Why Rural Residents Resent Us
UW Prof listens to people in 29 rural communities, learns why they like Gov. 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 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.”