'The Politics of Resentment': Researcher Finds a Growing Divide Between Urban & Rural Wisconsin

Aug 5, 2015

Political analysts describe Wisconsin as purple – neither liberalism’s traditional blue, nor conservatism’s typical red.  The state’s deep political divides are well-documented, but often in terms of political party or philosophy.

A Wisconsin researcher is looking at a divide of a different kind. Kathy Cramer, a political science professor at UW-Madison, has been researching the rural-urban gap and how it affects Wisconsin politics.

Cramer calls this phenomenon “rural resentment.” She says there is a pervasive perspective in various parts of the state that identify strongly with rural places and small Wisconsin towns, and believe rural towns get the short end of the stick when it comes to resources, respect and political power.

"People in many of our small communities find that the way of life they knew..is different now."

  This resentment is mainly targeted towards cities, government and public employees, Cramer says.

Its roots are complicated. "It's not just a 'I don't like city people attitude,' it comes from this sense that rural areas are going through enormous change and small towns in Wisconsin, like many places around the country, are in many ways disappearing," she says. "And, people in many of our small communities find that the way of life they knew..is different now."

There are fewer small businesses, fewer family farms and the young people in town go off to college or graduate from high school and move away, Cramer says.

Partly the resentment comes from changes to rural life, she says, and partly from massive changes in our economy. "The job base has changed so drastically (in rural areas) and people are really struggling to figure out how to have a local economy."

"In general, (this resentment) comes from a lot of long-term social and economic changes that combined to make, really, the argument that 'government is the enemy' kind of an easy target."

Cramer began her field work in May of 2007, which was before the onset of the great recession. The anti-city, anti-government, and anti-public employee sentiments existed before the recession started and well before most people in the state knew who Scott Walker was, she says.  But she says Scott Walker - and other politicians - have found ways to harness that resentment and convert it into electoral success.

"In general, (this resentment) comes from a lot of long-term social and economic changes that combined to make, really, the argument that 'government is the enemy' kind of an easy target," Cramer says. "So, it is partly long-term changes and also some very savvy politicians noticing those changes lay some very fertile ground to tap into."

Anytime there is a large outlay of public funds in large cities, such as the new Bucks arena, arguments emerge over who stands to benefit - and she says that furthers the 'us versus them' divide. "And, that's really at getting people angry and when people are angry, they are often times mobilized to take some sort of action," Cramer says. This mobilization impacts who people vote for.

But she notes this is not a particularly new or regional phenomenon. "You can say since the beginning of human civilization, there's been this divide between cities and the outlying areas, but, I think, the thing that is different now is in the contemporary economy we have and the way in which our society is becoming so urbanized and there's a perception in many small areas about the drain of everything going to the cities. It's of a different nature these days. I think it's stronger and cuts across so many aspects of life," she says.

"It's been tapped in to, whether by the Tea Party or other active political organizations that are making use of this perspective...There's something different about it now, how it is being used and tapped into for political gain," Cramer says.

While Cramer says many of the contributions of government are invisible, she stresses the importance of long-term solutions that benefits the entire state rather than focusing on the 'us versus them.'

"In the long run, we have to, as citizens, take a pause and think about whether that's the kind of democracy we want to live in," Cramer says. "It may be effective in the short term, but the long-term implications of creating and furthering divides amongst us isn't really conducive to a quality of life in which people can collectively get things done and make choices that are in the long-term interest of a state."

She says the best roadmap she knows of to remove decrease this resentment is for people to talk and listen to each other.

Kathy Cramer's forthcoming book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, is due out early next year.