Hey, Dems, Wake Up, This Is Why Rural Wisconsin Hates You: The Angry Politics Of Resentment

My argument, not focused on Walker other than to admire his political acumen in attaching himself to a good thing, is that he did not create this tide, but has fully exploited it.

By Paul Fanland
The Capital Times (12/15/14)

This essay on Wisconsin politics is only indirectly about Scott Walker.

My analysis begins in 2007, years before his first statewide election, when Kathy Cramer ventured from her Madison campus office to coffee shops and gas stations in small Wisconsin communities on a systematic exploration that continued intermittently for more than five years.

Cramer, a youthful and charismatic political scientist from the University of Wisconsin, struck up conversations that uncovered a pattern of simmering resentment toward those of us in Madison and Milwaukee.

Now, in the wake of last month’s Republican landslide, it appears Cramer was something of a prophet. What she heard then and we see clearly now is that across Wisconsin, they really, really don’t like many of us very much, and appear unlikely to like us more any time soon.

My conclusion, informed by interviews with Cramer and another political scientist plus extensive conversations and observations, is that Walker’s three victories were in part about him and his personal brand, but the much bigger factor was the anti-government tide that has swept the country, Wisconsin included.

Within that equation are several factors.

First, that people have been inundated by anti-government messages for decades, especially since the Reagan presidency. Those resentments calcified during the great recession and in the years since, even as wealthy people grew much wealthier and the middle class lost ground.

A nationwide exit poll on Election Day revealed that 70 percent viewed the economy as “not so good” or “poor.” Only 22 percent thought life for the next generation would be better than it is for this one.

Second, because those with the most education are doing better (and Madison is jammed with academic elites) we are seen as not suffering as much, and that is noticed and resented.

Third, many outside Madison and Milwaukee see public employees with a level of retirement and health insurance benefits they no longer enjoy or never did. (Among public workers, only cops and firefighters seem to get a pass for being comparatively well-compensated.)

Fourth, there is a ubiquitous message that government programs are skewed to help those who do not help themselves. Given the concentrations of minorities in the two largest cities, the racial subtext is always there. Many in outlying Wisconsin see themselves as hard-working and self-reliant and getting no government help. They do not perceive their own public schools, Medicare, Social Security, highway infrastructure and so forth as the “handouts” they think flow to others.

The rural Republican block

This thesis is supported by the election results for governor, where Walker won in rural areas, small towns and suburbs, and Democrat Mary Burke mostly dominated in the dependable urban centers of Madison and Milwaukee.

My argument, not focused on Walker other than to admire his political acumen in attaching himself to a good thing, is that he did not create this tide, but has fully exploited it.

How, some may ask, do he and fellow Republicans win even though they oppose such proposals as an increase in the minimum wage, widely supported in exit polls?

Because, to be blunt, the minimum wage does not directly affect most voters, just as the GOP’s opposition to reproductive rights and same-sex marriage does not. A majority in the exit poll favored the liberal position on those issues, too, but they apparently do not swing elections.

It’s the economy, stupid

Only the economy matters, and while Walker’s record of improving the jobs picture is mediocre at best, at least he’s fully aligned against the perceived “takers:” the poor — who are disproportionately African-American and other minorities — and the whiny public employees with their garish protests in Madison.

It’s worth noting that 63 percent in that national poll said the economic system favors the wealthy. In a similar vein, a recent New York Times op-ed was headlined: “Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse.” The analysis said that our taxes, while progressive, are low by international standards and that our social welfare programs are consequently less generous.

Yet any significant populist movement against wealth inequality seems hampered because — in the minds of many — that’s how capitalism is supposed to work. It is tolerable that a CEO makes 100 times what his workers make and pays taxes at lower rates.

In all of this, one uplifting trend is that huge urban and non-white turnout is typical in presidential years, the kind that lifted President Obama to victory twice in Wisconsin. That should include 2016.

Perhaps another small sign of hope is that the over-the-top conservatism of Walker and his allies on non-jobs issues is likely out of touch with majority statewide sentiment, so change might occur there at some point.

Angry individualism

But the less-hopeful prognosis is that there is nothing obvious, short of eventual generational change and a more diverse electorate, promising to counteract the angry individualism and anti-government sentiment that has taken such deep hold here and across the country.

Those attitudes seemed to grow more visceral during the financial meltdown, which, ironically, occurred under the presidential leadership of a Republican, George W. Bush.

“Resentment” is the perfect one-word brand for the current political culture. In fact, Cramer, the traveling professor, is writing a book whose working title is: “Understanding the Politics of Resentment,” which she plans to complete in 2015. Cramer, who currently is interim director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service on campus, muses that it “is not a very happy title.”

“I finally sent the revised manuscript back to my editor the Friday after the election,” she says. “I was kind of joking to myself that if Scott Walker loses, I’m a little bit in a bind because I think I’ve gotten this wrong. But I think his win is sort of a continuation of what I had been hearing.”

She adds: “My sense is that his success in the suburbs is a little different than it is in the rural areas. On a red and blue map, it does look similar. In both cases, you could say there’s individualism going on, where much of what I heard was about hard work and who’s deserving.

“And their notion of the people who are deserving are those who work really hard ‘like I do’ and ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ and that whole thing. You hear that kind of tone in suburbs as well as in the rural areas.

Nobody cares about us

“But in the rural areas, the support I found was people not necessarily identifying with a Republican platform, but instead saying, ‘Nobody really cares about us and nobody understands what’s going on in our community.’ So, they would say, ‘We’re going to support somebody who’s coming along and saying I’m going to decrease your taxes and I’m going to cut back government.’ ”

Cramer adds: “In the suburbs, I think the story is different partly because the broad swath of the population is business-oriented. There’s a closer tie to the Republican platform.”

Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political scientist and expert on U.S. politics, agrees with Cramer on the topic of rural individualism. “People often feel like they’re hanging out by themselves,” he says. “You live on a farm and your nearest neighbor is half a mile down the road; there’s not a full-service hospital in your community and the school district is operating on a bare-bones budget. You don’t feel like you’re getting much from the taxes you do pay. So you would jump at the chance at a tax cut.”

A matter of race

So, I ask Cramer, what else resonated from all those conversations? She mentions race.

“When you respect people, it’s very difficult to see racism in what they’re saying or doing. Very, very seldom did people say anything that your average person would construe as racist. When they did it was, unfortunately, about Native Americans.”

But, she adds: “Race has often been used to argue against redistribution and wealth equality in American history. In times when a populist message gained momentum, opponents would counter that, ‘They’re allies with those black people so we can’t possibly support what they’re saying.’ ”

While race was seldom an explicit subject, she says: “I think in the way that our country has argued about redistribution, it’s always been at some level about race.

“So, even when people aren’t saying awful things like ‘those black people in Milwaukee,’ kind of our collective sense of where resources ought to go is about the broader constellation of what groups we think are deserving. Unfortunately, it’s the way stereotypes work.”

Resentment of the educated

I ask Cramer about the other target of anger — the educated elite in bastions like Madison, with their more secure careers and less physically taxing jobs.

“When people are talking about those people in Madison, they were talking about me. I’m pretty clearly a white girl. But you’re absolutely right, that when some people are talking about those people in the cities, they may not be talking about people of color, but they’re talking about … liberal people.”

Such lashing out at privilege does not extend to business elites, she says.

“I found in many of the conversations people knew about inequality, that CEOs are making hundreds of times more than their average worker,” she says. “They would occasionally talk about a kind of unfairness about that, but then when I would ask — ‘Why do you think the big battle is between public workers and private workers, for example, rather than CEOs and their workers or the rich and the relatively low-income?’ — the answer I almost always got was they’re supposed to make money. They’re in business. That’s what they are supposed to do. There’s just this huge separation between the … political world and the economic world. People’s sense of what’s just, that ‘massive inequality in the private sector is OK because that’s how it’s designed.’

“But when it comes to, say, public workers having pensions and health care and people in their own community not, that somehow was seen as unjust. I think people really dislike (wealth) inequality quite a bit, even though they do underestimate how much of it there is.”

Burden says he believes many residents have a misunderstanding about government spending. Small-town and rural residents “seem to perceive people living in Madison in particular, but also Milwaukee, as having these government jobs with excessively generous benefits and salary, whereas they were working hard and didn’t have access to those kinds of goodies.”

Yet Burden says the extent of inequality is arguably more severe within the private sector through tax cuts, subsidies and, in some cases, paying minimal or no taxes, or receiving incentives to relocate.


Why the disconnect? He cites two possible causes: “One is the rhetoric of tax cuts has worked well for Republicans. So, when a Republican goes into a smaller community and says — ‘I want to give back some of your money to you, put it in your pocket and let you make decisions about how to spend it. You’re better at doing that than some legislator in Madison or Washington’ — that’s a really appealing, intuitive logic.”

Burden adds that many seem to believe that most state money goes to the big cities. “But the truth is that on a per-capita basis the cities actually get less than smaller communities. That’s actually true nationwide. The rural red states get more than their share of tax money back from the federal government, whereas the more industrial blue states, like New York and Massachusetts, don’t get back as much as they pay in.”

Says Burden: “But that message is never spread and you could see why. It would feel accusatory for a politician to go into a rural community and say, ‘Do you know you’re actually getting back more than you paid in?’ ”

Both experts see Wisconsin as part of a national trend instead of our state standing alone, as some sort of Walker-driven anomaly.

Walker gets it

Walker “clearly is doing something right as a politician,” says Cramer. “He’s tapping into something that’s very real to people, but he also seems to me to be in the right place at the right time.

“The manner in which many of his policies and strategies are similar to those being tried elsewhere suggests … he’s clearly part of an orchestrated national movement.”

Cramer says her conservative students tell her Walker might just be giving residents what they want. She quotes a question directed at her: “ ‘Who am I to say that he’s convincing people to want something that they don’t? Instead, he could very well be the politician who has finally come along who understands people like us.’ ”

Perhaps, but I will close with statistics from an article in a recent edition of The Week magazine. It describes the economy as “hunky-dory” for the well-off, but says median household incomes are still falling for average workers, dropping from $56,080 in 1999 to $52,100 today.

Do Republicans in Wisconsin really have any idea how to effectively counteract the macro forces of globalization and technology that overwhelm our once-proud manufacturing economy?

Most of their actions just appear to be some variation on giving more to the very wealthy — incentives, tax cuts, slackened consumer and environmental protections, whatever they demand — and hoping that something, anything, trickles down for workers.

Democrats are generally focused on longer-term education and training programs to align a future workforce with future jobs, but that can sound pretty remote and abstract to the under-employed, middle-aged white laborer in Eau Claire whose manufacturing job vanished.

Perhaps no truly path-altering solutions exist, and that is saddest of all.

So the resentment simmers, and, here in Wisconsin, only conservatives have figured out how to fully exploit it.

Link to Story: http://host.madison.com/news/local/writers/paul_fanlund/paul-fanlund-no-end-in-sight-to-wisconsin-s-politics/article_1265d3e2-d2e3-5e21-8caf-3bb77b102e15.html#ixzz3M1Ds9GlD

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