The Politics of Resentment

A Wisconsin friend recently sent me an article about a book written by a Professor at the University of Wisconsin. (I realize that the professorial status of the author automatically makes her a member of a suspect “elite” whose observations or theories are thus automatically to be rejected..)

Kathy Cramer’s journey to the center of the political landscape began with road trips to corners of Wisconsin many people only drive through — if they drive there at all.

It accelerated after Election Day, when those same places had a key role in making billionaire celebrity Donald Trump the 45th president.

Suddenly there were national implications to a theme Cramer explored for more than a decade: how Wisconsin’s rural-urban cultural divide affects its politics. Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist, published a book in March: “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”

Cramer spent five years researching the book–research that revolved around extended discussions with rural Wisconsin voters. Although her research focused on Scott Walker, a number of commentators have drawn parallels between the resentment Cramer uncovered — and the way in which she says it was politicized — and Donald Trump’s  appeal to rural Midwesterners.

Cramer said the book she wrote was not quite what she set out to write.

In 2007, Cramer laid out maps of Wisconsin on her floor, looking for places to visit to conduct research. As a Grafton native, she already knew some of the terrain.

Cramer said she began the work with a guiding insight.

“I’ve found that the best way to study how people interpret politics is to listen to them talk with people they know in their own settings,” Cramer said.

Cramer’s initial plan was to explore issues around social class, but as she talked to people in rural Wisconsin, she discovered a deep resentment of “city dwellers,” who were seen as getting more attention from government, and looking down on rural residents.

“I never expected that a big driver for the way people were thinking about politics was their attitudes toward the cities,” Cramer said.

Into that environment, Cramer said, came Walker, elected governor in 2010. In early 2011 Walker proposed Act 10, a measure to curtail collective bargaining by public workers.

Cramer said Walker was able to tell rural voters: “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s time we step back government, because clearly it’s not working for you. And public employees pensions, health care, salaries are quite a bit higher than yours, many times, so I hear what you’re saying. Let’s pull that all back.”…

But how does rural resentment toward big-city elites explain those areas embracing a Manhattan billionaire?

Cramer’s explanation: Trump “validated their resentment.”

“The way I interpret his message is, ‘You are right to be pissed off. And you do deserve more. And what you deserve is going to these people who don’t deserve it.”

“Those people” is a familiar phrase to any member of a minority group, of course. The article doesn’t delve into the identification of minorities with “city dwellers,” and I haven’t read Cramer’s book to see whether she addresses that issue. But it was impossible to listen to Trump’s campaign rhetoric without understanding–quite clearly–who “those (undeserving) people” were.


  1. That “resentment” card gets played by the extremes of both parties. It is often used under the guise of “telling it like it is” which is the cover for telling half truths in emotional terms to segments of the population that are struggling. It works to get people riled up but does nada to solve problems. How to educate people to see when they are getting played is a problem itself.

  2. There’s only one thing Trump can deliver to elevate the “rural consciousness” in Wisconsin and it is WHITE SUPREMACY. And on that score, his ratings are still exceptional.

  3. Solution > Move to the city; become one of the resented. Nah, just kidding. We have already seen a mass exodus from rural to urban areas and it will continue because urban areas provide more amenities and the people who live there need to make more money, have unions etc. in order to finance their new environs. The country folks are trying to impress their social subset on the city folks, and that is no fairer than the city folks trying to impress their social subsets on the country folks. Both city and country living have their virtues and their faults, but in my view all should be happy that their fellow citizens are doing well wherever they live.

  4. Until the WHITE SUPREMACY is challenged, which more than likely will be never, nothing will change and the situation will only continue to deteriorate.

  5. I wonder if there are a couple of effects going on.

    There’s no question that life in the city is different in many ways than life in the country and to both the other must seem foreign. When you couple that with “hard times” those difference are amplified and sprinkled with anger and resentment in exactly the same way that wealth distribution breeds social unrest.

    It’s not unlike immigration issues where foreign (read culturally different) groups breed social instability.

    Such times are fertile grounds for politicians sniffing out votes but also in these times entertainers in search of audience.

    Mix politics with entertainment/advertising and you have fake news. Muckraking. Extremism. Essentially gangs. The rise and fall of gang leaders.

    The question is how does it pass? Is there a path to normalcy? Can it resolve?

    I don’t know.

  6. Finding just the right bogeyman at just the right time has long been a staple of Republican politics. When I was a kid, we had the commies and the Jews. Then we moved to the welfare queens, after which we had the gays, the Mexicans, and the Muslims each in turn. What will we do when we run out of people to hate?

  7. During my lifetime I have lived in both rural and city environments. I lived in the country during the 70s when family farming was the norm and the cities too far away to worry about. Life was not easy, but it did not drive people away. During that time, I witnessed the beginning of the end for rural America. It came in the form of giant tractors, cultivators and harvest machines. It came in the form of pesticides, herbicides and genetically engineered seeds. It came in the form of Washington policies that allowed the banks to drive the family farmer under so that the more ruthless among them could buy them out and expand 200 acre farms into 2,000 acre farms.

    In 2006 I returned to a rural area in Illinois wanting to find the good that I had known in the 70s in such a setting. But it was all gone. Giant corporate farms ruled the roost as it were. Any youth who had the guts had long ago left for the cities. When the one big industry started to fold there went the middle management class who once made up the school board, the hospital board and what there was of economic development. When WalMart came to town there went the local hardware store, the grocery stores, and the drug store. The town square went too. As the community’s wealthy population, not the wealthy farmers but the town wealth, aged and died off, their wealth went to heirs who had moved away depleting the community more.
    Meanwhile, the power and wealth continued to migrate into the hands of fewer and fewer rural folk. The new corporate family farmers, their own children long gone to the big cities, hired the locals who remained to do the planting, the spraying and the harvesting mostly part time at minimum wages. Many of the big land farmers added to local woes by spending much of their income in the big cities as they had private planes and airfields that allowed for little weekend trips to St. Louis or Chicago for shopping trips. Their winters were in Florida, of course.
    If you came from a low income family and grew up in such a community what do you think your attitude would tend to be?

  8. Theresa; in our conversations I have found not resentment but frustration at the deliberate refusal of so many in both parties to see and accept the truth of our situation today. We have both worked inside Indianapolis City government and watched the destruction of civil rights and the deplorable waste of our tax dollars spiral out of control. I see “resentment” as a form of jealousy and anger; jealous of the level of unfair income of the undeserving in big business and the wealthy class and anger that we are not getting in on it. I don’t want their money. Wasn’t the frustration of that situation the beginning of union organization; to provide “paying a worker his hire”, protection from unsafe working conditions and a safety net for worker’s and families and keep Americans off of the public dole? This has always been construed by industry and the wealthy to be a communist inspired ripoff by the working class. Republican states have all but obliterated unions in any form and prohibited forming unions by those who continue to be treated unfairly. Local nurses attempted to form a union about two years ago; their long shifts with limited numbers of nurses on duty, endangers the lives of patients. This was and is the nurse’s primary concern but their attempts were quickly shut down.

    Walker and Wisconsin are prime examples of this thinking process; they are “those people” who are experiencing “resentment” of the possibility of losing even a small amount of their soaring profit level. “But it was impossible to listen to Trump’s campaign rhetoric without understanding–quite clearly–who “those (undeserving) people” were.” This quote from Sheila today is a truth his supporters will never accept because it labels them. His cabinet appointees (sans assistant appointees to stabilize their actions) are pushing all issues further and further to the far right and enhancing the possibility of war – with anyone willing to cooperate with Trump’s own “resentment”. His Tweets are his fears and resentments made public.

    Theresa Bowers published a book on Kindle, “Lincoln County Stories” which provides an insight into the minds and lives of those rural people of the white minority class of whom Cramer writes. Theresa’s book, a novel, takes place in rural southern Indiana in the 1960’s; has this class of people in all rural areas in all states returned to the 1960’s thinking? I see it happening in my own suburban neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis; all part of this country sliding more and more quickly into a steeply divided caste system.

    “The Politics of Resentment” is the guiding light of the 1%, the GOP, all Republican supporters, Trump and his administration with Putin and Russian political control their aim. The tourist business in West Palm Beach is suffering great financial losses every weekend (Friday through Sunday) that Trump visits his “winter White House”. They made money due to his Mar-A-Lago location prior to his election; they supported and voted for him and are now experiencing “The Politics of Resentment” at being virtually shut down during his visits as the president they helped elect. ROFLMAO

  9. The author Kathy Cramer of “The Politics of Resentment” admits to downplaying racial politics in her research. For example, she specifically stayed away from matters involving the “Tea Party.”

  10. Welcome to the divisions of society wrought by “industrial agriculture.” Being — the rural folks are left with no way to earn a living, no way to get the education needed to do it with, and no understanding of what has happened to them.
    They’ve had to sell to sell their farms to the few big farmers in their county, they are too old to actually be able to learn new and complex skills, and they only have Fox News to get their information from.

  11. Rural folks are not geographically identical. The rural folks in East Texas where I practised law are not the same as those in Indiana or Wisconsin. The Deep South with its Confederate heritage still has its own distinctive uniqueness, especially when it comes to race.

  12. Baffling! For a number of years, the farmers of Indiana have generally been considered Republicans. They have been known to get all riled up by political activity in Indianapolis, the population of which leans toward the Democrats.

    However, by state standards, Indianapolis is the only Class A city in the state. The state legislature can pass laws that apply to Class A cities only … thereby making it possible for the Republican legislature to get involved in the stuff that take place in a Democratic city. It sort of sounds like the farmers are pointing their fingers at the wrong party. Surely the Fake President Donald Trump can get this straightened out.

  13. Hang on here, folks. Don’t move off this topic too easily. There’s something really important here. I bought this book and started reading it. I found it disappointing because though it seemed to be on the right track, I felt the author set aside or left for another time too many factors that require being included to understand the situation fully. So I still haven’t finished it. Instead I have found and am fascinated with “Age of Anger: A History of the Present” by Pankaj Mishra. It does the analysis I am hungry for, going back to the Enlightenment and how the Founding Fathers set up this nation and traces the threads that have woven the frustrations that have bloomed into today’s angers. I’m reading and watching the news with a whole new awareness now. Not very happily and not yet with a sense of what to do about it, either. Please, will someone else read this book and help me figure out what’s the next, constructive step?

  14. Connie,

    “Please, will someone else read this book and help me figure out what’s the next, constructive step.”

    It’s a terrific book. The first step is to recognise the problem, which the “Age of Anger” does a great service in doing. Remarkably, it allows for a much-needed root cause analysis of our terminally ill “body politic.” You never can tell, maybe there’s still time for a magical solution.

    “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it”
    ~Professor Albert Einstein

  15. I would describe the executive orders and Congress’ legislative “agenda” (such as it is) so far as governing by revenge. Nothing done or proposed has any constructive elements in it. You’d think they were tearing down the Bastille. And what is particularly unnerving is to look at a county-by-county map of the 2016 election results; scattered blue urban archipelagos in a vast ocean of red. The map is going to look like that until Democrats learn to speak to the fears and resentments without sounding like we’re talking down to people who just don’t get it (leave that smug condescension to conservative intellectuals; they’re better at it anyway). They don’t care that democratic institutions have been eroded, or that the republic has been replaced by a plutocracy, led by an autocratic, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic, authoritarian demagogue, and backed by the exemplar of kakistocracy. All true, but as soon as soon as the words come out of our mouths, the audience that needs to hear, understand, and react to them is lost.

    The mob won, and they’re cheering every brick that comes down, even when it lands on them. And they’ll keep on cheering until they’re buried in the rubble.

  16. Patrick,

    “You’d think they were tearing down the Bastille.”

    That’s exactly what they are attempting to do and they have no respect for the opposition as you have so well explained.

  17. as someone who has been in unions for 50 years, including minor stints on safety committees, etc. I have also researched labor history. If you look at memorable labor leaders like George Meany you find they are very reluctant to have government workers in unions. The problem is that in a negotiation you have a vote seeking politician representing “the people” vs. union bosses with “the votes” trying to get the maximum $$ for their members. Conflicts of interest abound. Anyone who reads can see the results, where government union members get huge payoffs far above private sector jobs. And, of course, you get public security agencies on strike. So the union bosses in Wisconsin are a perfect example of what a union should NOT do. And fighting Scott Walker for representing the people (his duty) has caused much grief for him. AND, rural folks in many states have lower incomes, often dependent on weather and crop prices, and so are not very pro government unions.

  18. None of this seems to explain why many of my friends and family members, all, solidly middle class,non rural, many hanging on to the lower rungs of the upper middle class and doing quite well, thank you, having made it through the real estate crash of 1991, the dot com crash of ’98(?), the great debacle of 2008, and the “Obama mess” of there after. Hmmm, where was i going with this? Anyway, it doesn’t seem to explain why so many of, said folks voted, even campainged for, even identified as “deplorables”, (I heard them say it, fer crissakes!) for trump and his miserable wild bunch!
    I guess thats enough, I’m already confused as it is!

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