THE POLITICS OF RESENTMENT
Growing up during the 50’s and 60’s in a small community in far northern Wisconsin, I was considered a “country hick.” Within this tightly-knit community, we parceled ourselves out by the church we attended, the jobs our parents held, whether we were farmers or business owners. Some community members were considered “high toned.” This term was applied to people who wore nicer clothes and drove a nicer car than most, worked “in town” rather than farmed or did manual labor.
The people “in town” were known as “city slickers” because we felt they didn’t understand us and weren’t like us.
UW-Madison Professor, Katherine Cramer, explores the “rural consciousness” in The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Cramer interviewed 39 small groups throughout Wisconsin from 2007 to 2012.
Cramer attempted to meet with each group three times in that five-year period. These rural groups met at churches, cafes, libraries, or around the coffee pot at a gas station. For the most part the people were older—some were retired while others worked. The groups consisted of professionals, public sector employees, small business owners and their employees, people who were self-employed and unemployed, construction workers, and loggers. Some groups were all men, others were all women, and other groups were both men and women.
The Politics of Resentment is thought-provoking in numerous ways. I highly recommend the book.
“Listening closely to people revealed two things to me (Cramer): a significant rural-versus-urban divide and the powerful role of resentment. This book shows that what can look like disagreements about basic political principles can be rooted in something even more fundamental: ideas about who gets what, who has power, what people are like, and who is to blame. What might seem to be a central debate about appropriate role of government might be at base of something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens.”
“Rural consciousness” refers to “an identity as a rural person.” “It includes a sense that decision makers routinely ignore rural places and fail to give rural communities their fair share of resources, as well as a sense that rural folks are fundamentally different from urbanites in terms of lifestyles, values, and work ethic.”
Consistent themes are intertwined throughout the conversations.
- Scale back the role and size of government. Government doesn’t work for people in rural areas and they don’t get their fair share of the resources. “The government must be mishandling my hard-earned dollars, because my taxes keep going up and clearly they are not coming back to benefit people like me. So why would I want an expansion of government?” Governmental policies help “others” who are less worthy and who don’t work as hard. One man said that government needs to be cut by half.
- Taxes are too high and taxes benefit “others.” The people noted the crumbling roads, the public schools, the sewer systems, and believed the tax money wasn’t benefitting them. “And the harder I work, the more my taxes go up. I don’t want my taxes to go up anymore. I can’t afford it.”
- The value and pride of hard work and what constitutes “work.” To many of the people, hard work meant long hours and intensive back-breaking labor. One man stated: “There ain’t very many of ‘em (state workers) that sweat….I still know how to work. I’m eighty-two years old and driving a semi!” He stated that if they lost their jobs, “they would lay down in the gutter outside here and die.” Cramer didn’t delve into the idea that public sector employees who work in offices and schools work equally as hard—the work is just different. Cramer’s main goal was to ask questions to begin the conversation and then listen.
- The animosity toward the public sector was especially striking when she began interviewing people in 2007 and after the 2010 election and the recall elections. “Deservingness” was an issue. Public sector employees didn’t deserve the salaries and the benefits they received. “How about wages for people? Ya educated people get all the money…” “That includes you (Cramer), too. They bleed the rest of us to death.”
“Public sector employees were perceived as “lazy and undeserving,…recipients of exorbitant benefits and salaries paid with hard-earned taxpayer money,…and often represented by greedy unions. They did not know how to work with their hands.”
(This article is reprinted from Middle Wisconsin, June 16, 2016 newsletter.)