Katherine Cramer

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Katherine Cramer talks about her book, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” as moderator Henrik Schatzinger listens. 

The Ripon College Center for Politics and the People discussed “The Politics of Resentment” with University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Katherine Cramer and how it has evolved over the past seven years.

Her book, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” was published in 2016 and largely highlighted rural resentment and its implications toward cities’ contemporary politics, and it has been a source for understanding rural public opinion.

In the book, Kramer questions how the people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services, but are vehemently against the idea of big government.

“Rural voters are distrustful that politicians will not respect the distinct values of their communities and allocate a fair share of resources,” Cramer said. “What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are therefore actually rooted in something even more fundamental: Who we are as people and how closely social identity matches our own.

“I was really interested in the way social class matters for how we make sense of politics. The thing that has fascinated me throughout my career is how people understand the world they’re living in and how those understandings influence who they vote for and how they understand public issues from the local to national level.”

With her car, her recorder, Badger Football schedules as incentive, and sometimes pens, Cramer visited with 39 different groups across 27 communities around the state between 2007 and 2012, during which time former Gov. Scott Walker took office.

A conversation with Dr. Katherine Cramer, Professor and Natalie C. Horton Chair of Letters and Science, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin - Madison on April 20, 2023.

“What I was looking for is how people’s sense of where they are in the pecking order of things just in terms of class, status, their own economic background, how does that relate to their political thoughts and what they’re expressing to their friends and family members?” Cramer said.

The largest area that has influenced people – rural and urban alike – over the past several years, is the rise of media online.

“You add in the media rage machine,” she said. “Divisiveness falls on both sides of the political spectrum — it catches our attention, it provokes us, it causes us to click on things. It’s very different from communicating. We might all pay attention, but it doesn’t grab as much attention as the rage machine.”

Even more so, rural residents share a common concern that candidates or officeholders don’t visit those areas often or even pay attention to them.

“There was this low, simmering feeling of not getting their fair share of respect,” Cramer said. “Rural Americans are facing a unique set of challenges.”

Social media, in particular, is not about listening to other people, but we also need to demand it of the people who represent citizens, Cramer said, or be courageous and run for office and use an ethic of listening while representing other people.

“People who live in a different type of place know at a human level that people in another type of place are not evil, they are also human beings and can connect on a human level before politics,” Cramer said. “If we only learn about each other through the media – whether it be social media or the news media – the picture we’re getting is not one that inspires much hope.

“... Most people don’t see the charts of what the relationship is between per capita income and how much people are paying into the state tax dollar pot or the federal pot, but they do see businesses boarded up on their main streets, they do experience themselves or their family members or neighbors losing their jobs and factories closing, family farms disappearing. It’s one thing to say on paper, but it’s another to acknowledge what people are saying.”

(1) comment

David Perkins

I am "retired" from thirty years of running my own small retail and service businesses but continue a contract business that takes me all over the state, mostly to rural towns. I am constantly remaking the small, beautiful downtowns into idyllic and thriving communities...in my mind...and then I look at the number of customers a business would have, the ability to staff the business, the ability to keep enough stock to satisfy different tastes, the ability to buy at a volume to keep prices affordable for the community...and then, I realize, it would not work. I live in downtown Green Lake. We are struggling to be a year-round community. Because of the lake, many of our more affordable homes are being used for vacation rentals. Some of the storefronts are leased or owned by the realty companies who sell those properties. The restaurants struggle to find workers and the owners of many of the downtown buildings charge too much in rent to make a small retail business...for the everyday shopper...affordable. I go to the bigger city of Ripon to shop for my daily needs and then to the bigger city of Oshkosh to buy large, durable goods. It is an upward cascade to the larger population centers because of the need for volume, both in customers and in available workers.

I would love to purchase more produce, dairy products, and meat from local farms, but most of the tillable land seems to be planted in a monoculture that does not get to my local supermarket. I do buy from local roadside stands.

I understand we are fighting a distribution system, but maybe rather than all of us blaming each other while the big businesses thrive, we come together to rethink how we can rebuild our communities to service each other.

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