The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker by UW-Madison Professor, Katherine Cramer Part 2

In Part 1, I summarized three themes people in the 39 rural groups spoke about: The role and size of government, taxes, and the animosity toward public sector employees. In Part 2, I will continue with the concerns of the rural people who were interviewed.

1. The need for good paying jobs. “[It’s a great place to live] if you like poverty.” Many people work two or more jobs while living in poverty. The mine was a contentious issue. “Come back if they shoot down this mining. Then we’ll really be mad.” The Koch brothers were seen as “creating jobs that are producing something that is beneficial…” Businesses are closing their doors or cutting back.

“The remarkable thing to me (Cramer) about the way people in small towns made sense of the Great Recession was just how unremarkable the recession seemed to many of them. For people who viewed the world through the lens of being victims of economic injustice because of where they live, the recession was just not that big of a deal.” “When the conversations came around to the Great Recession, it was common to blame public employees.”

2. As I “read between the lines” of the people who spoke, I have this sense that they are mourning their way of life living in a small town in rural Wisconsin. Small towns are “drying up and blowing away.” “The basic narrative was that taxes are high and they must be going somewhere besides rural communities because rural communities are dying.” I sensed that people don’t know what to do about losing their way of life knowing they wouldn’t or couldn’t move.

I feel this sense of loss when I visit my hometown. In the 50’s and 60’s, my community had two grocery stores; a feed mill; two gas stations with service centers; a Coop Services that sold appliances, hardware items, and delivered fuel oil and propane gas; two restaurants; a post office; Northwestern High School and an elementary school. People would congregate and visit at the lunch counter at the Coop Store while waiting for the mail and doing their shopping. Everyone knew each other.

Today, the community has a feed mill with some other services, a cabinet shop, a mobile home park, Northwestern High School, a chainsaw carving shop, and the post office with shortened hours.

3. Views towards education including the UW System. A conversation regarding small towns being “in big trouble” led to a discussion regarding their public school. “We lose that school, the whole town might just shut down.” They discussed the possibility of consolidating schools. “Financing schools is hardest on small towns…” There was an attitude that their taxes supported schools in urban areas—Milwaukee, Madison, and elsewhere. “I (Cramer) heard the claim that people in rural communities are helpless to change these funding formulas because no one down state is listening to their concerns.”

Support for the UW System was high especially for the Badgers. People felt local kids were at a disadvantage and would like to see more students from rural areas admitted to the UW System. The prohibitive cost of a college education was also a concern. Attitudes about a college education ranged from being a necessity for a better life to: “People go to college they come out dumber than they went in.” “They got the books there, those books, it’s not like the experience.” UW-Madison was seen as “Very liberal—they’ve brainwashed all the kids that go down there.” Another man spoke about a girl losing common sense and wanting to join the “Peace Corps! I mean, good God.”

4. The cost of living in rural Wisconsin. People voiced their concerns about property taxes. They blamed urbanites for driving up property values by purchasing expensive homes. They blamed public employees including the teachers. The high cost of gasoline is a major issue due to many people commuting to larger metro areas where the jobs are located. The high cost of housing and utilities are also a concern adding to the sense that rural areas are neglected because the resources aren’t reaching them. These costs are a huge factor for public schools as well.

Many people in rural areas are older and live on a fixed income.

5. The high cost of health care and insurance. These issues were discussed at great length; however, Cramer did not find a lot of support for the Affordable Care Act because it was another government program.

Other issues addressed in the book that revealed a “rural consciousness” were: racial issues, agriculture, corporations, the DNR, regulations.

Part 3 will address the role of politicians and how they use the Politics of Resentment to their advantage.