Rob Miller

The Politics of Resentment

A political scientist examines the rural-urban divide in Wisconsin, foreshadowing Trump’s victory.

In 2011, Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin passed controversial legislation that slashed the salaries, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of public sector employees, ostensibly in an effort to manage the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit. Response to the legislation was split along partisan lines: deficit hawks and small government aficionados in the Republican party welcomed the move; public sector employees themselves, and their supporters in the Democratic party, took to the streets in protest.

The protest movement culminated in the collecting of enough public signatures to trigger a recall election, in which Walker would face Tom Barrett, his opponent in the previous election. Outrage at at Walker had grown to the point that the recall petition gained over one million signatories – far in excess of the half-million needed. Democrats were confident of victory; in every previous gubernatorial recall, the incumbent had been defeated, and their movement seemed to have huge popular support.

Wisconsin 2012 Gubernatorial election, results by county
The results of the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial election, shown by county. (Walker is red, Barrett is blue.)

And yet, on 5 June 2012, Walker was re-elected with a far greater number of votes, in an election that broke turnout records. Wisconsinites had seemingly come out in force to re-elect a politician thought to be wildly unpopular. As the results trickled out, the pattern became clear. Residents of Wisconsin’s cities, in particular the capital of Milwaukee and university town of Madison, had voted overwhelmingly for the Democrat, Barrett; virtually the rest of the state, sparsely populated though it might have been, voted for Walker. The state, it seemed, was utterly divided between its urban population and its rural.

Seeking to understand what happened, political scientist Katherine Cramer, of the University of Wisconsin, set out on an unorthodox mission. Rather than focussing on idle speculation, or even opinion polls and focus groups, she travelled across Wisconsin by car. She dropped in to the informal meet-ups, held at diners or gas stations, that are the lifeblood of Wisconsin’s rural communities. And she spoke to the people she met there; more importantly, she listened.

It’s Cramer’s skill and patience as a listener that makes this book remarkable. Initially shunned, as a representative – via her university job – of the bloated public sector and of snooty city folk, she wins the trust of her conversation partners largely through her willingness to let them talk. As they do so, they reveal much of what motivates them, what frustrates them, and what forms the basis of their identity as rural Wisconsinites.

First, Cramer seeks to establish whether there is such thing as a rural consciousness – some coherent set of beliefs held by the majority of rural people. In exploring this, she settles on the titular idea of resentment: rural populations in Wisconsin, by and large, feel that there is an imbalance of power and funding in society that benefits urban populations and neglects them. Overt power and wealth, their logic goes, are concentrated in cities; as a result, the expression of those things must also favour cities. Those living in rural places pay their taxes, but get less back in return. Governments, based in cities, favour the residents of those cities, and are therefore to be distrusted.

Cramer takes great care in gently refuting these arguments. Infrastructural spending per capita, it turns out, greatly favours rural populations, not urban ones; schools in rural areas actually receive more funding than those in cities. And yet that rural consciousness not only persists, it underpins an entire world view. Cramer convincingly makes the case that this rural consciousness is, for most people she meets, actually the primary lens through which they view not only local politics but national and international events, too.

It’s particularly interesting to see that ways that rural consciousness doesn’t overlap with Republican ideology. Support for works programmes and infrastructural spending, support for economic intervention, support for single-payer healthcare; all of these are policies more associated with the Democratic party, and yet they find favour and support amid those with a rural consciousness. These rural populations vote Republican, but it’s not wholly for policy reasons; it’s more tribal than that, it’s because Republicans understand and speak to this rural consciousness.

This world view, elegantly defined – far more elegantly than it’s possible to summarise here – and skilfully teased out of her interviewees, provides a useful model for observing US politics as a whole. It’s certainly more useful than the more commonplace Democrat–Republican partisanship, but it’s potentially more useful even than traditional measures like socioeconomic class or wealth, in certain contexts at least. It’s particularly useful because this population divide is so closely tied to electoral geography; constituencies, formed as they are from pre-existing geographic boundaries, tend to be either wholly rural or wholly urban, and so reflect one or other side of this divide.

Perhaps the most illuminating event to view through this framework is the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump harnessed just this rural consciousness in order to take a victory even more improbable than Scott Walker’s – and of a similar sort. Losing the popular vote by an enormous margin, Trump won because of a system – the electoral college – designed explicitly to bolster the electoral power of a rural minority against an urban majority. As demographics continue to shift in the US – a growing Hispanic population, increasing urbanisation – it might be that 2016 was a freak event, the last time that rural populations were able to flex their electoral muscles in this way. But what’s certain is that this rural consciousness won’t abate; the politics of resentment are, unfortunately, here to stay, with all their associated ugliness.