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It’s likely both political parties in Wisconsin will tap into rural resentment as the state heads into a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate election later this year, said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and author Kathy Cramer on Tuesday.

“It’s a powerful force,” she said during an evening Cap Times Talk at a packed High Noon Saloon. “We can expect both parties to tap into it. There’s quite a struggle in the Democratic Party, what does this look like? What does the future look like? Do we spend more effort courting rural voters in areas? Do we double down and court voters in the city? We can see Gov. Scott Walker definitely knows he can make use of that resentment.”

Cramer, author of the prescient 2016 book “The Politics of Resentment,” discussed how she researched the book, what has happened since its success and how her findings may affect the 2018 elections. Cramer spoke to a packed hall of more than 300 people and was interviewed by Cap Times political reporter Jessie Opoien.

The discussion happened hours before Democrats won a special election in the 10th Senate District, which includes rural counties in the western part of the state near the Minnesota border. It is a victory analysts say could be the beginning of a Democratic comeback in 2018. Patty Schachtner, the current St. Croix County chief medical examiner, handily beat Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow by 11 points.

Both economic anxiety and racism play into rural resentment, Cramer said, though the dynamic between the two is nuanced and complex. She defined rural resentment as the idea by some that they are not getting what they deserve, that resources and money and jobs are going to big cities, like Milwaukee and Madison, instead.

“Racism is operating … but it is much more complicated than that. What people are saying is we … are working very hard and we think we deserve more attention and resources and respect than we are getting,” Cramer said. “That is both economic anxiety and racism. We can’t dismiss the racism component but we can’t tell ourselves the answer is simply racism.”

Cramer said it’s hard to say what might happen with Tammy Baldwin and Scott Walker in their respective elections later this year. She noted that while there is a general backlash toward incumbents, non-presidential race years can disadvantage Democrats and split ticket voting is also less common.

“Incumbents do have their work cut out for them. A lot of the resentment is directed toward politics in general and politicians in general. Usually people say, 'Neither party is listening to people like me.’ It’s just this general sense that politics is out of whack,” Cramer said. “A lot of people talk about money being a crazy force in politics and that politicians are crooked."

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When it comes to liberal suggestions that rural people are foolishly voting against their own interests when they vote for Scott Walker or Donald Trump, Cramer noted that people themselves define their interest, not the academics studying them.

“Interests are something we define for ourselves," Cramer said. "Human beings make choices about what they value.” 

Bridging the rural and urban divide starts with genuine listening and “everyday interpersonal relationships,” she said.

“Try to listen rather than figure out how you can counter what they just said. All too often we’re trying to get ready to answer and persuade. Before that ever happens, you have to make a connection with people and try to understand where they’re coming from,” she said.


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.