Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle applied for an 810-million-dollar grant to build a high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. This is a heavily traveled route by car. Perhaps a high-speed rail route between the two cities with a short travel time could have persuaded a lot of those drivers to leave the car at home, and take the train.
We’ll never know. Doyle’s successor and present Governor, Scott Walker gave back the money. People in Milwaukee and Madison may have grumbled, but there was no political consequence to Walker. He had the backing of “Up North” rural residents who liked how Walker stuck it to the “M & M s”. Anyway, there were no guarantees that the train line would be extended up to Eau Claire or some other city North of Madison. This rejection of federal funds was an example of playing to rural resentment as described in Kathrine Cramer’s book The Politics of Resentment, Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
Although Cramer is a Wisconsin native, this book is not a one-person narrative, like Hillbilly Elegy. Cramer is a Political Science Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison who interviewed twenty-seven different groups of people over a five-year period from 2007 to 2012. The groups interviewed included various morning “coffee klatches” of working, unemployed, and retired men and women. And yes, this seems like a cliché, but at least one group included people from a Friday Night fish fry.
Cramer made several visits to these groups. The discussion questions she asked included what the group members thought were important issues, how these groups would identify themselves to outsiders, and what the members thought of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Through these discussions with the groups, Cramer could formulate “Rural Consciousness”.
According to Cramer, Rural Consciousness is made up of three parts:
- A belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers.
- Rural folks have distinct values and lifestyles misunderstood by city folks.
- A perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources.
As for number three. Several people claim that you can divide the Wisconsin into two areas. One of her interviewees claimed that:
“If you take the state of Wisconsin and take a ruler and start at Green Bay and diagonally go just 50 miles North of Madison, right over the corner of the state, all your money lies in the South end of the state…You’re never gonna get nothing changed to the North”
Other of Cramer’s interviewees claim a “Mason Dixon Line” demarcated by Route 29, which runs through Wausau in Marathon County. Other people say that “Mason Dixon line” runs along route 21 from Sparta (Monroe County) to Oshkosh (Winnebago County). The point is, the perception is that any place South of those lines gets better resources than any place “Up North”. Madison and Milwaukee, according to this perception gets the most.
Cramer notes that most of the people she interviewed were older and middle aged. Very few if any were in their 20s and 30s. There are few opportunities for the young, except some seasonal work. The people who have stayed like where they are, and don’t want to move to the big cities. Although they bemoan the loss of their downtown businesses. They gripe about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration focusing on small dairy farms. They gripe about the Department of Natural Resources. They feel the DNR disrespects the locals with restrictions on fishing catch limits.
As for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many people felt that the University could do a better job at recruiting rural students, and that there was not enough support for the rural students who were there. People from Northern counties such as Door said that it was easier to send their kids to U.W.- Eau Claire, than all the way South to Madison. Oh yes, and Madison was one of those kooky liberal towns, too. One of the interviewees said you could go to Madison and be a hippie for forty years. However, U.W. Madison was held in high esteem in one endeavor – sports!
This rural resentment of the cities is not unique to Wisconsin, and neither are the politicians who play on that resentment. In my home state of Illinois, our present Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner appealed to downstaters by sticking it to mean old Chicago and the Democratic machine. This worked for a while during the long budget impasse. It worked that is, until downstate towns such as Carbondale started hurting because the big employer, a state university, had to make budget cuts, because of no state funds.
This book really needs a follow-up study. Donald Trump won Wisconsin, and especially its rural areas. I realize a follow-up would be long, but the time has come to have another conversation with the folks that supported Gov. Walker and who probably voted for Trump. Cramer’s book contains no comment on the opioid epidemic infesting America’s rural areas. Huh? Is rural Wisconsin unscathed? Doubt it. The time has come to revisit conversations on health care, rural broadband, education funding, job retraining and roads. Roads! You could be blind, riding a bus that crosses the Illinois – Wisconsin border, and know when you’re in Wisconsin. Those roads need work. I don’t have space to go into the funding issues.
In conclusion, I read this book before the presidential election, and it cushioned the shock of Trump’s victory. Reading the transcripts of Cramer’s conversations with the various groups helped me understand some of the resentment that would drive people to vote for someone like Walker or Trump.
Curious? Here’s a link to the first chapter.