Book Review: The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
The following is a book review originally written for a graduate rural studies course at Oregon State University:
Political opinion in rural America is a topic of which I have long been interested. Having spent most of my life in small towns and now studying public policy in graduate school, I have found few academic publications which understand the complexity of this topic and analyze it in a meaningful way. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer (2016) was an exception. Reading this book elicited a range of emotions, from agreement to divergence and humor to anger. I was intrigued by Cramer’s analysis, even though I did not always agree with it, and appreciate that Cramer tackled an issue of growing national concern and incorporated qualitative research methodologies into the field of public opinion. In this review, I will highlight a few of the shortcomings that I noticed in Cramer’s analysis and present some alternative perspectives that came to mind while reading the book and participating in class discussion. I do not mean to try to speak for all rural people nor do I intend to support a set of political opinions, but I do hope to show that there are alternatives and complexities to the narrative of rural political opinion that I have not found represented in current media or academic publications. I hope this book will inspire further scholarship on the topic of rural consciousness to improve our collective understanding of what should and should not be done about it.
Cramer introduces what she means by the “rural consciousness” early in the book. It is an identity as a rural person that includes attachment to place, a sense that rural communities are ignored by policymakers and do not get their fair share of resources, and a perception that rural and urban people have fundamentally different lifestyles, values, and work ethic. She argues throughout the book that this consciousness is an important part of political opinions and that it creates a sense of justification for resentment of urban elites and the public sector. While I agree that rurality is an important element of identity and shapes perceptions, I do not necessarily fully agree with Cramer’s description of the rural consciousness. Her development of the definition of rural consciousness could have benefitted from increased incorporation of literature regarding rural identity in the U.S. In her opening chapter, she had a short section of literature on the importance of place in politics but she failed to incorporate literature from rural sociology and rural studies. Her research does a decent job of describing the impact that a rural consciousness has on political opinions of rural Wisconsinites. However, documenting, understanding, and unwrapping what rural consciousness and rural identity mean was not accomplished. Methodologically, I think Cramer’s biggest miss in this book was failing to use the inductive research process to go back and re-examine the available literature once she decided to shift her focus in this project to rural consciousness.
Jennifer Sherman’s work on morality and work ethic comes to mind as a pertinent piece of literature to help understand the rural consciousness. The rural perception of work ethic is an extremely important theme in this book; it is a key factor is determining opinions on the proper role of government and government redistribution programs. In my opinion, Cramer did not adequately recognize or highlight this connection. Her definition of the rural consciousness includes the element of feeling that rural communities are not receiving their fair share of resources; indeed, this idea comes up continually in the book described as a sense of distributive injustice. Jennifer Sherman’s work on moral capital points out that rural individuals in the community she researched attached a different level of moral capital to different mechanisms to cope with poverty. She highlights that certain forms of government redistribution, such as unemployment or social security received from a work injury, are regarded more positively than programs such as welfare and food stamps which are not connected to work (Sherman, 2006). When Cramer discusses the notion of “distributive injustice” she does not distinguish between types of social welfare programs; this leads me to believe she may not have fully recognized that these distinctions are important to many rural people. The rural ideology that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ explains the preference for work-based forms of government assistance. Sociologists have long understood that employment is associated with sense of purpose and identity. When rural people state that they wish people would go to work and stop asking for hand-outs from the government, it is possible that at least a portion of this sentiment develops from a recognition that having a job and earning a salary contributes to a sense of purpose and self-worth. The crude, direct terminology used by rural people is not necessarily based in a morally inferior opinion to that of liberals who favor larger government programs.
The way rural people place a different moral value on different forms of poverty coping mechanisms is also related to the resentment of elitism. An issue that the educated elite seems to conveniently ignore is that we do simply do not live in a society where every person can work in positions for the college educated. Society still demands an abundance of employees in positions that do not pay enough money to justify a college education: service workers in restaurants and shopping malls, landscapers, construction workers, production line and agricultural workers, loggers and tree planters to name a few. I have a theory that a part of what drives the rural consciousness is a closer connection to this reality. The reliance on agriculture and natural resource industries forces people in rural communities to realize the physical labor and environmental extraction required to supply the food and products demanded by society. Rural people may naturally develop a sense of resentment of the educated elite because they recognize that not everyone can be members of the educated elite in our current society. This is an idea that I have not had the opportunity to research thoroughly but I believe deserves more consideration and the educated elite should consider a reflexive look at their own contributions to inequality in society and consider the broader implications of class dynamics in Americans.
On page 177, Cramer stated, “I described how many people in small towns perceived that public employees were the wealthy members of their community and were receiving higher salaries, plus health care and pensions, and the money to pay for all of that was coming from taxpayers like themselves.” It is not directly stated, but it appears as if Cramer disagrees because she phrases this as a perception and not as an observation or recognition. It left me wanting to ask her, where exactly does she think the money for public employee salaries, pensions, and health care is coming for if not from taxpayers of those who work in the private sector? She seems so surprised that so many Wisconsinites could approve of the governor lowering benefits and bargaining rights to public employees; but if those are individuals who do not have those things themselves, it is unclear why that would surprise her. I think this project definitely helped Cramer realize some of her own ‘blind spots’ to the experiences of different social classes in this country. In that sense, it is undoubtedly a beneficial book and discussion.
At several times throughout the book, it was apparent that Cramer may have felt uncomfortable with the terminology and generalizations that rural people commonly discussed. She probably took some things a bit personally, but my advice to her is that sometimes you must acknowledge what people mean, and not what they outright say. When rural people say “city people,” in my experience, and indeed in my own use of this term, we are referring to certain characteristics of city people that we have commonly observed. Perhaps it is only my naïve opinion, but I don’t think many rural think that all city people are lazy. “City people” is used as a phrase to describe a portion of the city population, often the portion that make superficial tourist visits to rural towns and then feel they have an understanding of rural America. These are the people that we encounter in our everyday lives, most likely on the bright sunny weekends, visiting our towns and taking pictures. They wear fancy outdoor gear and drive new cars, keep their pets on leashes, and commonly say things like, “It’s so beautiful and peaceful out here, but what is there to do? Don’t you get bored?” They are also the people that we are likely to encounter on our infrequent visits to urban areas. The people in shopping malls and restaurants who operate quickly and impersonally; the drivers on busy freeways who whip through the lanes, increasing our stress as we navigate unfamiliar environments. I am not trying to say it is acceptable to stereotype a huge, diverse population of people nor do I think the rural perception of “city people” is always fair. But I do think it is important that researchers recognize that the term “city people” doesn’t necessarily refer to actual people, but rather a collection of traits that we grow to understand to be associated with people from urban areas. There are reasons rural people feel misunderstood and isolated from “city people” which contribute to what Cramer describes as resentment. Further research should break down the specific characteristics that rural people are thinking of when they use the term “city people” to better understand what it is that leads to this resentment.
An excellent continuation of this research would be a form of comparative analysis that considers urban consciousness, analyzing the perceptions that urban people have towards the rural. There were a few times in the book that I felt Cramer passed over an opportunity to discuss any possible resentment or misconceptions of rural Americans. For instance, she did not analyze the implications of school teachers that have lower expectations for farm kids that was brought up in one dialogue (page 203). She did include a short section recognizing the common stereotypes associated with rural life (page 66), but she only discussed this as it related to how rural people felt about it. Additional research could analyze the extent to which those stereotypes are accepted and used by urban people and how that might matter for shaping the rural consciousness.
Overall, I think Cramer did a good job with this material. I especially appreciated her detailed description of her methodology and her concluding remarks about the benefits of her “method of listening” for understanding public opinion. I agree that political opinion researchers need to study people as people, and not as fully rational entities that can separate their personal experiences and physical surroundings from their understanding of politics. Yet, Cramer’s background, as a self-proclaimed city person who had never spent much time in rural areas nor focused on rural issues in prior academic research, limits the scope of her analysis. What this signals for me is that more individuals need to contribute to this academic conversation. For example, research designed and framed by rural people is desired, and this book has even inspired me to consider doctoral research on this very topic. Additionally, international researchers could contribute to study of rural versus urban American political opinions as they are less likely to have strong opinions about American politics or be personally involved in the issues. Whomever performs additional research should be sure to review the prior literature in this field, including The Politics of Resentment, to ensure that the body of knowledge on this topic continues to expand.
Cramer, K. J. (2016). The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press.
Sherman, J. (2006). Coping with rural poverty: Economic survival and moral capital in rural America. Social Forces, 85(2), 891–913.