Excerpt: The Politics of Resentment

November 18, 2016


An excerpt from Katherine J. Cramer’s
The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker


My Window Is Wisconsin

My window to the way the politics of resentment works is Wisconsin. This is a state in which the debate over the appropriate role of government has played out prominently and over a sustained period. It has been central to the conservative response to the disarray of the Republican Party after the George W. Bush presidency and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. Wisconsin was a predominantly Republican state until the 1950s, but Democratic presidential candidates have repeatedly carried the state since 1988. Since 2000, however, it has been a partisan battleground, or swing state.

You can see the push-and-pull of partisan fights here in multiple ways. Wisconsin scored highest on the number of “Bush-Obama counties”; no other state had as many counties that went for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and then for Barack Obama in 2008 (Achenbach 2012). Wisconsin went from having a Democratically controlled state legislature with a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators in 2009 to having a narrowly Republican-controlled state legislature, Republican governor, and a split U.S. senate delegation in 2012. The state senate has been narrowly balanced, and has alternated between the parties, for decades. The 2010 elections saw a sharp shift toward the Republican Party. Those elections involved a defeat of three-term Democratic U.S. senate incumbent Russ Feingold to Tea Party–backed Republican Ron Johnson, and Walker’s ascent to governor (a position previously held by Democrat Jim Doyle, only the second Democrat to ever win reelection to the Wisconsin governorship). But the state continues to be closely divided. Although Walker won his gubernatorial recall election in June 2012, exit polls showed that approximately 9 percent of the electorate had voted for Walker and intended to vote for Obama that coming November (Gilbert 2012b). In the 2012 presidential election, Obama won Wisconsin, and in a race for an open U.S. senate seat, Democrat Tammy Baldwin defeated Republican Tommy Thompson, one of the most popular politicians to ever serve in the state (a former Republican governor and secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush). In the same election, however, Wisconsinites elected a majority Republican state assembly and senate.

These recent elections show that Wisconsin does not lean clearly toward one party or the other. The state’s political leaders have real and visible debates about the appropriate reach of government and the merits of market- versus government- based approaches. This makes Wisconsin a fascinating place to study the politics of resentment because it is a laboratory for some of the most fundamental political issues of our time.

To be honest, I did not initially choose to study Wisconsin for these reasons. I was not looking for a laboratory for arguments about the right size of government or even a way to examine the Tea Party. I set out, in May of 2007, to learn more about the way social-class identities matter for the way people make sense of politics. I chose Wisconsin because average household income and local economies vary widely across the state, and I knew the people here were likely to hold a variety of perceptions with respect to social class. I also wanted to better understand attitudes among state residents toward my alma mater and the university I work for, the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was also the faculty investigator of a state-wide public opinion poll and wanted to use conversations with people across the state to help set the agenda for our surveys instead of relying solely on conversations with politicos in Madison, the state capitol.

I had a lot of reasons for studying Wisconsin. But the three most important ones were these: I grew up here, I love this state, and I care deeply about it.

I did not foresee the rise of the Tea Party. I did not foresee the Great Recession, Barack Obama, or Scott Walker. But as this intense political context took shape, I was already in the field, listening and gathering data on what residents in the state were thinking. I had sampled my research sites in an attempt to take myself to a wide range of places in the state. My hope was to listen to people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, across different types of communities. This meant that I spent a lot of time in smaller communities, and more time outside metro areas than ever before in my life.

Listening to conversations in a broad assortment of places alerted me to a rift that surprised me. As I listened closer and longer, I learned that it is a rift through which our economic tensions and our ambivalence about the proper role of government gets played out. This rift is, on its most basic level, a rural-versus-urban divide.

Rural Consciousness

As a female social scientist driving my Volkswagen Jetta out from Madison, the state capitol and the second largest city in the state, I heard a lot of criticism of cities from people in small- town Wisconsin. I heard that urbanites ignore people in rural areas, take in all of their hard- earned money, and fundamentally disrespect and misunderstand the rural way of life.

What I heard while inviting myself into conversations around Wisconsin taught me that the rural-versus-urban divide is an important—if quite overlooked—divide in American politics today. We tend to talk about red versus blue when we look at electoral maps, but perhaps a more important divide is urban versus rural (Meckler and Chinni 2014). We have known for a long time that that this divide matters, but not in the way I am suggesting.

History shows us that the rural-versus-urban divide has long been a factor in American politics. But what I am describing in this book is not just the correlation between place and votes. Instead, I am arguing that place matters because it functions as a lens through which people interpret politics, and I am showing how it matters. When previous studies have examined how or why location matters, they have not, in fact, examined how place-based consciousness matters for the way people make sense of politics. In this book, I show how consciousness as a rural resident itself can make the stands that people take in these conflicts seem appropriate and natural.

I am calling this lens rural consciousness to describe a perspective that is at its core an identity rooted in place and class. But it is infused with a sense of distributive injustice—a sense that rural folks don’t get their fair share.

I heard this perspective in just about every rural community in which I spent time.11 In general, it had three elements: (1) a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policy makers, (2) a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources, and (3) a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.

I label this perspective rural consciousness in order to build on a line of research in political science regarding “group consciousness.” That work focuses on social identities that are infused with a sense of distributive injustice. Such scholarship argues that a group consciousness is a social identity that has particular importance politically. People with a group consciousness prefer their in- group, are dissatisfied with that group’s status, believe that members of the group are not getting their fair share, and perceive that this state of affairs is the product of systematic decisions, not just chance or individual-level behavior (Miller et al. 1981). When such attitudes are attached to a social group identity, that identity tends to matter for politics. It affects political preferences and whether people become politically engaged.

The Importance of Place in Contemporary American Politics

In this book, I focus on the urban-versus-rural divide and the perspective of rural consciousness as a window into understanding the politics of resentment. I regard this divide as one of many through which the politics of resentment can operate. However, this particular axis of resentment is hugely consequential for American politics today. Yes, the population of rural residents in the United States is quite small— about 15 percent of the total population. However, contemporary Republican Party power depends on rural residents. According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, “Over the past 15 years the percentage of rural Americans represented by Republicans in the House has grown sharply, while urban Americans have shifted slightly to House Democrats. . . . As Democrats have come to dominate U.S. cities, it is Republican strength in rural areas that allows the party to hold control of the House and remain competitive in presidential elections” (Meckler and Chinni 2014).

Take Wisconsin, for example. Milwaukee’s suburbs lean increasingly Republican, and yet Madison leans increasingly Democratic. There is a lot of attention to the culture war between these two urban areas and, also, to the tensions between the overwhelmingly Republican and white Milwaukee suburbs versus the Democratic and racially diverse city of Milwaukee.

But the rural-versus-urban divide matters. Almost half of the population in Wisconsin lives outside the fourteen counties that make up the greater Milwaukee and Madison metropolitan areas (48 percent according to the 2010 Census). And these nonmetro areas are a political battleground. Of these fifty-eight nonmetro counties, only six voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010. But just two years earlier, only eight of them went for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. And in 2012, the counties outside the major metro areas basically split: twenty-seven of them went for Obama, and thirty-one went for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. There is an independent streak in the rural areas, and it has mattered in recent elections.

Also, at the same time that the United States is becoming increasingly urban, and increasingly racially and ethnically heterogeneous, there are places that are experiencing something different. Wisconsin is one of them. The changes in Wisconsin represent a change common to the Midwest, but one that is often overlooked by journalists living on the coasts. Here in “flyover” land, the population in Wisconsin is indeed becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. But the largest overall growth in Wisconsin is in the Milwaukee suburbs, which tend to be predominantly white and predominantly Republican.

You can look at demographic change and conclude that urban areas represent the future, and rural areas the past. You could say that conservatism is woven into the fabric of rural life. Maybe. But the alliance of Republican and rural is not inevitable. Nor is the correlation between small towns and support for less government. My interest is in the interpretations of the world that make these correlations happen.

What I argue in this book is that paying attention to identities rooted in place is key to understanding these interpretations. We should pay attention to place because rural areas are political battlegrounds, our system of representation is based on geography, and conflicts between rural and urban areas over who should get what are intensifying (Gimpel and Schuknecht 2003, esp. 385). But we should also pay attention to place because it is central to the way many people understand the political world.

Americans’ perceptions of who gets what and our notions of fairness about these distinctions are often linked to place (Hochschild 1981). These perceptions of place and justice also correlate with perceptions of who has power and how it is exercised (Hayward 2000). Our identifi cation with particular communities is also associated with our willingness to pay taxes (Wong 2010, chap. 3).

The links we make between place and justice, fairness and inequality are powerful because they involve race and social class. By social class, I mean our perceived social standing relative to each other, which is rooted in economic characteristics such as income, occupation, and education. It is inescapable that there are haves and have-nots in the United States in terms of objective wealth, and on that basis I argue class matters in American politics. Place is intertwined with the objective indicators of class (Burrows and Gane 2006), defined by a long pedigree of scholarship as income, wealth, occupation, and relationship to authority in the workplace.

When it comes to figuring out how the politics of resentment works, people’s perceptions of their social class make a difference— and that is also intertwined with place. Objective measures of class do not necessarily predict how people will perceive their own social class (Walsh, Jennings, and Stoker 2004). A person we type as “upper class” according to income may instead think of herself as “middle class.” Social-class identities are a function of income, occupation, and education, but they also incorporate a sense of what people value and the lifestyles they prefer (Jackman and Jackman 1983).

Class is not something that people just have—it is something that they do. They give meaning to their social- class status through the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the sports they play, and so on (Bourdieu [1979] 1984, chap. 3; see also Lareau 2008). People give meaning to their identities through their everyday life and interactions with others, and those meanings in turn structure how they make sense of the world.

The connection between social-class identity and geographic place may be particularly important for politics. Because identities are perceptions, not necessarily consistent with objective circumstances, other people, including politicians, can influence and manipulate them. And because dividing lines may be most easily exploited when they have physical markers, identities rooted in geographic spaces are ripe for the politics of resentment. Geographic boundaries allow us to actually draw lines between types of people, particularly between the haves and the have-nots.

I am focusing on place as a dimension of the politics of resentment because it is intertwined with another social category that is highly relevant to redistributive policy in the United States: race. Race has been central to debates over what role the government should play in redistribution since at least the Civil War. In their book, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe, Alesina and Glaeser (2004) explain that, until the Civil War, the federal government did not have the capacity to redistribute wealth. After the war, three things came together: a stagnant economy among farmers, enormous increases in wealth for some people (this was what we call the Gilded Age, after all), and a government with increased power, not only real but demonstrably so—it had just successfully freed the slaves.

At that point in time, the rural- versus- urban divide, race, and redistribution collided. Rural economies were particularly hard hit and various rural-based movements arose, in which people argued for redistribution. Their focus was on increasing inflation so that farmers could pay their debts. But in essence they were asking for the federal government to take from the very rich and redistribute to the rural poor.

These movements became what we now call populism. As populists tried to make their arguments, they tried to appeal to African Americans—an overwhelmingly poor population at the time. And pretty quickly, enemies of populism invoked racism to combat these calls for redistribution.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation to combat the Great Depression changed the debate about redistribution, and the United States practiced significant redistribution until the 1960s. The Republican Party found itself out of power—until a change that began with Barry Goldwater’s successful candidacy for his party’s nomination in 1964 provided a blueprint that the party built on in later years. He gained support in that race by appealing to a coalition of McCarthyites (anticommunists), anti– New Dealers, and Southerners committed to segregation. That coalition has underpinned Republican success ever since. As Alesina and Glaeser (2004) argue, whether or not Republican politicians were intentionally using race, when they ran on an anti–New Deal platform, they were appealing to those opposed to integration.

Arguments against redistribution still benefit from the unfortunate fact that racist sentiments persist. As Alesina and Glaeser show, across the globe opponents of the welfare state have succeeded by tapping into cultural heterogeneity, whether racial, religious, or otherwise. In the United States, it is in the interests of the Republican Party for attention to class to be diverted to attention to race.

In fact, race is quite likely the reason that public opinion in the United States has not shifted in a redistributive direction as much as it has in other countries, despite rising economic inequality. In most affluent member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, governments have responded to rising inequality with greater redistribution— but not in the United States (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005). Some say that the relative weakness of labor unions and socialist movements (Korpi 1983) and the low voting rates among low-income voters (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005) in the United States have resulted in less pressure for redistribution than in other countries.

Another part of the story, though, is the composition of the poor in the United States. As I noted at the start of this book, support for redistribution among middle- income voters in the United States is much lower than it is in other countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development with comparable levels of affluence and structures of inequality (Lupu and Pontusson 2011). Scholars argue this is because a greater proportion of the poor in the United States are racial through minorities (Alesina and Glaeser 2004). They argue that racial difference reduces the connection that middle-income voters feel toward the poor. Without a psychological connection to the poor, middle-income voters are less likely to support redistributing resources toward them (Lupu and Pontusson 2011; see also Lane 2001).

The history of the intertwined nature of race, place, and class underscores that the alliance of rural voters with a party pressing for less government has roots in human action— it has not popped out of thin air. In fact, in the populist era, the relationship was reversed: farmers were allied with populists calling for more redistribution. Looking closely at the way rural residents understand politics today helps uncover the many layers of the publics’ interpretations of who is on their side and where they place the role of government in these battles.

Listening closely to rural voters also helps reveal how the meaning of “populism” has changed in the contemporary United States. Political actors often claim to be populist as a shorthand for conveying that they are especially close to the people and are railing against politics as usual. Present- day U.S. candidates who call themselves “populist” are not necessarily so. Because we live in a time when distrust in government is the norm, there is often a political benefit in running against government and in making the claim that government is out of step with the concerns of the public.

But the white-collar composition of our national, state, and local governments calls into question the extent to which those seeking office are on the side of “the people” in a populist division of people versus the powerful elite (Carnes 2013). Also, how often are so- called populists these days operating outside the party structure? For example, are Tea Party candidates really separate from the Republican Party and the organizations that support it? That does not appear to be the case, as Republican Party elites and the Fox News network have been key players in Tea Party activism (Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011).

When populist appeals are made, do we really have genuine “discontent stem[ming] from the disparity between those who hold no power versus those who do” (Barr 2009, 31)? For example, in the rural consciousness I observed, many people living in rural places thought that their communities were not receiving their fair share of resources. And yet, empirically the evidence on this is unclear, as I explain in greater detail in chapter 3. Also, on many issues their stances were similar to the policy priorities of the party in power: Act 10, gun control, and reducing taxes, for example. In this way, many appeals that are labeled populist rarely cut against the grain of society or against the grain of elite values. The claim we will encounter that public employees are lazy and undeserving is not exactly against the interests of the established elite, for example.

The approach I take in this book enables us to better understand the operation of what contemporary political pundits call populism. I show what some of these us-versus-them divides look like from the public’s point of view. I also show why people find these categories appealing and useful, even if focusing on such categories ultimately benefits not themselves but, instead, the powerful elite.

Public Opinion among Ordinary People

My attention in this book is focused on “ordinary” people who find themselves in a caustic political environment and who, unfortunately, through their own sense making, contribute to that environment. By ordinary people, I mean people who are not themselves political elites—not elected officials, staffers for elected officials, public employees involved in the policy process, or journalists and others who live and breathe politics. (As much as I would like to think of myself as an ordinary person, this leaves out political scientists, too).

Because I listen intensively to particular people in particular places in this study, you can say this is a bottom-up study of public opinion. But I am not assuming that the opinions I hear in these communities exist in a vacuum, independent of mass media or political leaders. I am also not assuming that ordinary people simply parrot the views of Fox News, Barack Obama, or anyone else. The reality I will try to convey to you is of a much more complex process of sense making and understanding.

Here are my assumptions about the way public opinion operates. First, we can predict the aggregate shape of public opinion quite accurately from the content of mainstream news media (Zaller 1992). Second, differences within the population can be accurately predicted by politically important predispositions like partisanship, attitudes toward war (Zaller 1992), and attitudes toward racial groups (Kinder and Sanders 1996). People pay attention to and hear things that resonate with their preexisting beliefs. Third, when we judge whether the ordinary citizen is capable of making “good” judgments with respect to politics according to how much they “know” (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996) and to what extent they base these judgments on an overarching ideology (Converse 1964), they do not in general perform very well. Fourth, when you listen to the way people make sense of politics, they have justifications for what they think, and these justifications make sense to them and are steeped in their personal sense of who they are in the world (Cramer Walsh 2004). Fifth, the identities people use to make sense of politics are constantly evolving and change salience in response to the context (Turner et al. 1994; Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002).

Sixth, public opinion is not just what polls measure. Before we had survey research, people did not define public opinion as poll results. Instead, scholars thought of it as the product of groups of people competing with one another (Blumer 1948) and the back and forth between citizens and journalists (Bryce 1913). When the technology of mass sample surveys was emerging, it seemed crazy to some people to think of public opinion as the mechanical aggregation of the expressions of isolated individuals. Even today, for many decisions, especially at lower levels of government, it is not practical to capture public opinion through polling. Politicians with small constituencies or limited budgets figure out what their constituents think and feel—public opinion—based on things other than polls (Fenno 1978). They talk to people. They do “polling by walking around” (Cramer Walsh 2009). I am trying to revive this definition of public opinion as more than just what polls measure. It is also the understandings that emerge from communication among people.

In this view of public opinion, bottom-up and top-down processes are occurring at the same time and influence one another. Elites mobilize public opinion. That does not mean that they create public opinion from scratch. Instead, they tap into preexisting sentiments and values they find it advantageous to activate. Market research and campaign consultants try to figure out what messages will work—what will resonate and what will successfully ignite opinions that are lying dormant (Key 1961). In addition, political strategy does contribute to the opinions and sentiments that are out there. The seeds of resentment are sown over long periods of time. In other words, political elites reap the benefits of the divisiveness they help create.

In the conversations of this book, we see how the weeds grow as people sow them in the minds of each other. We also see how certain contexts create a bounty harvest as politicians fertilize certain resentments for particular political purposes. My focus here is on processes among ordinary people, but my aim is to explain how they fit into an overall political ecology.

To read more about The Politics of Resentment, click here.

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