The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Katherine J. Cramer)

In the past few years, a variety of liberal academics have adopted a Gorillas in the Mist sensibility when trying to understand conservatives.  Like Dian Fossey, they creep, wearing a ghillie suit, through thick and steamy jungles alien to them, hoping to grasp what it is that makes these creatures tick.  Sometimes they become fond of these primates, and in their own clumsy way, try to improve their lives by protecting them from threats they appear too dumb to see.  Like Fossey, most of them are obsessives with tunnel vision, bound in chains by premises invisible to them.  Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, fits right into this model, even if Wisconsin is a long way from Rwanda, and a lot colder.  She offers us a book that is half morality play, half sociology study, and all clueless.

As the subtitle says, the focus of this book is “Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”  For a certain type of liberal, Scott Walker is Beelzebub, Prince of Lies, and the framing of this book by Walker’s actions shows that Cramer is that type of liberal.  The reference to “consciousness” is another liberal tic.  But the clearest telegraphing of Cramer’s obsessions comes from the title’s reference to “resentment,” the central theme of the book, used like a dead fish to whack us repeatedly in the face.  For liberals, opposition to liberal policies is never well-considered; it is always resentment, a sub-rational cluster of negative feelings flung wildly at the wrong targets, usually as a result of manipulation of the ignorant by the malignant Svengalis of Fox News.  On the plus side, though, Cramer never uses the related French word “ressentiment,” so beloved of the incoherent post-modernist philosophers on whom most modern leftist ideology is based.  For that, I will count my blessings, since when reading this book, they are few and far between.

This is an academic work, not a popular work, so some allowances should be made.  Technical references to other academics are constant.  Methodology is repeatedly discussed in detail.  Stilted language and terminology abounds.  On the other hand, Cramer is not totally lacking in self-reference.  She is proudly aware she is a Madison-based liberal academic, driving out in her Volkswagen Jetta to other, mostly rural, areas of the state to strike up conversations with a broad range of people (around forty different small groups) to understand what makes them pick the berries they do—I mean, to understand what makes them think and vote the way they do.  She notes her “shock” when Walker wins his recall election:  “Living in Madison, support for Walker was invisible, and pretty much taboo.”  (I wonder what Trump’s election was like in Madison?  Fun for people like me, I suppose.)  But she’s not that self-aware—she regularly beclowns herself with statements like “[Goldwater] gained support in that [1964] race by appealing to a coalition of McCarthyites (anticommunists). . . .” and that whenever Republicans “ran on an anti-New Deal platform, they were appealing to those opposed to integration.”  On balance, she tries hard, but sometimes trying hard just isn’t enough to succeed.

Cramer’s core question, the reason why she traveled around the state conversing with different small groups, is one that seems to bedevil liberals, even though (or because) it is not a very intelligent question.  It is “why do working class people oppose liberal policies, especially bigger government, when bigger government seems more likely to give them other people’s money?”  Or, as Cramer phrases it, she wanted to “examine what it looks like when people who might benefit from more government instead prefer far less of it.”  She rejects the idea that this is “a central debate about the appropriate role of government.”  Instead, it is “something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens.”  As becomes clear throughout the book, by “fellow citizens,” she means exclusively “government employees,” whose reputations she is determined to rescue from the mire into which their own actions have sunk themselves.  In short, this is a paean to government workers and a song of sympathy for their underappreciation by rural bumpkins, structured around whining that government workers are hurt by irrational demands for smaller government.

Cramer begins her story with the brouhaha surrounding the new governor’s, Scott Walker’s, introduction of a budget bill (Act 10) in February, 2011, that among other effects, sharply limited collective bargaining with government employees other than police and firefighters, and “required all [government] employees to increase their payroll contributions for health and pension benefits (to a tune of a 10 percent cut to many of their paychecks).”  Before we proceed further, it is beneficial to review some undisputed history and facts.  Working backward, what Cramer does not tell us here, but what we can tease out of other parts of her book and some basic research, is that payroll contributions of government employees were made to increase because government employees had been receiving massive benefits, far higher than of those of private employees, on top of their already exceptionally large wages (as I parse below).  So, “pay cut” is a propagandistic term, although in economic terms it is not entirely wrong.  Nor does Cramer note that the “increase” required was for government workers to pay at least 12.6% of the actual costs of their health care benefits, when up to that time they had paid an average of 6%, as opposed to the 50% or more paid by most private sector employees.  And Act 10 required them to pay 5.8% of their own pension benefits (again, not noted by Cramer) when almost all private sector employees get no pension at all other than what they save for themselves.  The horror!

More generally, though, Cramer ignores the pernicious effects of the mere existence of unions for government employees.  She celebrates repeatedly that Wisconsin, in 1959, was one of the first states to permit them.  She does not tell us why they were not permitted before that, other than to make the curious claim that “There was a fear, or at least an argument, that collective bargaining for government workers would inhibit the provision of public services to citizens.”  “As recently as 1936, [government] employees were referred to as ‘tax eaters.’ ”  (In our house, you can make that date 2017.)  The answer why such unions were always forbidden earlier is clear—because they are a public evil, and until public virtue declined, no legislator would countenance the damage to the republic that was certain to result, and did result.  Unions of private sector employees involve bargaining between two parties, employee and employer, each of which has something to gain and something to lose, and each of which absorbs its own gains and losses.  Unions of government employee involve bargaining between two parties, employees and elected officials, with the benefits accruing to both parties, and all the costs being handed to a third party—the employer, i.e., the taxpayer, who is given no voice at all in the negotiation of the terms of employment.  Elected officials (almost always Democrats) get the support (via advertising and endorsements) and votes of the union leadership, and often the votes of the members (who in any case are forced via required union dues to financially contribute to the election of officials they may not personally vote for).  Government employees receive pay, pension and health benefits vastly greater than private sector employees, which ratchet constantly upward as new politicians seek union support.  The taxpayers, future taxpayers mostly, get the bill—hence, “tax eaters.”  Among many other wicked effects, this is the main cause of the effective bankruptcy of, among other states, California and Illinois (but not Wisconsin, thanks to Scott Walker, though we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

Anyway, back to February 2011, and the first page of this book.  Cramer celebrates that thousands of people illegally occupied the Wisconsin Capitol to protest Walker’s proposal.  Most of them, of course, could do so because they were government employees who were given time off at taxpayer expense, or jobless people such as students or retirees.  (As one of Cramer’s conversation partners accurately says, “Why were the private sector people showing up only on the weekend?  That’s because if they’d called in sick to their employer they would have been fired.”)  This was all an attempt to coerce the Legislature to obey the will of the shrillest.  In an infamous corollary, “Two days later, fourteen Democrats in the state senate fled to Illinois, in an effort to block the bill.”  Cramer does not note, of course, that this act was profoundly anti-democratic, although I suppose that’s obvious, nor does she seem at all critical of it.  Neither does she note the numerous death threats to Walker and Republicans, and other bad behavior by the “protestors.”  But the bill was ultimately passed, and had the effects Walker and his supporters desired.

What’s that you say, government employee?  You say that government employees are paid less, showing they need the unions?  Cramer disagrees with you, though she tries not to.  She shows “distributions of incomes for [government] and private workers in low-income areas (where the average total income was under $30,000) and then also in higher-income areas (where the average exceeded $33,500).  What we see here is that in both low- and high-income areas, for low and middle ranges of incomes, [government] workers are making more than private workers.  In low-income areas, only among the very highest income percentiles are private workers earning more than [government] employees.  But in high-income areas, the top 15 percent of private workers are making a great deal more than the top 15 percent of [government] workers.”  Let me translate that.  In every segment of workers except the top 16 or so percent of high wage earners, so much less than 16 percent of all wage earners, government workers earn a higher wage.  The only thing surprising about this is Cramer’s surprise—everybody knows that a small slice of private sector employees has very high income.  Looking at Cramer’s graphs, at only the higher wage group (Cramer does not say what percentage of employees are in the low wage and high wage groups), it appears that at the 85th percentile, the average government worker’s income is about $75K, as is the average private worker’s; at the 90th percentile, $100K vs. $110K, and at the 98th percentile, $120K vs. $150K.  Even at the high end of high paid workers, in other words, government workers make almost as much as the highest-paid private sector workers.

And although Cramer does not mention it, if you dig deep enough into the data on which she bases her conclusions, you find that although they do include pensions, they do not include health benefits—and as her conversation partners repeatedly complain, and Cramer does not dispute, government workers in Wisconsin receive enormous dollar values of health benefits.  This analysis also ignores the almost total job security that government workers (not just tenured professors like Cramer) receive, making them essentially totally insulated from job performance requirements, an extremely valuable benefit no private sector worker has.  And finally, leaving aside that much of the substantive work of many government employees is of negative social value, their productivity is much lower than that of private sector workers, so relative wage per unit of output is even higher.  My conclusion, and the conclusion of those whom Cramer interviewed, is that government workers have it easy and need to have their power broken, and Scott Walker is awesome for doing so.  The only unfortunate thing is that such actions are not nationwide, yet.

From this discussion of Walker’s successes (which occurred in the middle of her series of conversations; this book was published in 2016), Cramer turns to finding an answer to her core question through the prism of her conversations.  She realized pretty quickly, when trying to answer her question, that it wasn’t, as liberals assumed, “that somehow the Republican Party has fooled people into not noticing that they are opposing the very kind of government programs that might help them out.”  Rather, “In rural areas, there is a great deal of pride in the idea that ‘help’ is about letting people work hard enough so they can make it on their own. The sense I got from these conversations is that help, for many, is about providing jobs, not welfare.”  While this is common sense and should not be a surprise to anyone, at least Cramer was able to grasp and admit that her preconceptions had been proved wrong.  It is at least stumbling in the right direction.  But let’s not go too far.  When Cramer expresses dismay that during the Great Recession, “Many people in rural communities looked around and saw themselves in a place perpetually stuck in disadvantage, and they resented public employees who seemed to be protected from hardship, all because of the hard work of people like themselves in hard times,” she never considers whether this resentment is entirely rational because the perceptions are wholly accurate.

For Cramer’s purposes, in the rural areas which are her focus, all government workers are paid substantially more, on average, than private sector workers.  And yet she wonder why it is that “public servants” are resented.  At least she is able to admit some sound possible basis for the resentment, such as when a man who has broken his health logging all his life cannot retire at seventy, since he has no pension, but notes that government workers can retire at fifty with a pension equal to 70% of income and generous health care benefits (on which no income tax has to be paid), including the ability to get many years of health care benefits for free by using accumulated sick leave pay.  (It is not totally clear how accurate these claims are.  Cramer does not dispute them, and she always seems to dispute claims with which she disagrees, but from the discussion around Act 10, it’s evident that there is some pay-in element to both pensions and health care for government workers.  Glancing at the UW website, for example, it is true that the retirement age is 50, but only for police and firefighters; others are 55.)

Another common theme of Cramer’s conversations was that rural areas were not getting their “fair share”—that Madison and Milwaukee hogged the taxpayer dollars, especially for schools.  As Cramer shows, this is not really true, although viewed from some angles it is at least partially true.  Her interlocutors also complained about high gas prices (a more important issue to people who drive more, obviously), and, most importantly, that they lacked power and their concerns were ignored by the big city people who had the power.  They don’t like relying on tourism, either, which is seasonal, unreliable, and degrading.  None of this is surprising, but it’s interesting.

Cramer struggles with race.  She finds a grand total of zero racism among any of her interlocutors (although some resentment against local American Indians).  She notes that “resentment” she finds everywhere was “almost always directed at white people: government bureaucrats and faculty members at the flagship public university.”  But she follows this with incoherent babbling, such as “At the same time, given the way arguments against redistribution in the United States have historically been made by equating deservingness with whiteness, these conversations are about race even when race is not mentioned.”  Cramer would have been better served by just admitting that she couldn’t find any racism, again contrary to her preconceptions.  But that might have been a bridge too far for the people paying her salary—not the taxpayers, of course, but her superiors at the University of Wisconsin, whom she constantly praises and toadies to, throughout the book.

Cramer also struggles with the idea that government workers could be anything but paragons of virtue.  Her conversation partners often complain about specific actions by government workers, especially by the Department of Natural Resources.  Cramer always defends the DNR.  But when rural residents complain that researchers from the University of Wisconsin ignore rules against gas boat motors on a lake, and laugh at and humiliate residents who ask them to stop using the gas motors, Cramer falls all over herself to make sure nobody thinks she agrees with these hick ingrates:  “I want to remind my readers, especially those of you who work at an institution of higher education that puts considerable efforts into serving the broader public, that these are perceptions.  They are not necessarily accurate.  Maybe the stories I just relayed were examples of miscommunication.  I certainly encountered claims about UW-Madison activity that were false.”  Excuse me while I vomit.

Similar, but more sophisticated and nuanced, questioning lies at the core of Joan Williams’s White Working Class and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.  Williams’s answer is that we need advertising, celebrating the federal government, directed at the poor—in essence, educating the working class as to who their lordly benefactors are.  However, she at least recognizes the importance of moral virtue to the working class, and the role it plays in distinguishing them, to themselves, from the poor—i.e., from the lazy recipients of government handouts (regardless of the accuracy of that stereotype).  She also recognizes the resentment of the working class against the “professional-management elite,” who lack moral virtues and are perceived as not working hard, yet despise the working class.  Hochschild, in a similar but distinct vein, claims that the answer is that “emotional self-interest,” as in the belief that others are cutting in line ahead of them and attacking their dignity, often trumps “economic self-interest.”  That’s a modest level of understanding, but tends, again, towards a moral distinction.

Both Williams and Hochschild come much closer to the truth than Cramer, who mostly seems befuddled.  None come as close as Jonathan Haidt, who directly addresses this question through the prism of morality—namely, he concludes that economic, or more broadly “rational,” interests are often or mostly trumped by morals, which are primarily innate and, for most people, are not at all like the morals of Cramer, or of Williams or Hochschild.  Of the six moral foundations Haidt identifies, probably the one most relevant here is “fairness/cheating”—these “rural” people Cramer talks with think it’s immoral for the government to take by force from some just to give to others, because it’s unfair and cheating, even if the “others” are themselves.  This is not a matter of rational calculation, as Haidt explains and Cramer totally fails to understand; it is pre-rational, although very much a form of cognition.  The varied reasoning offered to Cramer when she tries to pin her interlocutors down on why they don’t want more government handouts, from a feeling it’ll still cost them, to a feeling government is too big, or too wasteful, or too stupid, are not necessarily wrong reasoning, but they are, for the most part, offered up by people who have already made the decision that too much government is immoral, and are trying to find rationales to explain their already existing conclusion.  (Of course, as Haidt outlines, Cramer and people like her do as much, if not much more, such rationale-finding, what Haidt calls “reasoning-why” as opposed to the prior “seeing-what.”)

Still, Cramer tries to answer her question, taking various rambling stabs at understanding, ultimately muttering feebly about identity and claiming that “people make sense of health care, education, and property taxes as a function of the kinds of people they believed themselves to be.”  She also mumbles about how Walker is perceived as “paying attention to small-town folks like you,” and ultimately, that “people can arrive at the interpretation that less government is better on the basis of perspectives with class- and place-based resentments at their core.”  Her preferred solution (similar to Joan Williams) is to try to demonstrate that, contrary to their resentments, “government services [do benefit] people who [perceive that they] deserve them: hardworking Americans like themselves.”  Weak stuff.

Finally, Cramer ignores the most important and most heinous postscript to liberal rage against Act 10—the so-called “John Doe” investigations, used to justify multiple midnight home invasions in 2013 by masses of armed police upon political enemies of the Democrats.  Using a state law that allowed unfettered prosecutorial discretion, with the assistance of a local judge, Barbara Kluka, partisan Democratic prosecutors “investigated” imaginary crimes by serving search warrants rubber-stamped assembly-line style by Kluka, on families of Republican supporters and donors in the middle of the night, using militarized police.  The warrants authorized ultra-broad searches for such things as “any and all documents or records which show direct or indirect coordination or consultation with Friends of Scott Walker (hereafter FOSW) and/or the FOSW campaign or the 2011/2012 senate personal campaign committees for the recall elections.”  Most bizarre of all, this state law forbade the victims from not only discussing or mentioning the mere existence of these violent, Stalin-esque attacks with the press—but with anybody at all, including their own lawyers.

After months of this, finally one of the victims dared to speak up and start the legal process of resistance.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court slapped down the prosecutors, noting that “It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.  In other words, the special prosecutor was the instigator of a ‘perfect storm’ of wrongs that was visited upon the innocent Unnamed Movants and those who dared to associate with them.  It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution.”  The prosecutors “disregarded the vital principle that in our nation and our state political speech is a fundamental right and is afforded the highest level of protection. The special prosecutor’s theories, rather than ‘assur[ing] [the] unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people’ . . . instead would assure that such political speech will be investigated with paramilitary-style home invasions conducted in the pre-dawn hours and then prosecuted and punished.”

Rejecting the rule of law (and illegally leaking documents in reaction) the prosecutors kept appealing, until the US Supreme Court also rejected their demands.  Naturally, none of the prosecutors, nor Kluka, were ever punished in any way.  They were certainly rewarded, in fact, not least by being celebrated in the poisonous, bigoted and hate-filled community that is Madison.  And, unsurprisingly, all this was ignored by the national media (as any persecution of conservatives always is).

Of course, such militarized violence against political opponents has become the norm under Democratic power, becoming even more common under Obama.  Witness, for example, the SWAT raid on Gibson Guitars for the sin of contributing to Republicans.  But the point is that despite Cramer’s incoherent focus on an unimportant question, we can learn lessons from both the anti-democratic reaction to Act 10 and the subsequent violent attempts to suppress and terrify conservatives—just not the ones Cramer offers.  We can learn that conservatives will never get anywhere until they learn that violence and intimidation pays, and is necessary when begun by their opponents, as is continuing it, with double the vehemence, until the rule of law can be restored.

Instead, unbelievably, their first act in power at the national level has been to appoint a special counsel with an unlimited budget and unlimited power to investigate—themselves.  Robert Mueller is currently conducting a massive and totally uncircumscribed fishing expedition in search of anything that can, under any one of a legion of utterly vague and broad federal laws, be characterized as a crime and then be used to intimidate and terrify anyone who dares to challenge the Left.  He has assembled a large team of vicious Democratic partisans as his staffers, with the ultimate goal of overturning the election of a Republican President and Congress.  Such actions have a long pedigree among Democrats, of course; they are no different in kind than 1960s Southern Democrats terrorizing African Americans to keep them in line.  But why the Republicans are enabling and funding the modern version of the same, directed at themselves, is beyond me.


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