Abandonment and the Gerrymandering of Resentment

Anyone who’s paid attention knows that Wisconsin is a tightly gerrymandered state. The geopolitical scrabble of electoral districts enables the Republican Party to hold large majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate. Those majorities come from districts far more rural than urban. They’re also rather working class in cultural disposition.

There is a racial element in these gerrymandered districts—black and urban versus white and rural—but the racial thing is less endemic racist than it is a polarized absence of cultural interaction. The race thing is real, but it’s less embedded and more amenable to amelioration than is usually acknowledged.

Gerrymandering among predominantly white districts is also cultural; but it’s more narrowly cultural, heavily shaped by education. The bulk of white liberals, in terms of formal schooling and the life-changing impacts of religious challenge and cultural encounter, especially as experienced in college, are more broadly educated and less provincial than white conservatives.

But it’s also an issue of class. And class is an issue nobody seems to be addressing particularly well.

Blue voters tend to identify with the more liberal values of the educated middle class. They listen to Wisconsin Public Radio and National Public Radio. They watch (I guess this is true; I don’t have a television) CNN and MSNBC. Public television. Nature and history channels.

Red voters, on the other hand, listen to and watch Fox, and the menu there is typically identified as conservative. Blues are liberal. Reds are conservative.

I happen to like the word conservative. It’s tightly related to conserve and conservation, both of which are strong and even crucial Green values. All these words—conserve, conservation, conservative—belong in the same nest of related meaning. I have a stubborn fondness for all three words, a fondness I see no reason to relinquish.

But it’s pretty obvious that the present use of conservative has little to do with conserve or conservation. The emotional force of current usage is a constantly roiled agitation of contempt and resentment. “Conservative” media are almost totally about grievance. They’re a cult of blame and excoriation. We might even say they’re an extremely well-funded grievance machine whose function is to keep resentment as stimulated and up to date as possible. There’s always something new to hate.

It’s no accident that this well-endowed grievance machine is funded and controlled by a small and very wealthy elite who want limitations and restrictions on democratic participation, who also want the lowest possible rate of taxation on their incredible wealth. Their hidden agenda is the restoration of power and privilege on a neo-aristocratic scale. Since this elite cannot possibly vote themselves or their cultivated candidates into office without a peculiar mix of voter suppression and gerrymandering—the real elite are demographically and electorally negligible—they need a voter base susceptible to a steady, relentless media diet of contempt and resentment. The party that aligns itself with this toxic broth of resentment, contempt, grievance, and fear is then in a position to harvest working-class votes at election time. The constant stirring of grievance is how “conservative” media sustain a neo-aristocratic Red voting base.

Blue intellectuals recognize this Redwash of resentment, but they’re generally rather clueless about probing its inner or historical sources. The inability to discern the legitimate underlying aspects of working-class resentment is a Blue class-based blind spot. One needs to understand (or at least suspect) that the professional agitation generated by “conservative” media simply wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as well as it does or for so long, if it didn’t hit an actual social nerve. What is that nerve?

The Blue blind spot has to do with the actual condition of rural life and small-town culture. It’s a Blue blind spot and a raw Red nerve.

I’m tempted to go right to Tony Evers in order to explain what I mean.

Maybe more by accident than intention, I’ve bumped into the governor multiple times in recent years and even, on occasion, exchanged a few words with him. Always polite but a bit distant, he seemed to see me (I’m a scruffy guy with an untrimmed, unruly beard) as yet another political crank with a breathless revelation he needed to—briefly—put up with. Well, let’s acknowledge that Tony’s political ophthalmology is quite acute—he is the governor after all—though maybe his vision isn’t quite omniscient.

I really like the man. I sense that he’s not only very smart but also intensely compassionate. And although I certainly don’t know this for sure, I’m of the view that Tony shares the liberal-progressive blind spot. He doesn’t seem to get the nature, extent, or legitimacy of working-class resentment. I think it puzzles him. His compassion isn’t big enough or free enough—it may be too entangled in his own childhood experience and the inadequate conclusions he’s drawn from that experience—to recognize the cultural and historical gravitas of the raw nerve.

But there’s a kink in the tail of this analysis. A lot of Red-voting working-class resentniks don’t themselves adequately recognize (much less seem able to articulate) the source of their feeling state. In part this is due to the swaddling of that feeling state in the false flags of manufactured resentment. The resentment, even aside from the toxic rags with which it’s wrapped, is not all rural, strictly speaking. Some of it is crappy, boring, life-killing factory jobs. Some of it is ingrown economic and cultural decay of townships and small cities, a pervasive and persistent decay that breeds political sourness. It’s a prevailing and even unrelenting mood of political and cultural abandonment. Red media stir and prepare for harvest the resentment buried in this abandonment. Blue media either make fun or patronize it.

Two crucial features of this abandonment are the disappearance of small farms and the corresponding elimination of rural schools, especially the one-roomers. I’m thinking back roughly sixty years here. That’s when the death throes of both the rural schools and small farms was unmistakable, at least in northern Wisconsin. Decay of the small-farm rural economy meant, in turn, the decay of small-town shops and stores; and small-town decay greased the slide for big box stores to slip into town—or, more likely, at the edge of town, probably near the new by-pass—which in turn accelerated the further deterioration of the downtown moms and pops.

I grew up on a small farm with lots of self-provisioning. I went to a one-room school with no indoor plumbing. There were aspects of both farm and school that needed careful study, political wisdom, and compassionate reconfiguration. What they got instead was a hammering that drained the countryside of its cultural vitality and economic viability. Rural culture was an atavism that wasn’t worth saving. It also was an impediment to progressive liberation and economic growth. And that’s the source—the raw nerve—of Red resentment. College kids left. The bulk of the working-class kids stayed.

One question here is which political party—“progress is our most important product”—is most responsible for causing the abandonment of countryside and town. (I don’t have a firm answer to this question. I believe it’s both parties; but in exactly what ways specific to each?) There are compelling reasons to see abandonment as a consequence—“get big or get out”—of both political parties. Both have bellied up to the bar of “economies of scale.” The local and small-scale were deemed backward and expendable. And there’s a lot of residual (not necessarily well-informed or intellectually articulate) resentment in the backwaters of this cultural and economic abandonment. Resentment can be deeply felt but poorly understood.

The Right has tapped into this resentment with relentless enthusiasm. But it’s almost an accidental tapping. It’s a bit like hitting oil. We don’t know who put it there, but it’s drill baby drill. Rightwing media (and the politicians who ventriloquize the well-oiled media talking points) have no inherent interest in understanding or addressing that abandonment. Actual interest in addressing and ameliorating abandonment’s distress is Green political policy, not Red. Red interest lies in keeping resentment alive and kicking. Abandonment is the buried energy pool that makes gerrymandering effective. Red media enable the ongoing gerrymandering of resentment.

I think Tony Evers might’ve been the smartest kid in his class. You know, the tall, thin, awkward, rather brainy kid, the one who got all the A’s, the one who was picked on for being so tall, skinny, awkward, and brainy, the one who maybe developed a bit of bitter contempt for the jerky working-class bullies who sometimes could be as mean and dumb as they looked. Or who took out their sense of powerless aggravation for being in a state of compulsory confinement by picking on the kid who, it seemed, actually liked school and was good at it.

I’m not sure if Tony Evers gets it that there are legitimate reasons to hate the compulsory school system. Quite frankly, that system wasted a good-sized hunk of my childhood and youth with its compulsory totalitarianism. I don’t vote Red—its candidates are almost without exception clueless talking-point clones—but I do get Red resentment. I see where a lot of Red resentment comes from and I identify with its source.

Tony Evers is a very moral and compassionate person. Besides being smart. (I seem to remember a recent governor who was also quite smart but seemed to lack the moral and compassion genes.) If my little story about Tony getting picked on rings true, I think we might conclude that he developed a mission to help the picked-on and disadvantaged find ways up and out of picked-on disadvantage, an impulse rooted in real compassion. He seeks secure protection from the bullies. That’s why I like Tony Evers. He’s the closest Wisconsin has come, at least in my lifetime, not to a philosopher king, exactly, but to a philosopher healer. But there’s more to political protection than beating back the bullies.

Small rural schools needed to be beautifully sited, ecological, outdoor, far less pathologically compulsory, and deeply integrated into the neighborhood social fabric knit together by a plump array of farms of various orientation, both small-scale commercial and self-provisioning. All this was, instead, wiped out. Yellow busses hauled the kids away.

Social and economic revival of the countryside would, in turn, awaken and stimulate the social and economic revival of small towns. This is not arcane political theory. This is the clear, practical memory of an old man pushing eighty: though it’s a memory that could’ve been enhanced by excellent policy rather than desecrated by rotten policy. First World hubris comes home to roost as global ecological crisis with a local backdrop of sour abandonment and bitter resentment.

In the current world of political policy-making, what I’m advocating is not Red and only hesitantly and ambivalently Blue. It may not even be universally recognized as Green. (There’s a lot of Green that’s got its head stuck in electrical-generation techno-fix. Not that solar panels and wind generators aren’t important, only that deep cultural problems are not solved strictly by technology.)

Focused, consistent, deliberate, long-term Green downsizing is the only viable political policy going forward. Economies-of-scale overshoot is not just an ecological problem—though it very much is that too—it’s also a profoundly cultural problem. And it’s an ecological and cultural problem in sore need of a political solution. That goes for Blue as much as for Red.

But here the gov—well, government in general—has got several political obstacles to face. First is the nearly universal First World American addiction to unlimited commercial affluence, either because you already have it or because you hope to get it. Serious talk of downsizing can feel like a gut punch. Second, any call for reduced GDP is outright religious heresy—sorry, political heresy—the penalty for which is electoral conflagration at the ballot box. Third—although this is actually first, foremost, and frightening—is our very own personal addiction and private fear of admitting to that addiction. Getting to Green is intensely personal. Just like abandonment feels really personal.

The way out of this political box is to turn the Red working class Green by means of Blue awakening to rural resentment. (When the Red working class goes Green, they’ll teach Blue liberals how to dye their thumbs a living color.) But for the Red working class to go Green requires that Blues address, over and over and over again, the cultural, economic, and political abandonment of the countryside and small towns. Acknowledge it. Recognize its cultural and ecological truth. Put some long-term political muscle into serious and sustained remediation.

With that political, cultural, ecological, and yes spiritual education, Green downsizing will prove to be the path of rural reclamation. The bulk of the Red working class will jump right in when Blue politicians get serious about addressing rural abandonment. But that requires that Blues get over their First World addiction to commodity overshoot and the economies-of-scale delivery systems. The only way a healthy global can be achieved and sustained is by restoration of the coherent and healthy local. There is no other way.

Blue has to talk Green to Red about real policies that ameliorate abandonment. This needs to happen in the rapidly escalating context of a fossil fuel economy that’s increasingly catastrophic in weather and climate consequence. Not to speak of war and its consequence. Economically comfortable Blues need to downsize their First World consumption and join in with Red Greens on a newly formulated ecological style of life—an ecological lifestyle that’s destined to assume a much larger rural and small-town footprint: ecological and economic decentralization.

Blues can massage the boundaries of the rigid gerrymander beast by addressing abandonment, by dissolving the systemic resentment that keeps the gerrymandered beast stiff with manufactured suspicion and hate.

Red media preach the perpetuation of unlimited and unending economic growth as an unassailable principle of “freedom.” Red politicians ride this toxic gravy train. Blue media acknowledge, in principle, the dangers of nuclear war and Anthropocene climate disasters. But since the entire First World is so invested in the ideological perpetuation—the sheer energy-consuming momentum—of dynamic commercial capitalism, Blue politicians are reluctant and even afraid to say out loud and in public the things that must be said if we are to avoid the most catastrophic of the catastrophes.

Directly addressing rural abandonment and resentment may seem ridiculously trivial, but it would be a big Green toe in the door of political transformation. Regenerating local cultural coherence is a major factor in how—or whether—we’ll get ourselves out of the overshoot pickle our overarching cultural contempt and ecological stupidity has got us into. We’re talking here about an absolutely major ideological shift. Tony Evers has, I think, the heart, brains, and soul to set this shift in motion. If he can do that, if he’s willing to give it a long-term, committed shot, he may well be the most revered governor the citizens of Wisconsin have ever elected or ever will elect. I cast my vote for that.