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The Reality of Rural Resentment

One of the biggest themes to emerge so far from the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a widening rural vs. urban divide.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin last week marked the first time a Republican presidential candidate has won there since 1984. The seemingly massive political shift that took place in this Midwestern U.S. state on Election Day, particularly in its rural counties, has since been thrust into the national spotlight.

In trying to better understand what happened in Wisconsin, and for that matter in the outcome of the election nationwide, one of the first people I wanted to speak with was Kathy Cramer. For almost a decade, the political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been inserting herself into the casual political conversations of smaller rural communities in her state—listening, asking questions, and ultimately identifying the common threads she’s been able to uncover.

Cramer’s new book, The Politics of Resentment, traces the rise of conservative Governor Scott Walker and the political evolution of Wisconsin. What Cramer says she found is that a strong sense of rural identity in the communities she visited has become a key driver of political motivation in Wisconsin. And over time, that sense of rural identity has come to be largely defined as an us vs. them mentality, with the them being people who live in cities.

I spoke with Cramer by phone several days after the election. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

CityLab: For readers who aren’t yet familiar with your work, can you briefly describe the project that led to your book, and your methodology?

Cramer: I study public opinion, and the thing that interests me is how people understand the political world. Back in 2007, the thing that was interesting to me was how social class identity matters in terms of those opinions. I wasn’t looking for a rural vs. urban divide, honestly. I wasn’t even really looking for resentment. I was pretty naïve at the time. But what I did was to sample a broad array of communities in Wisconsin. And I asked people who lived there, “Where in this community do people go to hang out with one another?”

What’s important to understand is that these were not one-on-one interviews, these were not focus groups of people I assembled. These were groups of people who, for the most part, meet with each other every day, and they’ve been doing so for years. So I was inviting myself into their existing relationships in the places they already meet. I think that’s part of the reason why I was able to get the local texture. It wasn’t like trying to invite them on to the university campus and then trying to glean what I could out of them. Obviously the conversation changed a bit because I was there and asking questions. But these were groups of folks who were really used to talking with one another about politics.

It became pretty inescapable that there was this rural vs. urban divide in Wisconsin. And the resentment was just really apparent. I bring up Wisconsin because of Scott Walker, but also because of the returns from Tuesday. It’s clear that Wisconsin is part of a pattern in the northern Midwest where rural areas were [historically] heavily leaning Democratic, and heavily went for Trump.   

I’m very curious what some your thoughts have been since Wednesday morning.

To be honest, I was as surprised as anybody. But maybe I shouldn’t say surprised, because given my research I did have an understanding of why the results might have come out the way that they did.

“The Politics of Resentment” by Kathy Cramer. (University of Chicago Press)

About a month back, I was telling people that the election is going to be really close. And partly that’s because, many of the things that were turning people in my social circle off from Trump were things that I knew just weren’t registering with people [in rural Wisconsin]. For example, when the video came out of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, that bothered a lot of people. But I also know that support for Trump was not so much about him but about the change that he represented. It’s these notions of shaking things up, “draining the swamp” of Washington, D.C.—those are really things that I heard people say.

This past Friday morning, I spent a long time with a group in a tiny town in central Wisconsin, and they were really hopeful about the results. For the first time in maybe eight years that I’ve heard from them, they talked about the potential for change. And boy, you know, that feeling of hope is certainly not something that I’m getting here in Madison.

So I have a sense of understanding where this came from. The kinds of resentment that I’ve heard people in small towns in Wisconsin have is something that Trump tapped into. Whether he knew he was doing it or not, his message really resonated with folks who feel very passed over by the rest of society.

Were there specific things this group you talked to on Friday were hopeful about?

This group was all men, older, some on their way to work and some retirees—so kind of the Trump demographic. I said to them, “What do you hope that Trump changes? Like, five years from now, what differences do you expect to see?” And initially their response was well, nothing. Nothing that presidents do ever affects us here in this place.

And then we talked a little more, and they did talk about how they did believe that he would make changes that would boost the economy. They didn’t necessarily think that it would change their community, but they did think that it might help the economy of the nearest city, which is about 28,000 people. So they’re hopeful about jobs.

And we did talk about Obamacare too, because there are people in the group who definitely have benefited from Obamacare. And they do say that now they can afford health insurance. But something that a lot of folks don’t understand is that, even among people who openly recognize that they have benefited from Obamacare, they resent it because they see it as yet another regulation on their life. They just don’t think it’s the place of the government to say that you must buy health care or pay a fine. When people say, How can they be so stupid? They clearly need health care, it’s just a very different way of looking at the world. Because instead they say, Yeah, OK, I benefit from it, but in some respects and not in others.

There’s been quite a bit of research on this sort of disconnect, especially since the rise of the Tea Party for example, that you also describe in your book: that the parts of the country that receive the most benefits from the government are often correlated with the parts of the country that want to have less government. Is this all connected?

Yes, it’s really a particular view of government, as this entity that doesn’t care about people like them and doesn’t respect them. So why would they want more of it? Why would they believe that it actually is going to do something to improve their lives?

Politics as usual, for them, is something for other people, not for them. And part of it is resenting urban elites who look down on them. And also it is partly a perception that what government does is suck in taxpayer dollars to support these social programs that go to undeserving “others.” In my mind that’s where race does come in. Their stereotypes of who’s receiving social welfare benefits are illegal immigrants and people of color. They don’t think about say, workman’s comp, or mortgage interest tax deductions as social programs.

What specific things did people talk about with you when they spoke about what they resent in terms of their relationship with people who live in cities?

The main things that I heard was this feeling of not getting their fair share of power or attention. They felt like the important decisions, whether in government or industry, were made in cities. And then they had to deal with those decisions, and no one was listening to them or their concerns. It’s partly about resenting that lack of power.

It was also about this feeling of a lack of resources. They feel like they’ve really been getting the short end of the stick with respect to taxation. They felt like they’ve paid in way more taxes than they got back in return. For education, for example, they perceive that the bulk of the money was going to Madison and Milwaukee, and that their community just wasn’t seeing it in return.

And then finally, and this is the one I’m really piecing together these last few days, there’s this feeling of a lack of respect: People in cities look down on us, they think we’re stupid, they think we’re racist, they think we’re voting against our own interests. And I see that in the appeal of Trump so much, using the country vs. city thing to appeal to that resentment. People really resent being looked down on, and they feel like city folks just do not get what rural life is like, or what people value. It’s not all just resenting people of color, and it’s not just resenting urban elites. There is also this general sense that the rest of you out there don’t give a hoot about people like us.

It is kind of amazing that someone like Donald Trump could become the standard bearer of that sense of identity, given that he’s a wealthy real estate developer from New York City.

Yes, and I wonder if that’s partly why people looked past his obnoxiousness and some of the beyond-the-pale things that he says, and nevertheless support him. This is something I’m really thinking a lot about the last few days.

I mean, the KKK endorsed this person who is becoming our president. Is it appropriate to say that people who voted for him are not also endorsing some of the behaviors that the KKK finds appealing? And yet, when I spend time with these folks in rural communities, these are delightful, decent people. And I’m struggling to convey that, because then my friends in the city are saying, Yeah, but they voted for Donald Trump.

There is this sense of humanity when you are in their communities, listening to the way they describe their lives, and justify voting for Donald Trump, that just sounds very different from people from the outside assuming that these are a bunch of flamboyantly racist people. It’s just not accurate.

As a journalist, I find myself wondering if there is simply no amount of trying to set the record straight in terms of say, what the facts are about which parts of the country benefit more or less from government programs, that can be done to change the opinions of people who feel this way.

That is the key question, I think. And the puzzle for me is that, I know from my own experience that some of the first times I spent with these groups, inaccuracies would come up, and I would try to correct them.

Initially these would be about my university, when I’d be asking people about their connections to the university and what they wanted from the university, and they would say things like, “Well, 50 percent of the students are from a different country, so you know it’s really hard for our kids to get in.” And I’d say, no, state law says that 75 percent of the student body has to be from Wisconsin, you know, blah blah blah.

And my experience with that was, of course people aren’t going to listen to me, not until they know that I’m actually going to listen to them, and that I actually have respect for their point of view. So it’s not until a few visits in that they start actually asking me, “So, what do you think?”

Right: I mean, you’re an urban elite, right? What was that experience like, to go in and say, “Are you willing to talk to me?”

Well thankfully I was naïve enough to not think that they wouldn’t want to talk to me. To be honest, initially, I didn’t expect that they’d be resentful of the cities, and have this deep resentment against people like me. So I’d walk in and say, “Hi, I’m Kathy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, do you mind if I join you all this morning?” And they’d laugh, and they’d say sure, we’ve got nothing better to do. And then I would just be spending time with them, and initially a lot of the groups were somewhat skeptical, but then after 45 minutes or an hour or so, they were saying things like, “Do you have to go? Can you stay until so-and-so gets here?” They were surprised that I was so normal, and they would even say that at times.

The trick for me is how we can go about conveying respect to these people while also trying to convey information. Especially talking with my friends—and I have dear friends who are deeply committed to racial justice—this is just the last thing they want to hear this week. How can you possibly stoop to show respect for people who voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK? I’m really struggling with that.

But your feeling is that that’s exactly what’s required.

I think that’s the only way you change minds. Make it clear, before you give them information, that you actually care about them.

And how do you do that?

The only way I know is listening and spending time—and more than one time. Not just dropping in on them and saying here’s something you should think about. It’s showing respect with time and listening.

You mentioned education as an example of a particular area where rural voters in Wisconsin feel they are not getting their fair share. Were there other specific things like that that folks mentioned to you? Is it also about housing? Is it about transportation?

I mean transportation, people just laugh. There is some public transportation in rural areas, but people talk about how city people don’t understand what a big deal gas prices are, because they don’t understand that they’re all driving longer commutes than most city people. And they talk about roads, that the lack of spending on roads seems prejudiced against rural areas.

One of the big things that comes up with respect to housing is, especially in the tourist areas, is that people tell these stories about how they worked their butts off all their life so that they could finally live on the lake in their town, but that city people have come in and bought up all of the lakefront property. It’s driven up the property taxes and is making it that much harder for them to be able to afford to live in their own community. And that’s a great example of the resentment. People really do say, “Look at how much the city people have driven us into the ground.”

It sounds like a kind of rural gentrification.

Totally, and it happens.

Did you encounter anyone who expressed any desire to try to move to a city in search of opportunity? Or does this sense of rural identity that you describe in your book mean that hardly anyone would even consider that?

I know that economists believe that people will figure it out and retool and move to where there are jobs. Honestly, that never comes up in these conversations except when people are talking about their kids. And they’re lamenting the fact that their kids will have to move away to get a job, a job that can give them some kind of sustainable employment and a decent quality of life.

A lot of times I’m talking to older people, middle-aged or older, so maybe it’s just less likely that they’re going to talk about relocating. But it comes up way less than people from the outside might expect.

It’s about identity. Their families are there, they’ve been there for generations a lot of times, their church community is there. And often they prefer the nature of life in their town, even though the economy is so difficult. They look at the city and they think the pace of life is off, they think that people don’t know their neighbors, they think that there’s a lot of crime.

The flip side of all of this for me is that, in reality, it’s entirely true that so much of the prosperity that’s been generated over the last 10 or 20 years has in fact been concentrated in cities. At CityLab we write all the time about how spiky our economy is, and how that’s driving affordability issues in certain cities. And this feels like it’s a bit of a reckoning of that type of economy just not matching up with the reality of our political system.

My sense is that for a lot of people who are strong Democratic Party supporters, there’s this sense that the change in the economy and the change in the demographics was going to kind of guarantee Democratic wins in the future. And there has been talk [already] of Trump being the last gasp of white men losing their status in society. Perhaps, but this election is a reminder that, OK, times may be changing, and people for whom a candidate like Trump has appeal may be a thing of the past in short order. But the political reality is what it is today. And we should have been paying attention to it.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis
    Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. She writes about the intersection of technology and consumer habits, and lives in Washington, D.C.