Kathy Cramer’s journey to the center of the political landscape began with road trips to corners of Wisconsin many people only drive through — if they drive there at all.
It accelerated after Election Day, when those same places had a key role in making billionaire celebrity Donald Trump the 45th president.
Suddenly there were national implications to a theme Cramer explored for more than a decade: how Wisconsin’s rural-urban cultural divide affects its politics. Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist, published a book in March: “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”
After the election, many are turning to the book to understand the surge of rural support, particularly in the Upper Midwest, that propelled Trump to an Electoral College victory.
Cramer’s research that underpinned the book was rooted in long-running political conversations with rural Wisconsinites, in their communities, over a five-year period.
Some scholars and political experts say it holds an important lesson, in a political landscape increasingly driven by data and the internet, on the value of face-to-face conversation to peer into voters’ minds.
In a recent interview, Cramer acknowledged the response to her book far exceeded her expectations.
“I never thought anything I would write would get so much attention,” Cramer laughed.
Attention is something she’s gotten in spades, especially after a Washington Post report featured her work just before the election results came in. Then Trump won.
One national media outlet after another responded by citing Cramer’s work in reference to the results. She said she’s deluged with speaking requests, especially for book clubs.
One of those requests, to which she obliged, was to share her research with Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate.
Cramer’s work is finding its way into classrooms too.
The day after the election, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an international and public affairs professor at Columbia University, said he was searching for explanations to give surprised students in his lectures.
One of the first places he turned was Cramer’s research. While it focused on Scott Walker, Hertel-Fernandez and others say the resentment Cramer uncovered — and the way in which she says it was politicized — helps show how Trump had appealed to rural Midwesterners.
“You get a sense of the deep divides in this country that she had already identified in the 2010 election,” Hertel-Fernandez said.
A guiding insight
Cramer said the book she wrote was not quite what she set out to write.
In 2007, Cramer laid out maps of Wisconsin on her floor, looking for places to visit to conduct research. As a Grafton native, she already knew some of the terrain.
Cramer said she began the work with a guiding insight.
“I’ve found that the best way to study how people interpret politics is to listen to them talk with people they know in their own settings,” Cramer said.
Cramer started trekking out to small-town gathering places, engaging local residents in a running dialogue about politics.
Her initial goal was to study social class identity. What ultimately caught her interest was a sense of resentment she found throughout rural Wisconsin, rooted in a different kind of identity.
“It was this sense of: ‘We don’t get our fair share, and all the stuff goes to Milwaukee and Madison — all the public money, all the attention and all the respect,” Cramer said. “The people in the cities are making all the decisions and communicating them out to us. They don’t understand us; they don’t know us; they don’t value what we value. And they don’t actually even like us: they think we’re uneducated and unsophisticated and racist and the whole gambit.”
A cultural chasm between city folk and rural residents is not a new concept. But Cramer acknowledged surprise at the level of resentment — and the way it shaped how her subjects viewed politics.
“I never expected that a big driver for the way people were thinking about politics was their attitudes toward the cities,” Cramer said.
Into that environment, Cramer said, came Walker, elected governor in 2010. In early 2011 Walker proposed Act 10, a measure to curtail collective bargaining by public workers.
Cramer said Walker was able to tell rural voters: “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s time we step back government, because clearly it’s not working for you. And public employees pensions, health care, salaries are quite a bit higher than yours, many times, so I hear what you’re saying. Let’s pull that all back.”
Cramer’s book helps explain the rural appeal of Trump too, said Republican political strategist and University of Kentucky political scholar Travis N. Taylor.
“Part of what she uncovers is that the resentment — even though it is cultural in a way, it’s really focused at the government,” Taylor said.
Taylor pushes back, however, at the notion Cramer’s work shows Republican politicians are uniquely attuned to rural voters’ psyches.
“Take the word ‘Republican’ out of that sentence, and it still makes sense,” Taylor said. “Politicians exploit feelings. They exploit emotions.”
But how does rural resentment toward big-city elites explain those areas embracing a Manhattan billionaire?
Cramer’s explanation: Trump “validated their resentment.”
“The way I interpret his message is, ‘You are right to be pissed off. And you do deserve more. And what you deserve is going to these people who don’t deserve it,” Cramer said. “Even though he’s a city person himself, that taps into so much of what I’ve heard.”
The election results left little doubt about how rural Wisconsin responded. The state’s rural counties, after splitting almost evenly four years ago between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, this time swung decisively for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Now some in Wisconsin who once questioned Cramer’s work are taking a second look. Mike Tate, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, acknowledged as much in a Facebook post on Nov. 20.
“I have often been skeptical of UW Professor Kathy Cramer’s work,” Tate wrote, linking to an article about it. “It seems like it’s perhaps time I treat her work with less skepticism.”
Tate, speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal last week, said it’s not so much that Cramer was seeing things others weren’t.
“She was looking in places that other people weren’t,” Tate said.
She also was using methods others weren’t. Hertel-Fernandez said Cramer’s work is an example of how to supplement polling data in measuring public opinion.
“Polls only can capture so much in the way people think about complex issues,” Hertel-Fernandez said. “You really have to talk to folks in their natural elements.”
‘Go to places and
to people and listen’
When Cramer was invited to address congressional Democrats, she said it initially made her uneasy.
“I don’t think of myself as a political consultant,” Cramer said.
Not wanting to be an instrument of a political party, Cramer said she reached out to Wisconsin Republican lawmakers to offer to speak to them and their colleagues. The offer has not yet been taken up, she said.
So what was Cramer’s message to congressional Democrats?
“You need to not just repackage yourself,” Cramer recounted. “You need to actually go to places and to people and listen, and spend time with them. Because it’s only then that you’ll actually understand their concerns.”
Judging by the response, Cramer’s advice may have tapped into a struggle among Democrats about their path forward in the Trump era. Some nodded their heads as she spoke; others appeared more skeptical, she said.
A few lawmakers representing urban areas pressed her, saying their constituents also feel overlooked and undervalued. The lawmakers asked Cramer: are you saying we should simply focus on rural areas?
“No,” Cramer said she responded. “What I’m saying is, notice how many people feel disconnected from the political process. It’s a huge issue.”
Political strategist and pollster Paul Maslin said he’s one Democrat who hopes his party takes Cramer’s work to heart.
“There’s a qualitative aspect to this,” Maslin said. “Talk to people where they live, and have them talk back.”