WHAT MOTIVATED 2016 VOTERS?

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Professor Katherine Cramer Walsh, author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (March, 2016), finds the split between rural and urban voters’ choices to be rooted in what she calls “group consciousness.” In an article published years before her book, she concludes that rural voters, at least in Wisconsin, perceive themselves to be deprived and attribute “rural deprivation to the decision making of (urban) political elites, who disregard and disrespect rural residents and rural lifestyles.”

But there appear to be some other attitudes about urban areas and people that fit tightly with Wood’s analysis of the latest election: urban professionals are suspect because they do not work as hard as rural folks (in particular that they do not labor with their bodies as miners, farmers, and sawmill workers do) while the other urban dwellers (implicitly people of color) are simply lazy.

Cramer sees “identification as a rural resident [as] more than a geographic reference for many of the people…. It was imbued with perceptions of inequalities of power, differences in values, and also inequalities in resources.”

The perception that rural residents lack power derived from their sense that “the major decisions in the state were made in the urban areas, by urban people, and communicated outward…. Rural residents complained that authority flowed out from both Madison and Milwaukee, never in reverse, and was exercised without regard for the concerns, values, or knowledge of people in rural areas.”

In some ways, the third deprivation Cramer identifies is the most interesting and also the most puzzling. Rural residents apparently believe that tax dollars flow from them to urban areas, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

Cramer points out that “when analyzed on a per capita basis, rural residents do not receive fewer federal tax dollars than urban residents, and actually receive more state tax dollars.” Unemployment rates, at least when this article was published in 2012, were only slightly higher in rural areas than in urban ones.

Even though these perceptions are not empirically supported, progressives (and all of us urban professionals!) will need to find ways to address these feelings. Fighting with facts won’t cut it. We will need to come with ideas to help sustain small communities in the largely rural areas of the state. The rural residents Cramer studied have particular concerns about their community schools and the availability of healthcare in their areas.

We need to listen to how they perceive these issues. Only then we can address them. Before we propose our solutions, however, we will have to first show that we share their values and that we care about their ability to sustain their communities.