The Roots of Wisconsin’s Politics of Resentment

–submitted by Dave Mollenhoff; photo by John Bonsett-Veal

Kathy CramerKathy Cramer is not your typical ivory tower professor.  Instead of conducting research in libraries, she drives to small towns far from Madison and Milwaukee.  She finds out where people meet for coffee—café’s, gas stations, and stores—and then just shows up.  “Hi, I’m Kathy Cramer, I’m a professor from Madison and I study public opinion.  May I join you?” Almost everyone she met during her impromptu visits were gracious, she told Rotarians on Wednesday.  Then she passed out her business card—she’s a professor in the Department of Political Science—and got permission to turn on her recorder.  “What issues concern you?” she asked.  What she heard surprised her.

“There’s a huge rural-urban divide, a deep sense of them and us out there,” she explained in a spirited and thoughtful presentation.  “People in Madison and Milwaukee just don’t get it,” Cramer’s interviewees told her.  They don’t understand our values.   Legislators in Madison pass laws, but most of the money stays in the big cities.  Our local businesses are closing, but state government won’t help us.  Public employees get cushy fringe benefits, and we can hardly afford any.  City folks take their showers in the morning before they go to the office; we take showers after we get home because we have to work hard all day.

These commonly held opinions culminate in what Cramer called the “politics of resentment” and are concentrated on three targets:  Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two largest cities, coddled public employees, and African-Americans.  “Yes,” Cramer noted, “There is a racial dimension to the rural-urban divide.”  These were the factors that explained why so many Wisconsinites voted for Governor Walker and the Act 10, she explained.

Cramer closed with several changes she believed could attenuate the politics of resentment: More emphasis on the common good, not the special interests; a resurgence of the service ethic; making sure that public policy is responsive to the people, not the wealthy; and asking more of ourselves.

CLICK to watch the video on our club’s YouTube channel.   

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