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Why Are Small-Town Wisconsinites So Angry?

Rural residents feel left out and frustrated

Sep. 27, 2016
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Animal Farm

If it sometimes feels like you don’t recognize Wisconsin anymore, you may be right.

Two longtime political observers say that some of the change is fueled by small-town Wisconsinites’ resentment of elites, including Milwaukeeans, that’s exploited by politicians. 

This “rural consciousness” is a combination of strong rural or small-town identity, a sense that decision-makers in Madison aren’t listening to them or representing them, and the belief that they’re not getting their fair share of resources, according to UW-Madison Professor Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

In short, rural residents feel they are the “have nots,” while urban and suburban Wisconsinites are the “haves.”

“The intensity of the resentment toward Madison and Milwaukee really surprised me,” Cramer said at a Marquette University Law School forum hosted by Mike Gousha on Sept. 21.

Cramer began her listening tour of 27 small towns in 2007 to learn more about Wisconsin’s rural communities, a project that took on extra urgency after the Great Recession and the election of Gov. Scott Walker in 2010.

Cramer said Walker spoke to rural resentment when he halted planned high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison while campaigning and then attacked public employee unions after he introduced Act 10 in 2011. 

Rural Wisconsinites saw high-speed rail as only benefiting Madison and Milwaukee, and public employees were seen as “haves”—workers with good jobs, health care and pensions—unlike the rural residents, who were struggling to get by in low-paid, physically demanding jobs without benefits. 

Cramer said those she interviewed said “it’s about time” that a politician took on those elite interests. She said distrust of government ran deep.

“What I heard was people saying, ‘Look around at our community. Whatever government is doing is not working for us. Why would we want more of it?’” Cramer told Gousha.

And instead of viewing education as a means to a better career, Cramer said rural Wisconsinites see a college education as being unaffordable and view local K-12 schools as being worse off than schools in wealthy suburban or urban communities.

“A common refrain was, we just don’t have the advantages those people in the cities do,” Cramer said. 

Walker, Trump and Sanders 

Cramer said what was most troubling was the sense of resentment and feeling of injustice felt by those in rural communities.

“They would tell me, ‘I’m working so hard to make ends meet and my money is going to people who don’t deserve it, who aren’t working as hard as I do,’” Cramer said.

She said rural Wisconsinites feel they aren’t seeing their taxpayer dollars invested in their communities, although her research shows that on a per capita basis, rural communities receive as much or more than urban centers. She said the economies of scale, more specifically, the density of the population, help cities utilize their tax dollars more efficiently than smaller towns and rural areas. She added that conversations about using government to help achieve economic justice don’t resonate in small-town Wisconsin, since these discussions are tied up in race and go nowhere.

She said Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been adept at exploiting the politics of rural resentment by very bluntly telling small town residents that they are getting screwed and can find someone to blame for it. Trump won the rural parts of the state in the spring Republican primary, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the cities and suburbs and ultimately carried the state.

Mike McCabe, former executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and author of Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics, agreed that Trump and Walker tapped into rural resentment—but so did Bernie Sanders, who won all of the Wisconsin counties except for Milwaukee County in the April Democratic primary. He said Sanders’ emphasis on free college and a $15 minimum wage resonated with rural voters who feel that higher education and better paying jobs are out of their reach.

The problem, McCabe said, is that the Democratic establishment belittled Sanders’ policies as being unrealistic and in doing so may have turned off small-town Wisconsinites. 

“I believe that if Bernie Sanders had been the candidate he would have had a better chance of cutting into Donald Trump’s support in rural areas,” McCabe said. 

He said the presidential election was a tossup, and includes paths to victory for both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin. 

“People are really frustrated,” McCabe said.

McCabe said Democrats would have an advantage in rural areas if they would be more explicitly class conscious and provide tangible solutions for small-town residents, such as bringing high-speed Internet to every doorstep or increasing funding for local roads.

“Democrats could make people a better offer in small towns and rural areas,” McCabe said.

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