances and nonsense that stands in their way. My take is that many of the same opinions held by rural residents are also prevalent among many, perhaps the majority, of small business owners operating in large and medium-sized cities and towns. Do we think the input would be dramatically different if the research were focused on them instead?

    Farm operators AND other small business owners tend to be people who, outside of the election cycle if they vote heavily, lack the collective clout to influence government decisions precisely because they are oriented toward individual achievement and not collective action such as exists among members of unions and other special interest movements. “We” may have different outlooks, but should not marginalize theirs — or “we” will lose elections more often than not.

    I suspect the small-government crowd tends to vote against entrenched politicians to whom they are not “close”, in favor of those whom they feel MIGHT side with them. This phenomenon is what causes the pendulum to swing over time in a politically heterogeneous state like Wisconsin.

    I also perceive a flaw in the thinking that allocating more tax revenue to major cities and big institutions (like Big Education, urban transit, social service agencies) makes them, ipso facto, “better”, let alone that rural people can be made to warm up to that idea. The “better” depends on smart and efficient spending decisions and alert, responsive governance. And it is a reasonable position for “rurals” to think, rightly or wrongly: “if that’s what THEY want, fine, but don’t expect ME to subsidize it; THEY have the potential resources (high income people, big businesses, public and special interest groups, etc) more than WE do, and THEY chose to live there amidst more educational, health care, cultural, dining, shopping, entertainment and leisure (except for outdoorsy) alternatives.”

    If you have trouble understanding why people vote against their own interests, by and large they don’t. You may assume their interests are largely economic, which is often true, but many other things matter to them as well. So, they often may vote contrary to what we imagine their interests should be, as if they have the same value system that we do. But they don’t. The value of research like Professor Cramer has done is that it replaces what their interests supposedly should be withj an understanding of what those interests/priorities/philosophies actually ARE.

    As for the multiple elections won by Walker, I contend that the Democratic party is as much to blame, as is the pendulum, sd the usual suspects (Kochs, Fox, talkers, etc). Democrats failed multiple times to field an attractive candidate who could persuade enough voters to bounce across party lines at least “for a change”. A big-city career-pol mayor (twice) who lacked charisma (to say it gently), and then an inexperienced “born rich” liberal from Madison. C’mon, folks!

  28. ThomK says:

    Perhaps one reason Ashland, Bayfield and Douglas counties vote Democratic is because they come from a cooperation culture. We are not in this for ourselves but we are community that must get along if we are to survive. You find that same culture in SW and W Wisconsin which are voting Democratic more and more. To some degree I think you have the nurturing family culture the competing with authoritarian father culture.

  29. QX4guy says:

    Thank you for your detailed account, Tony Muhammad. I am always disappointed when I learn that funding for those who need it most is derailed by bureaucrats, some by illegal actions that cause the agencies to come under investigation. To the extent that rural and small town people see that, it raises their angst about government funding of such initiatives and feeds their perceptions, whether justified or not. They SHOULD be just as upset by Walker’s stumbling with his Economic Development funding fiascos and poor judgement as they are by social service misappropriations, etc. Time will tell on that.

  30. Tony Muhammad says:

    My disclosure with working for a non-profit program administered by WAC – UMC was not intended to cast allegations of government misappropriations nor fraudulent mismanagement on the part of government agencies mentioned.

    The term I describe “home rule,” is a legit grant funding appropriation procedure conducted by City, County and State departments of government here in Wisconsin that I know for a certainty to what extent per locality, Im not certain.

    I personally don’t believe it’s fair to the needy, victims, or those citizens the Federal and State funds are granted to serve. I assume in any politician or bureaucrat mind all funding and taxpayer dollars are considered fair game in American politics to keep our Democracy running, even the life expectancy of individual bureaucrats and politicians salaries and benefits.

    By the way – does anyone here find it interesting that life long politicians; Congressional and Senate on Capitol Hill, State Capitol Houses, Mayor’s and County Executives, Alderman / women never offer up their own salaries and job benefits when it’s time to trim the pig / cut spending?

    In my opinion, rural people and city dweller’s are the same in regards to belief in their chosen political leaders until when elected political leader might be arrested and charged with political crimes or found suspicious of sexual misconduct in office.

  31. DaveS says:

    Maybe they wouldn’t feel so left out if they’d get off their dead asses and VOTE.

  32. Mark says:

    Dave, wake up. He got elected 3x for a reason. Rural folks work hard for their $. I bet there are more urban people on the gov dole an rural. When you leave WI please stay out of IN we don’t want you either!

  33. JR says:

    The comments I read here, demonstrate well why “rurals” despise the elitist city slickers of Madistan and Milwaukee.

  34. Ullr says:

    As a former rural Wisconsin resident, Madison and Washington, DC were considered to be foreign agents more concerned with higher taxes, more regulations of rural land use and local schools, and establishing ever more government bureaucracies to do so. Their programs seemed to be more about bureaucratic job security and the notions and interests of Madison residents than helping local rural residents. My experience was that despite Madison and Washington, DC meddling, local children who went to rural under funded schools, did surprisingly well for themselves; much better than urban kids with similar school funding.

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