The following is excerpted from the first three chapters of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” published by The University of Chicago Press in April.
On a cold May morning in 2008, I pulled up to a vintage service station in a small central Wisconsin town, parked my Volkswagen Jetta in the gravel lot in the row of pickup trucks, and walked inside.
There was a group of four middle- aged and retired men sitting in molded plastic lawn chairs in the front room of the station. The huge plate glass window provided a view of vintage gas pumps no longer in operation and a quaint but mostly boarded-up main street. The men were in jeans, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. On the walls and ledges were potted plants and lots of Milwaukee Brewers baseball memorabilia.
A coffeemaker on a shelf on one side of the room seemed to be the lone source of heat.
I could hear the laughter even before I opened the door. When I went inside and quickly explained who I was, they welcomed me in and invited me to use the one empty chair. I was reluctant — it seemed like the kind of place where somebody owns each chair. But I sat down, and I am glad that I did.
This group — “The Downtown Athletic Club” as they called themselves — opened my eyes to rural consciousness. That first morning with them, I passed out Wisconsin Badgers football schedules and other tokens of gratitude and asked if it was OK to turn on my recorder. They said sure, I pushed the record button, and I bumbled out, “I’m interested — what are the big concerns for people living up here?”
The Downtown Athletic Club made me sit up and take notice of the place-based sense of injustice among rural residents, but they were not the only ones to voice it. I heard it in many of the groups I spent time with outside the Madison and Milwaukee areas. Of the 39 groups I spent time with, 25 met in places outside the major metro areas. Of these 25 nonmetro groups, 19 called themselves “rural people,” or people “out here,” or “up here.”
The rural consciousness perspective I want to show you was more than just identity as a rural person. Besides place identity, it encompassed perceptions of power, values and lifestyles, and resources. So to show you what it looked like, I want to invite you into some of these conversations and explain what these elements looked like as we go along.
Something going on there
I quickly learned that all four members of the Downtown Athletic Club were former public school teachers. One had been a principal. Right away, they voiced concerns about state legislators raiding tax dollars out of the highway fund (they wanted that to stop), the liquor tax (they wanted that higher), the price of gas (they wanted that lower), and the cost of health care (they wanted someone to do something about it).
By the time I met this group, I had come to realize that there was something important about the way many people in small communities thought about their towns in relation to more urban places. So I nudged our conversation in that direction (in these exchanges, the author is indicated as KJC):
Gary: The big issue I think for our whole nation is the discrepancy between … oh, the common economics and the CEOs of corporations, where the top of the corporations are taking off profits greater than ever before in history, when the companies may be challenged, or the product line may be challenged. There’s still that huge amount of money for the people at the very top. And that’s really driving a bigger separation between the richest in America … and the common belief is that we’re losing the middle class.
KJC: Right. How do you see that in … Do you feel like the middle class in [this town] is disappearing?
Gary: Well the business element is — the town is dying. All the small towns in the area are having a hard time keeping grocery stores and gas stations, and everything, because of competition from people buying from the bigger chains, like the Walmart.
KJC: Do you feel like most people around here struggle to makes ends meet? Or do people live comfortably?
Gary: The big thing that affects the rural areas in the last fifteen years is the change in the agriculture where you don’t have the mom- and- pop farms anymore. They’re all corporation farms. Where people used to make their livings on 8–140 acres of land, I mean it’s … now, 80 acres of land is hobby land, it’s not a living. I retired with my farm, and I have 75-80 cattle. Thirty cows, when I was a kid, could feed a family. Now 30 cows is a big hobby. I mean, the amount of income off of that versus expenses is not very great, so it just changes … And part of the problem with agriculture is we have perishable goods. It’s not like a barrel of oil you can let sit there for 10 years. The milk has to go, that cheese has to go, pretty much. The livestock has to be slaughtered, has a short lifespan. There’s so many things where people can set the process, whether it be gasoline or whatever it is, but farmers are typically — somebody else is setting the price for the farmer.
As the conversation continued, their concerns about their local economy extended past farming to schools and property tax issues.
Stu: I think two other major issues: one is schools, and the funding, and the funding coming from the state has dropped off dramatically, and that property taxes have specifically, I would say, the taxes on “rec” land, that would be one issue, as opposed to the taxes on ag land. And ag land, I’m guessing, is about 40 percent of what taxes are on “rec” land. There’s too big a discrepancy. It’s good for the farmers because they’re getting by a lot cheaper, but, you know, the money’s got to come from someplace … And in an area like this where you havenothing but ag land, basically, you know, they’re not paying their fair share, you’re short on money. Everybody’s short on money, the state cuts back, and that compounds the issue with school. Every area would be different, but that tax issue I think is a big deal.
Lou: The schools, because the state’s not living up to the law, what the law says, special education should be funded at 63 percent. When I retired ten years ago, it was down to 38 [percent]. It’s probably less than 20 percent today, and that’s a high cost. When you take two kids today in special ed, it can cost twenty thousand dollars a year, and you’re only getting 20 percent?
Gary: And mandate how you manage that: individual teacher, separate transportation in some cases — all those things they have mandated. The style of education — right now … As far as schools, the whole transition from [former Governor] Tommy Thompson forward was to take a … schools weren’t handled uniformly, so tech schools versus private schools versus colleges and universities were all handled in different ways, and I know the political motivation of Thompson when he did that, but it’s really created a problem with funding formulas for schools, and we know that many areas in northern Wisconsin and central Wisconsin, there are schools that are going to be forced out of their communities, and the problem with that really in a small town like this is that the only identity this town has any more is the school. The school is the most important business in town, and if the school wasn’t here, especially with the higher fuel costs, there’s really no reason that all the people who live here would choose to live in a small place because many of them work in Stevens Point or [Wisconsin] Rapids or whatever it is, and … it’s not the first time in history that small towns have been dried up and blown away, you know, in the boom days of the west, they did that all the time, but it’s really going to change the fabric of rural America.
As they talked, a lightbulb went on for me. People in groups in a variety of places — rural, suburban, urban — had expressed concerns about health care and education. But in this place, their concerns about those issues were rooted in their sense of themselves as members of a rural community. Health care is hard to afford. That’s the case for many people in many places. But these folks were telling me that, in rural places, the escalating price of gas was crippling their ability to buy insurance.
Why? Because in rural places people drive to work. Far. They drive far to many things, including to the store that provides their daily necessities.
Funding for education was an issue, too. Why? Because rural communities get the short end of the stick, they were saying. The Wisconsin “funding formula” meant that revenues are shared across school districts, but wealthier communities can spend more than the state allocation by using revenues gathered through local property taxes. As the population in rural places dwindles, the possibility of school consolidation increases, and the identity of a town — its schools — dry up and blow away.
In other words, health care and education mattered to folks in a lot of places. But in this community, as in many of the rural communities I visited, people viewed these issues through a rural lens. As I tried to understand why these men felt the way they did about health care and education, it helped to hear these things while looking out that big service station window onto the main street where buildings were now just brittle husks of their once lively past. It helped to know where these people were coming from.
When I got back to Madison and transcribed those notes, I added this: “Just very interesting getting the perspective of people in rural areas— something very important going on there.” I wondered whether this rural perspective was unique to this group. They were former educators, and as they had told me, community identity and the schools are closely intertwined. Maybe as teachers they were especially likely to talk about public issues by referring to the place in which they lived.
So I looked back over my transcripts and notes from my other fieldwork sites. I kept doing more fieldwork. I presented my work to groups on my campus and elsewhere in the state and country and found increasing support for this conclusion: For many people in rural communities in Wisconsin, people understand public issues through a lens of rural consciousness. This is a perspective that encompasses a strong identity as a rural resident, resentment toward the cities, and a belief that rural communities are not given their fair share of resources or respect.
Demise of the Downtown Athletic Club
The next time I went back to this group, three years later in May of 2011, I brought this idea of a rural perspective up directly in our conversation. One man asked me, “What are the issues in other communities [that you’ve been visiting]? You know, we sit here jabbering, what do they jabber about?”
KJC: You know, kind of the same things. It’s been really eye-opening to me. I mean, growing up in Grafton I always thought of myself as a small town Wisconsin kid, but then you really spend time in the rest of Wisconsin you realize Grafton is kind of, I mean this is small town you know?
[Several voices]: Yeah, the smallest.
KJC: I mean, the issues are the same, I mean, people wonder where the heck the money is going. They’re struggling to make ends meet all over the state. Um, there’s a sense that nobody’s listening.
Lou: Yeah, I think that, um, I think that is an issue. That seems, bothers a lot of people in this neighborhood, is that people in Madison are just simply not listening to what the people have to say. You can tell your representative and they go down there and vote whatever the party tells ’em to vote, not what you said.
Fred: The state is considered Madison- Milwaukee.
Fred: It really is.
I returned one year later, in May of 2012. I spent the night before at a Super 8 Hotel 20 miles away. I drove to the station as the sun came up, and I was looking forward to the conversation, feeling a little bad that I could not bring them donuts because the grocery store near the Super 8 was not open yet.
But when I got there, the gravel lot around the service station was empty. There was no one there. I was stunned. The station was closed, and the owner had taped the following sign to the window:
First I want to say I’m sorry to all my customers for abruptly closing the shop. An opportunity came along for me to work less hours doing what I enjoy while actually getting a real paycheck again. Not that I didn’t enjoy working, for the most part, with all of you. It has been a struggle for the past few years keeping this shop open with the poor economy and a small town where everyone drives 25 miles to work, shop and ultimately get work done on their vehicles. I did not regret my decision back in 1993 to come to work here but as time went on, our little village kept getting smaller and so did the profit margin in the shop.
To all the members of the “Downtown Athletic Club,” I hope we can find a new home to continue to meet. Maybe we can move to [one of the members’ businesses]. I will donate everything I have left to keep the coffee going if a new meeting place is found. Thank you everyone for the 19 years I was able to provide you service.
The service station had closed and the Downtown Athletic Club was without a home. Ironically, by ceasing to exist, the Downtown Athletic Club convinced me that something important was going on in rural communities.
Dice games and Ding-a-Lings
In Wisconsin, the months of May and June are something to behold. Driving around the state at that time of year, the green of the fields and the blue of the sky are brighter than the best postcard. I have lived here most of my life, but when I started my fieldwork for this project in May of 2007, the landscape nevertheless took my breath away. I love the geography of this state and the character of the people within it. Those facts matter, because they meant that it took me years to characterize what I observed in these conversations as resentment. I went into this project with a love of Wisconsin; I came out of it with a deep concern for the nature of democracy in this state and in the United States in general.
When I started this study, I was not focused on rural-urban divides. My interest was in social-class identity. I had been curious about social-class identity throughout my career and I wanted to know more about how it mattered for the way people made sense of politics. I knew I wanted to observe group conversations among people who got together on their own, not among people whom I had recruited.
I divided the counties in Wisconsin into eight regions and then purposefully chose communities within each of those regions. To divide the state into regions, I analyzed a variety of information about each of the 72 counties: their partisan leanings in recent elections, median household income, population density, total population, racial and ethnic heterogeneity according to the 2000 Census, type of industry, and agricultural background. Within each region I chose the municipality with the largest population and randomly chose a smaller municipality. To provide additional variation, I added 11 municipalities. The result was a sample of 27 communities.
Once I had chosen these communities, I sought out groups within them that met regularly and in a place in which I could easily introduce myself. Two sources of information were invaluable: University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension educators and local newspaper editors. These folks know the counties they work in well. I would call them up and ask for suggestions of groups of regulars whom I could get access to — where and when they met and any tips for introducing myself. Sometimes the informant said, “Don’t tell them I sent you.” Sometimes he or she offered to come with me to help me get a foot in the door. The places they usually sent me to were early morning coffee klatches that met in diners, cafés, McDonald’s, or, oftentimes, in gas stations. In many small towns, the main morning meeting place is the gas station, where people gather around the coffee urns to get the latest news and some social interaction.
The first group I spent time with met in Madison. In a way they were my “practice” group, but that label does not do justice to how much I learned from them over the years. This was a group of retirees, men and women, who met every morning, including weekends for many of them, in a coffee shop near downtown. Most of them had lived in Madison their entire lives. They, like nearly all of the groups, welcomed me warmly and seemed to enjoy telling me their stories and sharing their views with me. They were somewhat notorious in town. Over the years the daily newspapers have done several feature stories on them.
Most of the groups I spent time with were like this — an obvious group of regulars in the community.
Other groups were harder to find. For example, one met in a diner in a town in the west-central part of the state but not in the main dining room or even at the U-shaped counter. Thankfully, a prominent attorney in town accompanied me on my first visit and led me through a curtain at the back of a restaurant to the room full of men playing dice. Over the years I realized that everyone in town knew about this dice game except outsiders like me.
In another town a bit farther west, I had been told by a local news editor that a group of retired and current businessmen met every day, mid-morning, in a certain diner on the main street. On my first visit, I walked into the restaurant and did not see a group of people meeting, just a few pairs of people at the booths and tables. So I ordered some eggs and coffee and lamented the fact that I had driven across the state for nothing. But then I heard voices beyond a partition near the back of the restaurant. And there they were: the “Ding-a-Lings.” This was what they called themselves. It described the way they would clink their water glasses when they needed the server to pour more coffee.
I noted earlier that inviting myself into these groups required audacity, but it might help to know what these visits actually looked like. The first time I visited a group to which I was showing up unannounced, I would walk in, say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you mind if I join you this morning?” The people would look at me a little baffled, chuckle, and then say something like, “Sure. We got nothing better to do.” And chuckle some more.
I quickly learned that depending on their reactions, I would have to acknowledge my affiliation with UW–Madison and the city of Madison with something like: “I know that might raise your hackles, but I’m sincerely here to listen to what you think.” As I learned, I had to contend with the common perception that visitors from Madison usually parachute in and pronounce what is right and good and then leave without respecting local wisdom, wants, or needs.
Once they gave me an initial OK, I passed out my business cards while explaining, “I’m a public opinion researcher at UW–Madison, and I’m traveling around the state trying to better understand how people think about various things going on in the state and to understand how the university can better serve the people of the state.” Then I passed out “tokens of my appreciation”: Wisconsin Badgers three-year football schedules, UW–Madison pens and pencils, sticky notes or, if I had run out of all of those, temporary tattoos of Bucky Badger. Here is another lesson that is both substantive and methodological: I found out fast that I had to explain that these tchotchkes were donated by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, “not paid for by your taxpayer dollars.” If I didn’t, usually someone would ask.
Something other than partisanship
“Rural consciousness” is the term I am using to describe a strong sense of identity as a rural person combined with a strong sense that rural areas are the victims of injustice: the sense that rural areas do not get their fair share of power, respect, or resources and that rural folks prefer lifestyles that differ fundamentally from those of city people. I have claimed at various points in my book that this perspective is important for the way people make sense of public affairs.
When I argue that rural consciousness structures the way people understand politics, I am suggesting that something other than partisanship is driving their political preferences. Support for the Republican Party is not what causes people to have these complex, intertwined understandings of economic injustice, place identity, class identity, race, and values. And the complexities of this understanding do not inevitably lead to support for the Republican Party. Some of these rural groups contain a good number of Democrats. In fact, the northwestern and southwestern corners of Wisconsin, although predominantly rural, lean Democratic.
Booth Fowler, one of the wisest scholars of politics in Wisconsin, reasons that this is due in part to high levels of poverty in those areas, the influence of the city of Superior and of Great Lakes shipping unions in the northwest corner, and the effect of commuters or out-migrants from Madison in the southwest.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the correlation between where people live and how they vote are not set in stone. They are the product of people actively trying to make sense of their lives.