Booked: Capitalizing on Rural Resentment, with Katherine J. Cramer

Booked: Capitalizing on Rural Resentment, with Katherine J. Cramer

Scott Walker campaigns for president in front of Joey's Diner in Amherst, New Hampshire (Michael Vadon / Flickr)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this edition, Tim spoke with Katherine J. Cramer about her new book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (University of Chicago Press, 2016)


Timothy Shenk: Let’s start with the title. Your book is called The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. If you were republishing it today, I imagine that a few revisions would let you change “Scott Walker” to “Donald Trump.” But before we move to the president, what are “the politics of resentment”?

Katherine J. Cramer: My book focuses on resentment among people in rural areas of Wisconsin toward our major metropolitan areas of Milwaukee and Madison between 2007 and 2012, during the Great Recession and the presidency of Barack Obama. Many people I spoke to believed that their communities had seen a decades-long recession even before the Great Recession started in 2008. Both the Great Recession and the decades-long increase in inequality that started in the 1970s likely increased a sense among rural Wisconsinites that resources were distributed unfairly.

So the politics of resentment, then, involves political actors generating support by tapping into intergroup divides fueled by perceptions of distributive injustice. There are two main parts to this: the existence of perspectives of resentment and the actions of political elites that exploit those perspectives. When a substantial portion of the population perceives that they are not getting their fair share, and that this is the result of people in power giving their share to those who are less deserving, we are on fertile ground for a politics of “us versus them.” Political actors can step in and validate that resentment and make promises to stop the flow of resources, power, and respect to the undeserving. Situations of economic and cultural insecurity seem especially ripe for the success of this kind of politics.

Shenk: Just as important to the analysis as the politics of resentment is your notion of “rural consciousness.” What is rural consciousness, and how did it shape the worldviews of the people you researched?

Cramer: The rural consciousness that underpins the particular type of politics of resentment that I write about is composed of two things: identity as a rural person or a person from a small town, and a sense of distributive injustice. That sense of distributive injustice involves thinking that people in rural communities do not get their fair share of power, resources, or respect. I heard in many small communities that Wisconsin has basically two parts: the metro areas of Madison and Milwaukee, and then the rest of the state.

People describing this map to me would argue that all of the decisions are made in Madison (the state capitol) or in Milwaukee (the industrial center) and communicated outward, with little attention paid to rural areas. They also perceived that they paid more than their fair share of taxes—that urban decision-makers imposed high taxes but spent those funds disproportionately on Madison and Milwaukee, not on smaller communities like their own.

The final component of the perspective of injustice may be the most important: a perception that people in small towns and rural places do not receive their fair share of respect. Many people in such places would tell me stories about their interactions with urbanites in which they felt disrespected, misunderstood, or just plain ignored. Or they would describe portrayals of rural residents that they came across via news media or popular culture that to them showed a fundamental misunderstanding of their way of life and what they valued.

The stories of distributive injustice seemed to be most intense in tourist communities, where local residents come into close contact with visitors—often from the metropolitan areas within Wisconsin, from the neighboring Twin Cities in Minnesota or from Chicago. They see urbanites spending large sums of money on vacation amenities like champagne and fancy coffee drinks. They see the construction of expensive vacation homes and watch as their property taxes go up as a result.

Shenk: “I went into this project with a love of Wisconsin,” you write. “I came out of it with a deep concern for the nature of democracy in this state and in the United States in general.” Why?

Cramer: Although I have lived much of my life in Wisconsin, I was surprised by the level of resentment I encountered toward the cities. The pervasiveness and intensity of that resentment concern me. But what’s even more concerning than the mere existence of this resentment is politicians’ building campaigns on it. Scott Walker tapped into our rural versus urban divide, and Donald Trump has done the same.

The rural versus urban divide I observed is profound: it is related to partisan divisions, but also racial divisions, social class divisions, perceptions of who has power over cultural production, who is morally superior, perceptions of government workers and private workers. These divides act like an unlit match in dry haystack—a politician need only create a spark in one part of this division and the rest of it can catch fire.

Shenk: As the rest of the country learned in November, the party loyalties of rural voters in states like Wisconsin are unusually flexible. While partisan differences have grown increasingly entrenched in the last decade, they’ve helped deliver wins to Barack Obama, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump. Why are their preferences so unstable?

Cramer: I have two answers to this question—one that helps understand what might be the common thread that explains how a given person could vote for Obama, Walker, and Trump, and another that questions whether that did in fact happen on a large scale.

We don’t actually know to what extent voters for Obama switched parties and voted for Trump in 2016. We have to distinguish changes among individual voters from changes at the aggregate level. Twenty-two of the seventy-two counties in Wisconsin voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. But I have not yet seen convincing evidence that these flips occurred because the same people voted for different parties across those two elections. It could, instead, be primarily due to different people turning out in those two elections.

However, in my fieldwork, I have heard people claim to vote for both Obama and Trump. The explanation for this is, in short, the desire for change.

A wide variety of people I spent time with saw in Obama in 2008 (and in 2012 to a lesser extent) the possibility of a different kind of politician. His calls for unity, and perhaps even his racial background, signaled to people that he represented something different. Trump promised change too, albeit in a dramatically different way. His was not the change of common ground, but of ushering in a completely different way of doing business. Many of the counties that flipped in Wisconsin are places in which I encountered the intense disenchantment with “politics as usual,” and a perception held by people in rural areas that they are routinely overlooked by people in power. The message of change that these two very different candidates conveyed may have appealed to people with the desire for something dramatically different.

Shenk: The contrast between Obama and Trump is obvious, but the gap between Walker and Trump is almost as striking. Walker is a classic conservative—Mitt Romney with a more populist affect. Trump might end up governing in that style, but he certainly didn’t campaign that way. How did two figures who are so different both manage to win over rural Wisconsin?

Cramer: This is a question I am dwelling on in my current fieldwork. But the work I’ve done since the election suggests that the common element in the appeal of Walker and Trump is the way they each tapped into a desire to curtail spending on “undeserving” others. Walker provided targets of blame—notably, public employees—that helped support his broader smaller government platform.

As far back as 2007 I was hearing people talk about public employees as inefficient, lazy bureaucrats who enjoy more generous health care and pension benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. Nationally, that narrative has been gaining steam for decades. Alexis Walker brought to my attention an American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees document from 1936 that noted that public employees were being called “tax eaters.”

Walker portrayed public employees as the “haves” and private employees as the “have nots” and in that way helped generate support for reducing funding for public employees—and instituting a broader austerity program, cutting budgets for a variety of government programs from the state university system to the Department of Natural Resources.

Trump was not a small government candidate, but his platform fit a similar pattern to Walker’s. He, too, portrayed certain social groups as undeserving, and promised to stop the flow of resources—and attention and respect—to those groups. He was not as focused on public employees, but instead targeted immigrants and Muslims. Just as Walker did in 2010, Trump gave people targets of blame for their economic and cultural anxieties, and thereby mobilized support.

Shenk: Since the election, supporters of Bernie Sanders have claimed that he would have done better than Hillary Clinton with the type of voters you studied. Skeptics have argued Democrats who tend to win elections in rural America actually have a much more centrist profile than Clinton, let alone Sanders. Does your research bear either side out? You write that for your subjects, “their sense of themselves as rural folks” took precedence over “their identity as workers.” What space does that leave for economic populism in Democratic strategizing?

Cramer: Bernie Sanders did very well in our rural counties in the Democratic primary. He won seventy-one of the seventy-two counties, and 56.6 percent of the vote. It is hard to say whether that support would have carried through to the general election.

But, looking to the future, there are a few sentiments that suggest to me that the Republican Party does not have a lock on rural Wisconsin. In my fieldwork I have occasionally encountered union members or former union members in rural communities who openly express gratitude for the protections and advocacy that his or her union has provided. There is also more recognition than I would have expected that economic inequality is a documented phenomenon—and that this is not a desirable state of affairs.

When I hear support for the idea of unions, or distaste for economic inequality, it is typically part of a broader perspective that powerful institutions and systems are abusing ordinary people. Those institutions and systems almost always include government. I encounter a pervasive sense that whatever government is doing, it is not working for “people like me.” When I ask groups, “Which party best represents the interests of people around here?” the immediate answer, almost universally, is “neither.” That to me, suggests that the candidate, or the party, that can convey to people that they understand the challenges that people face in their everyday life, and genuinely have the desire to listen to and address those challenges, can win support. I do not find that people identify with the Republican Party. People are only drawn to its current message.

Shenk: Against the grain of much commentary both before and after the election, you contend that rural politics can’t be reduced to racism. “I observed little overt racism in rural Wisconsin,” you write. “But I heard ample amounts of it in urban and suburban settings.” Can you talk more about that dynamic? And has it changed at all over the last eight years, first under Obama and then Trump?

Cramer: In the United States, questions about the distribution of power, resources, and respect have been related to race from the beginning. It is an excruciating fact that our economy was built on slave labor. The debate over the role of the federal government in redistribution that followed the Civil War was tainted with the use of racism to try to drive a wedge between freed African Americans and rural whites. So our conversations in this country about who should get what are always tainted with racism. That is a given.

However, attributing political choices to racism alone tends to rely on a host of heuristics that make us tune out the complexity of the situation and move us further from understanding it. Yes, racism is a part of the story when we notice people resenting city dwellers: in our segregated Wisconsin, the vast majority of people of color lives in cities. But this resentment is also about resenting white professionals, the urban elite, and public employees.

Boiling it all down to racism overlooks why these other perspectives are so politically powerful. When there all of these overlapping battle lines—partisanship, race, class, public versus private employees—tapping into one dimension can activate the others.

In the wake of the election, this question has often been posed as, “Was it economic anxiety or racism that drove support for Trump?” My response is that in the understandings of the world that I heard among Trump supporters, the two components were intertwined. When people are telling me that they perceive that people like them, in places like their community, do not receive their fair share, and that their fair share is going to people who are less deserving, that is a sentiment in which there is often racism and there is economic anxiety.

Finally, one can ask, and probably should ask: how can racism not be a motivating factor in voting for Trump, who was endorsed by the KKK, said horrific things, and made shocking policy pledges about immigrants and Muslims? Many of the Trump supporters I have listened to are uncomfortable with Trump’s racism. Their distaste for Hillary Clinton and their desire for change, they say, led them to look past Trump’s racist words and policies and vote for him anyway. That ability to recognize racism, be uncomfortable with it, and nevertheless vote in favor of it should give us pause.

But calling it racism and leaving it at that does little to move us toward an understanding of the complex array of forces that led to a KKK-endorsed candidate winning a presidential election in 2016.

Shenk: Since the election, pieces on Trump voters seem to have fallen into two categories. One agrees with Trump that he could shoot an innocent person in broad daylight and his backers would still love him; the other portrays Trump’s support as more tentative, which leaves open the possibility that it could recede quickly if he doesn’t deliver on whatever his voters were looking for. Obviously, the answer depends on who you’re looking at: Trump has die-hards and more tepid backers. But which position have you encountered the most in your research?

Cramer: I think I have mainly encountered the more tepid backers. Time will tell. I am very interested to listen to how people who voted for him interpret his cabinet choices and his policy proposals and other actions once in office. One of the things I will be watching for is how voters’ affinity for Trump over time is a function of his behavior, and to what extent it is a function of the opposition to Trump. Ironically, opposition to Trump may strengthen support among his backers if the opposition clarifies and magnifies battle lines.

Shenk: Critics have argued that 2016 did to political science what 2008 did to economics. Yascha Mounk, for example, has taken the discipline to task for having “overestimated the forces of stability time and again, failing to foresee Brexit, the chaos wrought in the Philippines by Rodrigo Duterte, and the serious threat posed to Polish democracy by its populist government, among other developments”—and that was before Trump was elected. As a political scientist who warned about the dangers of this kind of populist upheaval, what do you think about the standing of your profession as a whole? Is it basically sound, or is a review of intellectual fundamentals overdue?

Cramer: I think that the election will have a very positive effect on my discipline. I believe it will hasten a change that has been taking place for some years now, and that is the move toward rewarding and respecting research that has direct practical application and is communicated in publicly accessible venues. Much of what we do is highly specialized and technical, but there is also a lot of energy these days, especially among younger scholars, on making our work available, and legible, to the public through venues like The Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post, Vox, and the journal Perspectives on Politics. This election and the types of analysis it has spurred, I think, will encourage this trend to continue.

I am also hopeful that we will see an increase in support for ethnographic work. Political science is a discipline in which prestige is routinely given to scholars who use the most advanced statistical methods and approaches most easily characterized as scientific. My approach to public opinion fits neither of those bills. But a few well-regarded scholars have encouraged me to continue pursuing the ethnographic work that I do. My sense is that even more political scientists now recognize that ethnography is a useful tool in our attempts to understand political behavior. I am hopeful that this will signal to graduate students and earlier career scholars that the discipline will reward their attempts to incorporate ethnography in their work.


Katherine J. Cramer is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at New America and a book review editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.

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