Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Making Sense of Politics Through Resentment’ (Part 1 of 9)

In a series of posts over the next week or so, I’ll consider Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Cramer’s a native Wisconsinite teaching at UW-Madison.

Today, I’ll summarize her thesis, as she presents it in the first chapter of PoR,  ‘Making Sense of Politics Through Resentment.’

Cramer makes five principal contentions in the chapter:

1. That there is a partisan divisiveness in Wisconsin that “reflects broader trends in the United States. The country as a whole has seen increasing partisan polarization since the mid 1970s. (Layman, Carson, and Horowitz 2006; McCarthy, Poole, and Rosenthal 2008; Barber and McCarty 2013.)”

2. Cramer asserts that these divides are, in her words, more than ‘ideology’:

Some argue that the public is not actually polarized, that people are just better sorted ideologically into partisan camps than in the past (Hetherington 2009; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2010). But others observe that there is more at stake here than ideology. Divides between identifiers with the two parties in terms of religious preferences, attitudes toward race, and racial demographics themselves are deeper than ever (Abramowitz 2013, 2014). The divides are not just about politics but about who we are as people.

3. This observation leads Cramer back to another one, that is in fact political and philosophical:

These divides are also reflective of the central debate in American politics today: What is the proper role of government in society and who should pay for it (Stonecash 2014)? There are those who believe government ought to be expanded in order to deal with the challenges we face, and there are those who feel that government itself is a major obstacle that should be shrunk.

4. Cramer contends that “another key feature of the times we live in is economic inequality (Piketty and Saez 2003)” and it puzzles her that

[t]here seems to be less support for redistribution here than in other countries with similar levels of economic inequality (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005). Why? Why is it that most voters continue to elect officials who apparently do not represent the vast There seems to be less support for redistribution here than in other countries with similar levels of economic inequality (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005). Why? Why is it that most voters continue to elect officials who apparently do not represent the vast majority of us?6 Or if one does not believe that interpretation, why is it that many low-income voters who might benefit from more government redistribution continue to vote against it? Why, in times of increasing economic inequality, have the preferences of the lowest-income voters moved in a conservative, rather than liberal, direction?

5. Cramer offers her answer, one that is the eponymous thesis of Politics of Resentment:

Listening closely to people revealed two things to me: a significant rural-versus-urban divide and the powerful role of resentment. This book shows that what can look like disagreements about basic political principles can be rooted in something even more fundamental: ideas about who gets what, who has power, what people are like, and who is to blame. What might seem to be a central debate about the appropriate role of government might at base be something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens. This book shows people making sense of politics in a way that places resentment toward other citizens at the center….I want to know what it looks like when people use social categories to understand the political world, and how they connect resentment toward particular groups to the broader stance of wanting less, not more, government redistribution.

Cramer’s work addresses a supposed rural consciousness she discerns among many Wisconsinites, and it rests on her assumption that they approach economic concerns in a particular way, one that flows from this rural consciousness.

Candidly, an aside Cramer offers about driving a VW Jetta in Wisconsin leaves me puzzled. She writes that

As a female social scientist driving my Volkswagen Jetta out from Madison, the state capitol and the second largest city in the state, I heard a lot of criticism of cities from people in small-town Wisconsin.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with professional female colleagues who have enjoyed driving different makes and models of foreign cars, to places across Wisconsin, without rural residents looking askance at them for doing so. Indeed, many southern Wisconsin (and Illinois) families have properties in the sparsely-populated northern part of the state, and the sight of a VW, Audi, BMW, Lexus, etc. would not be unfamiliar to local residents.

It’s a significant exaggeration to say a woman driving a Jetta would get the sort of stares from rural residents that one might properly expect for a person riding a unicorn.

Cramer may be right about a rural consciousness, at least about Wisconsin, but her analysis – one that she confidently grounds in political science – omits any consideration of political theory (what was once called political philosophy). (Indeed, for a work about political claims, it’s telling that neither the terms liberty nor libertarian appear anywhere in the book.)

In her opening chapter, Cramer gives not the slightest hint that there might be a vast body of liberty-oriented theory (including a libertarianism of the left as well as the right) stretching back centuries in America and thousands of years across civilizations earlier.

This libertarian tradition (long before the term libertarian first came into use) does not rely on redistributive goals, but then it doesn’t suppose a theory of a rural consciousness of resentment, either.

A presentation that begins with a particular economic notion (that redistribution necessarily benefits many) and presents a perspective on rural consciousness as a social identity (one that has economic views within it) seems, at first blush, too much like a survey of world religions that considers only the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘A Method of Listening’ (Part 2 of 9).

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