We Can’t Ignore Rural Voter Resentment

Katherine J. Cramer

Political scientist Katherine J. Cramer has studied the changing political attitudes of rural Wisconsinites — a group that helped put Donald Trump in the White House. “Rural resentment” may not get much attention, but it’s a real and powerful force in US politics.

Of the twenty-three pivot counties in Wisconsin, many of them in the rural north, eight voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by a margin of over twenty percentage points. (Dan Keck / Flickr)

Interview by
Meagan Day

In the last presidential election, Wisconsin had the second-highest number of so-called pivot counties after Iowa. These were counties that had gone for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then for Trump in 2016. And Trump didn’t just eke out victories here: of the twenty-three pivot counties in Wisconsin, many of them in the rural north, eight went for Trump by a margin of over twenty percentage points.

This rural realignment didn’t come out of nowhere. While the incumbent Obama had managed to maintain support long enough for reelection, political polarization in Wisconsin had already reared its head in 2011, when newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker’s crusade against the state’s public-sector unions found support among rural working-class Wisconsinites as the cities erupted in protest.

In the months leading up to Trump’s 2016 victory, Katherine J. Cramer, professor of political science and Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, an ethnography of rural Wisconsinites and examination of their changing political attitudes.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Cramer about the political and cultural dimensions of the rural realignment in Wisconsin, and whether there’s any chance of a reversal. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.


MD

Let’s start with the events in Wisconsin in 2010 and 2011. Some of our readers might not be familiar. Could you give us a brief overview of the political earthquake that happened in Wisconsin then?

KJC

In 2010 there was a Wisconsin gubernatorial race, and the Democratic incumbent Jim Doyle decided not to run again. The Democratic nominee was the mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, and the Republican was county executive of Milwaukee, Scott Walker. It was a relatively close race, which Scott Walker won. But the surprise was that three weeks after he took office, Walker proposed a budget repair bill that was about far more than the budget.

This budget repair bill included legislation that undercut public employee unions, basically making collective bargaining illegal for most of them. The unions erupted in protest, and the protests grew tremendously in size. By the weekend, there were tens of thousands of people protesting, and not just for days, but for weeks.

It seemed like politics in Wisconsin became very divisive overnight, in a way that was not “Wisconsin-nice.” There was a — in particular, a rural-urban — divide. In the cities, primarily Madison and Milwaukee, Walker’s legislation was incredibly unpopular. If you were living in Madison, it seemed like this was the most unpopular piece of legislation ever passed in the state.

But you didn’t have to drive that far out of Madison to see that many people outside the cities were very supportive of it. They were feeling and saying things like, “It’s about time that somebody stood up to these public employee unions,” and, “I can’t afford health care for myself or my family, and yet my taxes are going up so that I can pay for health care for public employees. How is that fair? They make so much more money than I do.”

In some of these rural places, public employees are the highest-paid people in the community. The debates over the legislation got very personal in these places, where 10 percent of every community is a public employee of some kind, the largest group being teachers. In these places, people are doing physical labor for not enough money, and they’re starting to think, “Those public employees have pensions and health care and their summers off,” and it looks to many people like a pretty cushy job.

There’s a notion in rural America of a hard worker as someone who’s outdoors or using their hands or in the factory using their bodies all day. And teachers aren’t doing that. To a lot of people, being a teacher didn’t look like backbreaking work, and when faced with Walker’s legislation they thought, “They’re getting away with something.” The Republican Party has been great at selling this notion that the problem isn’t that we all deserve better, but that some people don’t deserve what they’re getting.

I started my fieldwork in 2007 and Walker didn’t come onto the scene until 2010, so I can tell you that these sentiments have been there and building for many years. But Walker was able to tap into them or exploit them, depending on your perspective. Ever since then, politics has been very divisive in Wisconsin.

MD

When we look back at New Deal programs like the Rural Electrification Administration, we see how people living in rural areas can be major beneficiaries of government policies. But as the legacy of the New Deal fades, rural Americans are increasingly inclined toward anti-tax and small government politics instead. What is the connection between what you call in your book “rural consciousness” and limiting government?

KJC

Since the seventies, many rural communities have been increasingly decimated economically as small factories in places like rural Wisconsin have been shuttered. There are no jobs, and people’s kids are moving away and not coming back. Additionally, it’s increasingly necessary to have internet to run a business or participate in the economy, and that’s not possible in places without broadband.

People look around their towns and think, “Something bad has happened here.” Now I don’t want to overstate this, because obviously the people love their towns, they love the pace of life, they love the people they live around. It’s not totally miserable all the time. But there’s definitely a sense of loss, a feeling that things aren’t the way they used to be.

People are thinking, “Whatever government has been doing and spending my taxpayer dollars on, it’s not going to people like me or places like this. And so why would I believe another Democrat who’s telling me, ‘Oh, no, just one more program, and we’ll fix it for you’?” I should add that it’s not like the people I spent time with were devout Republicans. But they do find it convincing when someone says we should limit government spending, which they feel hasn’t been working for them.

MD

Your book identifies three elements of rural consciousness: perceptions of power, perceptions of values and lifestyles, and perceptions of resources or who gets what. I’d like to go through them one by one. First, how do the rural Wisconsinites you talked to feel about the power balance between urban and rural America?

KJC

They strongly perceive that all the decisions are made elsewhere. Whether we’re talking about the Department of Natural Resources, restaurant regulators, or judgments that are made about what their kids are being taught in school, there’s this perception that everything is being decided by people in the cities, people who aren’t familiar with their type of community and the challenges that they face. The decision-makers aren’t “people like us.”

They also feel a lack of attention from the cities. People often listen to local radio or watch local news, meaning the closest television station, and their particular community shows up next to never. This is part of why Trump was able to win in 2016, because he had this strategy in Wisconsin of going to these smaller towns, and it’s just huge news. People notice that the candidate is taking the time to come. They notice who pays attention to them. And in general, they feel that nobody in the cities does.

MD

Then there’s the question of resources. Does rural America feel that it’s shortchanged on resources, and is there any logic to that impression?

KJC

They definitely feel they’re being shortchanged. After the Great Recession, when news started rolling in about the recovery and jobs returning, that wasn’t happening in these smaller communities, so there was an impression that all of the stimulus must be focused on the cities.

Additionally, there is a tourism industry in rural Wisconsin that caters mostly to people from the cities, and when tourists come through their community people see the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the stuff they’re able to buy. They sense that wealth is being concentrated elsewhere.

When you do a calculation of where the tax dollars go, whether it’s state or federal, it doesn’t actually look like rural communities are getting less than their fair share on a per capita basis. If anything, it appears that they’re getting more. So you could say there’s no logic to it, in that the impression that the government is intentionally allocating more funds to the cities is not based in fact.

But there is a logic to it, in the sense that people see the poverty in their communities and they see the wealth in urban communities, and draw conclusions from that. It may not be true that the government spends more on the cities on a per capita basis, but everybody knows that if you want a high-paying job you’re going to have to move to a city.

MD

I lived in the country as a kid, and when we moved to the city I was mortified. I thought city people were incompetent, that they were wimps, and that they were stuck-up. These perceptions were reinforced by the adult conversations I overheard, the country music that played everywhere I went, and even movies I watched like the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers.

This seems to track with the kinds of conversations you included in your book. How do the rural Wisconsinites you talked to feel about the differences in values and lifestyle between themselves and people who live in Madison and Milwaukee, or New York and Los Angeles for that matter?

KJC

There’s definitely this notion of rural Americans as being authentic or real people. I should add here that sometimes when people in rural communities talk about city people, they’re talking about urban racial minorities, and other times they’re contrasting themselves with professionals who sit behind desks and don’t know their neighbors and don’t value community and clearly don’t value family because they don’t even live near their families.

Primarily it comes down to an assessment that city people don’t care about all of the things they hold dearest. Often this is expressed in making fun of consumption choices. For example, they’ll make fun of the cars people drive, but what they mean is that if you don’t need a truck to live your everyday life then you’re not actually doing important things.

MD

If that’s the case, then how is it possible that Donald Trump, who was born and raised in New York City and spent his life in gilded penthouses and beachfront mansions, has managed to position himself as someone who speaks for rural America?

KJC

I think there are a lot of factors, perhaps the main one being that he communicates to these people that he’s going to stick up for them and not let anybody push them around. The debate last week is a great case in point. His in-your-face style says, “I’m gonna stick up for you all, and I’m not gonna let these urban lefty people even finish a sentence.”

Another aspect is that his campaign style has been to visit a lot of places that haven’t been on Democrats’ itinerary. This is something I mentioned earlier, how important it is to show people attention.

And I should add that race is very bound up in the rural-urban divide. Trump has cast himself as a defender of white people. He’s really blunt and explicit about this sometimes, other times more subtle.

MD

There’s been a lot of attention paid over the years to the politics of racism in the South, or in the white suburbs, or among big-city, working-class ethnics. What’s the appeal of that rhetoric in a state like Wisconsin?

KJC

It’s not like these people are a bunch of white supremacists. They’re not like card-carrying KKK members. But they do have the feeling that something has happened to their communities and attention has gone away from people like them, and sometimes this pairs with the impression that governments are paying a lot of attention to people of color, the Democratic Party in particular.

And so when a politician is conveying, “No, actually I’m sticking up for people like you,” I think there is an appeal to that. It’s not necessarily a hatred of people of color, it’s that what someone like Trump says resonates with this feeling that nobody has been listening to them for decades.

MD

So they have this feeling of being forgotten, and Republicans can easily take advantage of that to make the case that actually public employees or people of color or city people are getting the resources or the attention that they’re not getting. And if you don’t have any other explanation, I guess that one seems plausible enough.

But that’s not the only possible explanation. And in fact, Bernie Sanders also had some appeal in rural Wisconsin, and he has a different explanation, which is that actually, it’s billionaires and large corporations hoarding the resources that aren’t going into those communities.

What this makes me think is that the right-wing rural realignment is not inevitable. If people are waiting for attention and an explanation, it could come from the Right or the Left. What do you think?

KJC

Absolutely. I agree 150 percent. I think, like Trump, Bernie appeared to be a different kind of politician, one who was willing to buck the mainstream and go against his party in order to reach out and connect with people. He was ardently not your typical politician, and I think that spoke pretty loudly to people.

It is possible to reach out to rural people and validate their feeling of forgottenness in a way that doesn’t involve pointing your finger at a target population and saying, “They’re the ones to blame.” Well, actually, Bernie Sanders did do that, but he said Wall Street was to blame. He didn’t throw already marginalized people under the bus. You don’t have to in order to bring people along with you.

MD

What do you think we can expect from rural Wisconsin this election?

KJC

I’ve been reading polling data, and I’ve been trying to listen in to local talk radio shows because I’m not out and about doing fieldwork due to the pandemic. The talk radio is not representative necessarily, but I’m listening for what kind of sentiments are out there. So I can’t say for certain. But I think things are different this time around.

It does seem that Trump is vulnerable. And I think a lot of it has to do with who his opponent is, because Hillary Clinton was very unpopular in a lot of these communities well before she was a presidential candidate. The impression I’m getting is that people see Biden as a lot more palatable.