Over five years and in more than two dozen communities across Wisconsin, Katherine Cramer went to places where people gather – diners, gas stations, wherever – and asked people to talk to her about their big concerns. Many of them welcomed the chance to be heard.
And a key theme of what they told her in rural areas was their resentment — that they were on the short end of things, that their opinions don’t count “down there” in Madison and Milwaukee where powerful people make decisions. “We don’t get our fair share,” and government was not serving their interests. That was what Cramer heard from many people.
The result of her extensive listening tour was a book published this year by the University of Chicago Press, titled Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
Cramer, a professor of political science and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, described what she heard and learned at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Wednesday at Marquette Law School.
Some issues came up often in the conversations she had, Cramer said, including difficulties in getting health care and health insurance. But a broader sense of resentment and distance from those who are better off and have more power came through strongly. That showed up in discussions of voting, she said, where specific issues often were of less importance than questions such as whether a candidate “gets people like me” and respects people who live in rural areas.
Cramer recalled how she was given pause by a question one person asked her: When do you take showers? She answer that she takes them in the morning. The person told her that a lot of people in that community take them when they get home from work because they are working grueling jobs – sometimes two or three of them – and are dirty at the end of the work day. And they don’t get paid well, the local economy is not good, and they don’t feel they’re getting ahead. But people who work in government have easier jobs, and have things like health insurance and pensions.
A lot of the people who felt like this are determined to stay where they live and are loyal to their communities, Cramer said. They also don’t want government to do more to solve their problems. She said a sentiment she heard often was, “Look around in our community. Whatever government is doing is not working for us. Why would we want more of it?”
“In a lot of ways, our rural communities are experiencing a sense of loss,” Cramer said. People have a sense that the money is going to the cities, and they are in a recession that has gone on for 30 years.
Is there a way back from the resentment? One positive thing is “the fact that you all are here today,“ she told the audience of about 200 in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. She took that as a sign of people wanting to listen. People, she said, are unhappy with today’s politics and divisiveness. She said things that reduce divisions are “the start of the turn around.”
But change will take deliberate effort. “It’s not going to happen just by chance that we’re going to understand each other better,” Cramer said.
Video of the one-hour session may be viewed by clicking here.