The divide between urban and rural communities, which has existed essentially everywhere for centuries, took on a singular importance to many of us when Donald Trump was elected last November. In her new book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, political scientist Katherine J. Cramer looks at what happened in 2016 through the lens of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s rural popularity, despite policies that would endanger his rural and working-class constituents.
I recently spoke by phone with Cramer, who is also a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how rural dwellers see city folk, whether economics or race motivate their votes, and how rural voters in Wisconsin feel about Trump now.
Isaac Chotiner: How did you start researching this subject of “rural consciousness?”
Katherine J. Cramer: I started back in May of 2007. The research consisted of sampling 27 communities across the state of Wisconsin and then identifying a group of regulars that I could get access to—that I could invite myself into their conversations. Initially, the places I was spending time in were rural places but also urban and suburban places. I wasn’t looking for a rural versus urban divide, but about a year in, it was pretty obvious that what I was hearing in the smaller communities was just a pretty intense resentment, and I was hearing it in various corners of the state. The resentment was basically oriented towards cities, and it took the form of people saying to me, “People in places like ours just don’t get our fair share of anything. We don’t get our fair share of attention. We don’t get our fair share of resources, and we don’t get our fair share of respect.”
How did this manifest itself in the myriad battles that Scott Walker fought in Wisconsin?
For people who were saying, “The system is broken, and it’s not benefiting people like us, and we’re struggling to make ends meet, and it seems like we’re working really hard and we deserve more, and it seems to us that there are people who are not working as hard who seem to be getting more than their fair share,” then Scott Walker tapped into that by saying, “Public employees, probably it’s time that they paid in more to the pot. It’s time that they contribute more to their health care and pensions, and that would be fair.” That played really well, the legislation that undercut public employee unions.
He tapped into it in other ways, too. One way, in particular, that really stands out to me was a high-speed train line that was to be federally funded to run between Madison and Milwaukee, our two main urban centers in the state. The previous governor, Jim Doyle, a Democrat, had lobbied for and accepted federal funding, $810 million in federal funds, to build this train. When Walker was running for governor, the way he talked about it was, “These are hard-earned taxpayer dollars that are going to go to fund this train that’s going to benefit people in Madison and Milwaukee and not people in other parts of the state.” In that kind of subtle way, he also tapped into the sense that the people in the cities get everything, and we’re not getting what we need. Walker definitely knew how to tap into it.
How does your research make you feel about the economics vs. culture/race debate around Trump’s success?
You can’t separate culture and economics. When people are telling me that they’re not getting their fair share, and they’re feeling like all the taxpayer dollars go to the cities, and that they pay in a lot of taxes but they don’t see that money in return, they’re also telling me, “That money is going to people who don’t deserve it as much as I do, and don’t seem to be working as hard as I do.” And some of that is racist sentiment. Whether we’re talking about cultural issues in terms of race or ethnicity or immigration, we’re also talking about it in terms of just the lifestyles of city people versus the lifestyles of people in rural areas, and the sense of who works hard: People who sit behind a desk all day or people who are doing manual labor? Economic insecurity is intertwined with their sense of deservingness, which is a very cultural notion. So in my mind you can’t really separate the two.
My research has also taught me that racism is very much a part of the conversation even when people aren’t saying blatantly racist things. I think a lot of times this debate between “is it racism or is it economics” gets caught up in whether individuals are racist and forgets that the whole system in which we are operating was founded on some pretty racist policies.
Right, and there is also the question of to what degree that rural identity itself is often based on race.
It’s definitely the case that these places are far less racially diverse, and it’s definitely the case that people in rural areas by and large have far less experience with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than folks who live in a more urban or sometimes even suburban space. Much of the “we are not the city” is partly about “but we are a good thing, which is close to the land, knowing our neighbors, a slower pace of life” types of concerns. I think being built around white identity is definitely a part of it, but I wouldn’t say that’s the essential part of rural identity.
If more government money were going to rural areas, would these sorts of feelings be salved? Or is the cultural divide now so deep that changing material reality wouldn’t matter much.
I don’t think it’s simply solvable by money, because in fact, on a per capita basis, at least in Wisconsin, our more rural counties if anything get more than their fair share of taxpayer dollars, if you define fair share as comparing what you pay in versus what you get back. If you would pour in more money, it’s not necessarily the case that people in rural areas would feel like, “Now we’re sitting good. Now we’re getting what we deserve,” because part of what they’re reacting against is that they don’t see themselves in policy conversations. They don’t see themselves in the news media or even popular media. They feel like all the big decisions are made in places that are very distant from their own, and that the people making decisions, whether they’re people in the media industry or people in politics or in the corporate world, that those folks don’t actually have any experience in rural communities, don’t understand what life is like, and actually don’t even like the people who live in rural communities.
That’s all a good way to enter into the conversation about why many of them voted for the guy who has no rural experience and is the epitome of a city guy.
The way I understand it is that he basically said to people, “You’re right to be so angry. You do deserve more, and you know what? Those people are getting more than they deserve.” He carved out different targets than Scott Walker did, for sure, but he gave people seriously concrete targets to blame, whether we’re talking immigrants or Muslims or at times, city people, but that was way more subtle. I think the notion of Make America Great Again very much appeals to people who were feeling like, “There was a time when we weren’t so much on the short end of the stick. The rural area’s always on the periphery, but something is different now than it was when I was growing up as a kid.”
So were you not surprised by his appeal?
I was surprised. Certainly still today, his behavior, his behavior on Twitter, his behavior with women, is hugely distasteful to a lot of people in my fieldwork in these smaller communities. Yet it didn’t surprise me that this significant outsider who was calling out the so-called establishment at every turn was appealing to folks who were feeling like whatever the government is doing is not working for people like me.
One of the things that you conclude is that these people don’t necessarily have a small government ideology. They just, as you say, feel like resources are being misdirected. This seems to fit Trump, who didn’t really preach, although he practices it, small-government conservatism. But Walker is the epitome of a small-government guy. It’s an interesting contrast considering they both had success.
Walker’s very steeped in small-government ideology. When he was speaking to audiences for whom that was really important, he could speak that language, but to the broader public what he was telling people was not, “We need less government because on principle government’s bad,” but, “We need less government because it’s clearly not working for you.” He was able to give people pretty concrete ways. He was able to sell the small government argument but on particular policy areas like this train, like public employees. I think although Walker’s grander strategy is to roll back government on principle, he didn’t necessarily have to make the argument for cutting back government in that way.
Have you been in touch with people that appear in your book since Trump’s election, and do you have a sense of what they’re thinking now, after six months?
Yeah, I have been back, and I’ve been in communication with almost every group. I targeted, in my fieldwork since the election, groups in rural areas who voted for Trump. Basically, what I’m hearing is a couple of things that surprise me. I think the first is just how little they actually expect him to do for their communities, which is a bit disheartening, but maybe shouldn’t have been so surprising. Basically what they’ve said to me is, “Presidential elections don’t affect us. Nothing’s going to change around here, and yet at least he’s going to drain the swamp, or at least he’s going to stop giving all that money to this or that or that group of people.” The other thing that surprised me is just how—within the last couple of months—distasteful many people find his behavior on Twitter.
I’ve found that, too. I’ve found that whenever I talk to Trump voters, it’s Twitter they complain about. Anyway, what you said is scary because they are right that Trump’s not going to be able to deliver economic results, but what he will be able to deliver is cracking down on immigrants or lashing out at groups that a lot of rural America may not like.
Yes. Yes, indeed.