Katherine Cramer

The Politics of Resentment

Air Date: November 5, 2016

Katherine Cramer of the University of Wisconsin talks about her groundbreaking study of U.S. rural consciousness and political polarization.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When voyaging cross-country earlier this year to the University of San Diego’s Restoring Respect Conference, I dutifully admired the vast American heartland, what demographers label flyover USA. So doubly powerful was my window-side reading, a new University of Chicago Press study examining oft-neglected middle America, whose blue collar angst has boiled over into hate this year. Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker is the defining, if unsung explanation of an America divided. Cramer is director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, where she teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin. She joins me today. While Cramer’s scholarship is dedicated to the plight of Wisconsin blue collar workers, it can be extrapolated to the embittered, raw national chasm between rural and urban communities, the exploitation of pervasive economic distress and really unbelievable inequality. Today we’ll investigate the roots of this disturbing American disconnect, the origins of the resentments Cramer identifies, namely a divergence of values and identity in geography, and how an “us versus them” mentality dominates the consciousness of the electorate. Welcome, Katherine.

CRAMER: Thank you so much, Alexander.

HEFFNER: How did we come to this point of these entrenched resentments dictating public policy through elections?

CRAMER: Well that’s a great question. It’s a lot of different things. I think economic inequality is a huge driver, right? So for decades we know that economic inequality in the US has been growing. And there are more and more people by the minute who are struggling to make ends meet, and so I think that’s the background. But I think on top of that are so many other changes going on that all of us are struggling to make sense of it, right? So globalization, part of the economic inequality, but that’s a little bewildering. Where are the jobs going? How is the economy changing? In addition, just changes in the way we communicate with one another. All of that stuff, different mobilization patterns and, and people are looking for answers, right? And politicians generally are smart people, try to figure out how to give people answers that make them look like appealing candidates, appealing people to represent all these folks who are struggling to figure this out and so, lo and behold, we have politicians who are saying you’re right, you’re struggling. You’re struggling, your life is hard, I hear what you’re saying and I’m gonna do something about it. And you’re gonna vote for me because I’m gonna tell you who to blame. I’m gonna give you concrete targets of blame.

HEFFNER: That precisely is what you attribute this to. It’s not a new phenomenon through the modern economy. It is resentments and Wisconsin not being part of the disunion that spurred a civil war and reconstruction, people say about Wisconsin, I said to you off-camera what they allude to in Iowa. Wisconsin, decency, nice, and it is remarkable that in this primary cycle when so many of those disenchanted Republican voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump, Wisconsin leaned to Ted Cruz. I know this is a microcosm…

CRAMER: Right.

HEFFNER: What you describe here of those resentments, but do you, why do you think they were not pent up enough in Wisconsin…


HEFFNER: To cast the ballot for Trump more overwhelmingly like in Florida and some of these other states?

CRAMER: Well, I think people are pretty pent-up in Wisconsin actually and I think instead what happened in Wisconsin is that the political elite and the media elite were on the same page and supported Ted Cruz. By that I mean Scott Walker very clearly said I support Ted Cruz and went on the Charlie Sikes radio show that broadcasts out of Milwaukee which is a very important…

HEFFNER: But that was later in the game.

CRAMER: Well, right before the Wisconsin primary, you know, couple weeks out. And so I think there was a really clear signal sent to Wisconsin voters from well-respected media and political leaders saying vote for Ted Cruz. And so, and you can see in the returns from the primary, like the Milwaukee media market basically went for Ted Cruz and the rest of Wisconsin, in talking about the Republican primary obviously, uh, went for Ted, or sorry, Donald Trump.

HEFFNER: When I was delivering the keynote which I titled Incivility and its Discontents in American Politics, I alluded to a passage in your introduction…

CRAMER: Oh my gosh.

HEFFNER: And I urge you all to, to read The Politics of Resentment. It is an opening anecdote, um, in which one of your colleagues at the university is you say pumping gas into his clearly liberal Democratic car with a sticker, a cool vintage convertible, then pulls into the station. This individual starts chatting up the driver when he gets out of the car and the man looks at your colleague, looks at the car, and says, “I don’t talk to people like you.” Um, and I, at the same time I was in San Diego, I was walking on a vista and there was a young woman wearing a shirt, it said “Me, question mark, wrong, question mark? Never.” And it was these two anecdotes that really shaped the trajectory of the speech and I want you to get inside the head of those people who resent liberals in your state and your state as a microcosm of this national feud now between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

CRAMER: Yeah. Well, I can’t be so presumptive as to actually get inside their head…

HEFFNER: But from your research.

CRAMER: But I can tell you what I heard, sure, and that is…

HEFFNER: And tell us about your methodology.

CRAMER: So, sure. Um, I’ll start there. So I, to be honest I was not looking for resentment when I started my research back in May of 2007, I was interested in how social class, identity informs the way people talk about politics. And so I sampled 27 different communities across the state of Wisconsin thinking that if I got a wide variety of communities, I would end up listening to conversations from a wide variety of people, meaning varying by socioeconomic background. My sensibility as a public opinion researcher has been to um, invite myself into conversations to listen to people talk to people that they normally talk to, as opposed to in—inviting them to a one-on-one interview. I mean ‘cause you know, you get, you get a different kind of concentration, different conversation when it’s just you and the other person. I wanted to hear the way people refer to each other and kind of the things they bring up from their community as they talk to one another. So what happened, between 2, May 2007 and the subsequent years, I identified 39 different groups of people that they were, folks that people in the community told me oh that, that’s where you go to listen to the regulars in this town. So gas stations, diners, sometimes churches, and I started out spending time in rural and suburban and, and urban areas, but what I learned about a year into it was just a really significant resentment among people in so-called out-state Wisconsin, which is basically the areas beyond the major metropolitan areas. A resentment among, in those communities among those folks, toward the cities. And so the resentment that you’re asking about, like how is it that somebody can pull up in a sweet, old car and some person who looks kind of like a liberal, meaning you know, liberal bumper stickers, I forget the car, I think he was driving a Prius, right, I mean that’s like the key signifier among cars, right?

HEFFNER: Standard, Democratic standard bearer.

CRAMER: He totally, but how is it that in a state like Wisconsin, the liberal can compliment the guy in the sweet vintage car and the driver say I don’t talk to people like you? I think it’s because, for a long time, people have been doing this trying to figure out like who’s to blame here? Why is it that I’m working two jobs to make ends meet and I still can’t pay for health insurance, right? Well, part of the explanation has been um, government, whatever it’s doing, is clearly not benefiting people like me, meaning like small-town Wisconsinites, whatever. Um, and liberals want me to pay more for more government programs when those programs aren’t working for me and they’re wanting me to pay more for those government programs when I still…

HEFFNER: For people unlike me.

CRAMER: Yeah, and I can’t afford to make ends meet and that money is going to like, health insurance for public employees, right? How does that work?

HEFFNER: So you referred to these people as the regulars. Now why is it that the regulars, in this election cycle, white Americans in mostly rural counties, some suburban, although suburban has shifted markedly to Hillary Clinton, why is it that they don’t see people, African-Americans, Hispanics who share their plight as regulars too?

CRAMER: Well that’s racism, right? I mean, yeah, I mean…

HEFFNER: That is what you exposed in a lot of these case studies.

CRAMER: Yeah but what I, and what I want to say about it is like it’s not simply oh those people are racism. By saying that’s racism, what I mean by that is the reason that we have race, I believe, is that it’s a useful way of creating divides, right? So if we look back to the history of redistribution in this country, like from the time that the federal government had enough stuff for there actually to be an issue, a debate over redistribution, who’s gonna, who are they gonna give stuff, money to? After the Civil War, I mean there were reasons to think that um, white farmers and newly freed African-American farmers might have a reason to, to join together, right? Well folks who didn’t want the kind of policies that would have been advocated by that coalition found a way to say no, you white folks, you’re not like them. What are you doing, like you two can’t be in a team together.

HEFFNER: Why in Wisconsin and Missouri and Iowa, in the northwest, why are these people still in the Civil War mindset? Based on your research?

CRAMER: Well, that’s centuries of learning.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it because, well, or unlearning, I mean isn’t it because of the centralization of wealth? In other words Kathy, why do you think, two things made Donald Trump possible this election cycle. One is a mass appeal of celebrity that trumps any kind of reasoned discourse, right? That buys clicks and viewers.

CRAMER: That’s probably true.

HEFFNER: Second, his own monopoly on media exposure and the concentration of wealth that he has individually.

CRAMER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Why isn’t it that they are pointing to the Trumps, you know, it’s, it’s been said conservatives believe in the potential of the American dream. One day we’ll all be rich. But how does that get conflated with blaming classes of people dissimilar from, from your own?

CRAMER: I think it comes back down to deservingness and like these notions in our culture, our political culture and just US culture in general about deservingness, like, um, people who work hard are deserving, right? And um, very wealthy folks are deserving, um, not because they work hard like me using my body, I’m speaking as a person, say, you know, um, in the timber industry, um, but because they, they must be really smart or they must have done things right or made some like, appropriate choices in order to be that wealthy. But I think that this notion that um, only people who work hard are deserving in US culture means that all of these stereotypes that we have, we have created over time about um, who’s a hard worker or not plays into that calculation of um, who, who do I want to be like? Who am I gonna support? And unfortunately people of color, right, African-Americans in particular in studies of stereotypes show that you know, that that notion of undeserving, lazy are attributed to the people who aren’t white, very unfairly obviously, but it’s…

HEFFNER: And were these in rural districts or suburban districts too where your conversations led you to discover this consciousness that is a blame-first, talk about America-first…

CRAMER: Yeah, all,

HEFFNER: A blame-first consciousness.


HEFFNER: How far did it seep into mainstream America?

CRAMER: It’s, it’s everywhere. Yeah. And so, and I certainly don’t want to say that it’s people in small towns or rural America who have that mentality, or I certainly don’t mean to say that it’s people in, in rural areas who, who hold these racial stereotypes ‘cause lo and behold, you know, we certainly have race, racism and race issues in our cities.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm. What do you do with the resentment?

CRAMER: Yeah. Oh, well unfortunately, the thing about resentment is that it perpetuates itself, right? Because my friend at the gas station, super-nice guy and thankfully he’s not the kind to um, believe in retribution. But a lot of people after being resented for a while, I mean they’re, they’re gonna resent back, right? And I think that a lot of the, the kind of anti-liberal elite resentment that we see is actually a part of that cycle in that people know that there’s a stereotype of people in small-town America, that they’re less-educated, that they’re racist, that they um, are making choices against their interests. Well that’s not gonna sit very well with people, of course they’re not gonna feel warmly towards the, the people who are saying those types of things, right? And whoever gets into office, there’s, there’s enough of this resentment going around that suddenly we’re all not gonna be kind to one another and think oh now, now we understand one another. I think the only way to make it end is for some people to um, take the high road, right, to say I know, like I’m getting some stuff from you, I’m getting some negative stuff from you and I’m just gonna rise above it and be kind back, you know?

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm. Right. Kindness is…

CRAMER: Yes, is a great antidote.

HEFFNER: But who is more likely to overcome resentment? Is it a question of literacy? Are people who are more educated going to take a deep breath, listen, and compromise? When it comes down to who is responsible for a morbidly unqualified person being nominated as a major party’s…


HEFFNER: Candidate this year, and the insensitivity, more than that, the incivility that he’s demonstrated that is un-American to a core.

CRAMER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Is it not fair for some observers to believe that decision to vote for him was arrived at through a complete void of emotional intelligence?


HEFFNER: Or maybe even intellectual intelligence?

CRAMER: I think that is not fair. In the following sense, that I don’t, like the emotional intelligence, for example, I, yeah. I’ll, I’ll explain it a different way. I think what’s unfair is to say people who support Donald Trump are ignorant or have some deficit of intelligence. But to go back to education, I think it is the case that when, I mean education if done right is not about giving people facts. It’s about enabling people to put themselves in new situations and learn from them, right?

HEFFNER: And learn from each other.

CRAMER: Yeah. And I think once you have those opportunities, once you have the opportunity of education and either through reading or through travel or through encountering people who are unlike yourself, you realize that I can be the same person, even in a new context. And therefore what’s other or what’s different from me is not a threat. It’s actually an opportunity, right, something that I might learn from. But if you haven’t had that opportunity to know like, to expand your world basically is what I think education does at its best. Then these things from the outside that are threatening your way of life, right, are changing your community, are changing the way that you know people like you can make a living, it’s reasonable to want to opt for the candidate who says I’m gonna make America great again, right? I’m gonna put us back to that place where you thought we once were, right? Or I’m gonna keep things as much the same as I possibly can, by keeping out these others, right? Or not, or preventing the, the candidate from getting power who wants to like, change things. And so what I, what I’m resistant to is this notion that people who support Donald Trump are, are ignorant, like their understanding of the world is different.

HEFFNER: Kathy, is there a difference between ignorance and illiteracy in this sense?

CRAMER: Maybe.

HEFFNER: That ought to be distinguished?

CRAMER: Maybe.

HEFFNER: How so?

CRAMER: Yeah. Well by illiteracy we mean not, I mean technically not reading, or an inability to read, but even expanding that out, like…

HEFFNER: Well when you talk about expanding one’s horizons…


HEFFNER: The fact that the majority of Americans but in particular in the rural consciousness, they don’t have passports. I mean they, you talk about travel as a means to expand your horizon…

CRAMER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Well that’s not happening.


HEFFNER: And they’re not traveling to the city either.

CRAMER: Yeah, well I don’t, I don’t mean, I don’t even mean like traveling outside the country’s boundaries…


CRAMER: But just getting outside your own context, right?

HEFFNER: But that’s why I use the word literacy. This has been the, talk about neglected, the most devastating plague on our country, civics illiteracy, American illiteracy, and that is going to be grappled with in the rural communities how?

CRAMER: Mm-hmm. Well, here’s a great example of how complicated this is, right? Because if you go, if you go to a rural community, say in Wisconsin, and have a conversation about illiteracy, my guess is that the conversation is gonna come back around to funding for their local schools and they’re gonna say see, we don’t have AP courses for our kids, because all that money’s going to the cities and our economies of scale out here mean that we can’t offer Spanish and German and French and Chinese. If we’re lucky, we can offer Spanish. And so the conversation’s gonna come back around to okay, we hear you, it has something to do with education but you know what? We’re on the short end of the stick in terms of education policy.

HEFFNER: Well you’re…


HEFFNER: And you’re on the shortest end of the stick because your governor is Scott Walker who has attempted to decimate public education.

CRAMER: Well, it’s been a difficult time for public education in Wisconsin for sure.

HEFFNER: But how, I don’t want to put you on the spot but how, how do you see that as correlated with the character of rural America that you describe in The Politics of Resentment? Do you see a connection?

CRAMER: Yeah. Well I do because I mean, when I was doing my research, so here I am driving around Wisconsin in a Volkswagen Jetta, right? Having coffee with people and then driving on to the next town and having coffee with people. [LAUGHS] People would ask me so what do you, what’s your job? And I’d say well I’m a, you know, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, okay so how are, how is it that you’re driving around Wisconsin having coffee with us? And that, those conversations were a part of this perception that we don’t quite get what you all do down at the university and faculty members there who are complaining about how much they get paid, looks like they have a pretty [LAUGHS] cushy job to me. You know, they seem pretty lazy and then we know that they’re a bunch of liberals and they seem pretty elitist because for one, they’re making way more money than we are and they have no understanding of what life is like in the rest of Wisconsin. And so The Politics of Resentment very much plays into the, you know, the policies that have sort of, um, financially made it difficult for the university, the university system and have, you know, there’s been, um, challenges to the, the policies surrounding tenure. So it’s all the same part of the mix where these kind of anti-liberal elite sentiments very much play into the hands of folks who want to say we shouldn’t, we do not want to be spending money on that.

HEFFNER: What is the path forward on November 9th?

CRAMER: On November 9th.

HEFFNER: What is the path forward after the next president is elected..


HEFFNER: In addressing this rural-urban disconnect?


HEFFNER: It, I want to hear your answer.

CRAMER: Yeah. I would love to say, I would love to announce some quick fix.


CRAMER: But I don’t think it exists. Instead I think the path forward is the slow and costly one of people actually listening to one another. And I mean state legislators, policymakers, federal and down. And ordinary folks. Because, so I think kindness is the antidote but real, the action, the behavior that has to happen is listening. And listening not to get prepared for, okay so then how are we gonna combat that, but like actually listening to understand, because that was my experience, right? I didn’t expect to find all this. I didn’t want to find all this in my state. And I found that I had misconceptions about how a good swath of people in my state thought about politics. I learned a ton.

HEFFNER: A—As you posit that, do you think finally that suburban communities can be the bridge-builders here?

CRAMER: Maybe, depends which suburban communities you’re talking about. I mean in Wisconsin, our suburban Milwaukee communities are Republican strongholds and I don’t see a whole lot of listening going on there. I see a whole lot of fence-building and putting up, you know, defenses.

HEFFNER: Because the resentment is boiling over in suburbia as well as rural America, is that…

CRAMER: Yeah. I mean rural America isn’t the only place, but that’s where I was looking. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Kathy, thanks for being here today.

CRAMER: Thanks for having me, Alexander. Thanks a lot.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.