Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer started a research project, with the support of the University, to sound out people about their attitudes toward the University (which might be why the University supported her efforts) as well as to do ethnography on the policy attitudes of Wisconsin residents.

The University even provided her with Wisconsin mementos such as football schedules and Bucky Badger keychains as a way of gaining access to conversations among the regulars at village coffee shops, gas stations, cafes, and perhaps the occasional tavern.  (I might be kidding about the tavern; the descriptions and venues are disguised to protect the human subjects.)  The approach worked in the sense of getting people to trust her and to talk.   (Now, if you really want to get information, you bring donuts dockside, but that's how economists roll.)

It started innocently enough, but then the housing bubble and the Obama bubble and the Walker recall happened, and the resulting The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, our Book Review No. 8, caught on with the punditry in a way that most academic studies do not.

The title of my post points to one aspect of the project, which is the author's development of (a little) self awareness, something that is lacking among Laputans and more than a few Madisonians.  The author introduces herself by way of starting the project while pregnant, later divorcing, later getting tenure and celebrating the occasion by getting more involved with racial justice; her story begins with a Prius-driving acquaintance (with the bumper stickers you'd expect) attempting to engage the driver of a vintage convertible at the gas pump, only to be blown off by that driver.   Seriously, does any Normal expect to have a Normal conversation with the driver of a Prius with the expected bumper stickers?  (OK, so I just laid down my marker on the side of the resentful.  Deal with it.)

More positively, she recognizes that growing up in Grafton, an upscalish exurb of Milwaukee (specifically, in Ozaukee County, part of the state's Republican WOW counties, and not far from oh-so-gentrified Cedarburg) is not the same thing as growing up in a farming or timbering family Up North.  At times, she wonders whether being able to actually live in some of those communities might give her a better understanding of what forms the worldviews of her interlocutors than a drop-in visit a few times a year.

It probably would, and perhaps a political scientist at Stevens Point or Eau Claire or Superior might have something to add.  But would the University support such fieldwork with souvenirs to start conversations, and would a high end academic press (Chicago) publish the resulting research?  Maybe there's such a project in the works at the Local Voices Network, get a bunch of political science faculty from the various converted teachers' colleges in the state to summarize interaction with neighbors outside the Madison bubble.

"Rural consciousness," then, is her term to describe what she characterizes as "resentment," not in the culture-studies ressentiment form, but simply as a negative attitude toward what the Powers that Be have been doing, supposedly For The Locals Own Good, but in reality to serve themselves and do the locals poorly.  I submit that the concept could stand some refining, that is, when, at page 9, she writes, "People understand their circumstances as the fault of guilty and less deserving social groups, not as the product of broad social, economic, and political forces."  As "broad forces" are the cumulative effect of actions taken by people in coalitions, it's not clear what that distinction really means.

In practice, what she sees might more readily be understood as the failure of one-size-fits-all public policies, which is to say, what I understand as the error of thinking of the states as operating units of the federal government, or the corollary error of thinking of the counties as operating units of the state government.  What looks good on paper in Madison might not work at all well when it comes to counting deer or conserving minnows Up North.  Particularly when the state employees are long-time beneficiaries of the blue social model and the residents of the Seventh District are saying "what recession" because it's been twenty years of rough sledding long before foreclosures on McMansions became a thing.  Put another way, it's not so much rural voters voting contrary to their interests as it is voting to protect themselves against policymakers who hold them in contempt.

Both the election of Scott Walker and his subsequent survival of the recall came as a surprise in Panem, er, Madison, where everybody is Pauline Kael all the time.  But this passage, at page 206, resonates.
A Wisconsinite did not need to look at the world through the lens of rural consciousness for these [campaign] arguments to resonate.  They could hear Walker pledge to take on the political machines in Madison and Milwaukee and could cheer that someone was finally going to get government to listen to hard-working taxpayers like themselves.  But for people who had an identity with places beyond the orbit of resources and power called Madison and Milwaukee, calling into question the high salaries of bus drivers down in Madison and reminding people of the good values of small-town Wisconsinites likely had an extra appeal.
And yes, there were a lot of Walker yard signs outstate, just as there were a lot of Trump Pence signs outstate in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan a few years later.

As far as Wisconsin voters preferring Barack Obama in the 2008 primary?  He wasn't Hillary Clinton.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: cultural studies, current events, non-fiction, politics, scholarly

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