On May 30, 2017, Kathy J. Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of The Politics of Resentment, spoke at the MIT Media Lab. This is a summary of that talk; any errors are mine.
Cramer notes that the question on many scholars and citizens minds right now is “Why do people vote against their interests?” Most are implicitly asking, “Why are people getting it wrong?” But she believes that the better question to ask is “How are people understanding their world?“
The motivating question in the research Cramer has done that culminated in her 2016 book is “How does social class identity matter for the way people understand their world?” She tries to listen to people talk in the places where they live and spend their time. This gives her a chance to understand their social identity. So she invites herself into conversations with people who vary across socio-demographic characteristics.
When she started in 2007, she chose to study a couple dozen communities in Wisconsin that would represent a diverse sample. Before she set out to visit a place, she would contact the local newspaper and the University of Wisconsin extension office nearby to learn where to find groups people who meet up regularly that she might chat with. She found herself in diners, churches, gas stations, and other local haunts.
Cramer had a semi-structured interview protocol to follow but tried to let the conversations go where they would. In the first year of research, she would return to the groups up to three times over the following year, and then at least once a year going forward until the study ended in 2012. When her book came out in 2016 and after the election, she followed up with the groups, sharing her book and findings and asking them about their current opinions.
In the smaller communities, Cramer hears an unexpectedly intense resentment toward the big cities. There is a clear sense of Madison and Milwaukee (the state’s biggest cities and capital) versus the “outstate.” The mental map for rural folks is that power emanates from Madison, and not the reverse. They feel they aren’t getting their fair share of power and resources and respect. Small town Wisconsinites feel deeply disrespected by urban dwellers.
Rural consciousness is identifying as a rural person, regardless of where you are from or end up, and a strong perception of distributive injustice that disfavors you and your identity. Cramer notes that this is a complex identity ripe for mobilization. It comprises resentment toward:
- cities and city people,
- elites (government, financial, cultural),
- people of color, and
- partisan polarization.
When you tap into one part of the resentment, it can activate the other parts, which makes rural consciousness a fertile ground for populism. Cramer defines populism here as essentially, “people are good and government is bad.”
Rural folks explain, “Our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going to people who don not deserve them.” They thoroughly believe that others don’t work as hard as they do. And by hard work they mean, “when you have to shower after work, not before it.” And when Cramer followed up with the groups after the book came out, they agreed that they were resentful.
There is also a sense of loss. That these people’s communities and their standard of living have been taken away—that their status is threatened.
Despite high levels of government employment throughout the state by local, state, and federal authorities, there is a belief that government is urban and distant. Even if workers are local, the decisions they follow are from the city to the rural area. They believe the government is not really working for them.
In 2010, Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin. He tapped into rural resentment by saying those folks were right. He proposed Act 10, which undermined state worker unions, arguing that private workers deserve to benefit more. There was a schism among voters: 50% of the state was for it and 50% against. The other big issue he campaigned on was a proposal for high-speed rail between the main cities of Milwaukee and Madison, which was badly needed. However, Walker argued this didn’t benefit real Wisconsinites, saying it wouldn’t help any of those with poor roads in the north of the state.
Cramer is still reflecting on how Donald Trump’s campaign activated rural consciousness. In contrast to Scott Walker’s assault on public employees, Donald Trump pointed to immigrants, Muslims, and women as undeserving groups. And he made strong claims about policies that would alleviate resentful voters’ problems.
Importantly, when she ask these rural folks what they hope will change with the new administration, they say they don’t expect anything to change. They set a very low bar. And it’s clear to her, that their criteria for Trump’s success is not anything like liberals criteria. They don’t believe he is going to solve their problems, which complicates attempts at bipartisan discourse.
Often during elections, we are interested in how people are going to vote. Generally speaking, this refers to people’s preferences. However, Cramer argues that their perspectives are also important. The lenses they put on the world matter so much, and public opinion polls don’t capture them well. Perspectives can help you understand why people make the preferences they make. When you hear people’s conversations, see where they live, and notice how they think about their options and choices, it makes it more understandable.
Cramer asks, “Where does public opinion occur?” Is what someone says to a pollster the same as what they would say in private? What expression is more real: pollster response or what they say to their group of pals in the morning. These are different expressions of public opinion. It’s worth our while to consider where else public opinion is expressed and the venues that aren’t reliant on polls.
So what does understanding public opinion look like? Cramer’s book is not about causality, it’s descriptive of how the people she talked to think about their political lives. That said, she admits that it has been helpful to put the 2016 election in context. Generally, you want to understand what X set of attitudes predicts Y vote. But she notes that maybe it’s about how Z lens makes X relevant to Y vote.
Cramer isn’t sure exactly what will work to address this problem of resentment in rural consciousness. She believes that it’s important to have authentic conversations like she did during her research. And any solutions will require that rural folks enjoy a sense of agency and respect in the process. The case of the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin is illustrative. Those state employees live in the community and work alongside locals trying to make a positive connection, and yet they are widely despised—their work seen as regulating how average people carry out their jobs or even spend their leisure times. Rural folks feel like the department is in their face all the time.
Since the book came out, Cramer has received emails from people across the country trying to build bridges, with some creative approaches emerging. One person wrote that she is driving classic cars across the country, since they tend to invite interesting conversations with more conservative residents.