Putting Inequality in its Place: Rural Consciousness and the Power of Perspective


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Putting Inequality in its Place: Rural Consciousness and the Power of Perspective

  1. 1. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3 August 2012 doi:10.1017/S0003055412000305Putting Inequality in Its Place:Rural Consciousness and the Power of PerspectiveKATHERINE CRAMER WALSH University of Wisconsin—Madison W hy do people vote against their interests? Previous explanations miss something fundamental because they do not consider the work of group consciousness. Based on participant observation of conversations from May 2007 to May 2011 among 37 regularly occurring groups in 27 communities sampled across Wisconsin, this study shows that in some places, people have a class- and place-based identity that is intertwined with a perception of deprivation. The rural consciousness revealed here shows people attributing rural deprivation to the decision making of (urban) political elites, who disregard and disrespect rural residents and rural lifestyles. Thus these rural residents favor limited government, even though such a stance might seem contradictory to their economic self-interests. The results encourage us to consider the role of group consciousness-based perspectives rather than pitting interests against values as explanations for preferences. Also, the study suggests that public opinion research more seriously include listening to the public.S cholars of political behavior puzzle over why peo- fundamentally misunderstood but are instead under- ple vote against their interests (Citrin and Green stood correctly according to the perspectives through 1990). A prominent recent manifestation of this is which people interpret the world (contrary to Bartels).the debate between Thomas Frank and Larry Bartels. This idea, that some people may process politicalIn What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank (2004) argued information through a perspective constituted fromthat the success of the Republican Party since the late social identity and notions of distributive justice, in-1960s is due to its ability to distract white working class vokes attention to the concept of group consciousness.voters from economic issues and issues of distributive The classic conception of group consciousness is as anjustice by drawing their attention to social issues and identification with a social group (not just membershipculture wars. Bartels (2008, chap. 3), on the other hand, in it), combined with a politicization of that identityhas argued that Republicans have not distracted voters; in the form of perceived relative deprivation of thatvoters do care about economic issues. The main issue group. Central to this concept is the idea that depriva-instead, he argues, is that voters do not understand tion is the fault of the political system, not individualdistributive issues correctly; they are willing to vote behavior (Miller et al. 1981; Verba and Nie 1972). Peo-for tax cuts that will only benefit the very rich (2008, ple with group consciousness make sense of the worldchap. 6). through that politicized identity. It frames out alterna- This article presents an alternative possibility previ- tive understandings and fosters negative perceptionsously missed in these debates: Some people make sense of outgroups (Conover 1984; 1988).of politics through a social identity infused with notions The group consciousness literature has focused onof distributive justice. This perspective-based notion scholars’ conceptions of groups. That is, it has exam-of political understanding alerts us to the possibility ined whether people exhibit consciousness of promi-that economic interests are not subordinated to values nent social science categorizations such as race, gen-(contrary to Frank) but are instead intertwined with der, or materially deprived groups. However, when wethem. It also suggests that notions of inequality are not adopt a bottom-up approach and listen to what peo- ple themselves identify as important categorizations, other forms of consciousness become apparent (GeertzKatherine Cramer Walsh is Associate Professor of Political Science, 1974).University of Wisconsin–Madison, 110 North Hall, Madison, WI The following study reveals the importance of a53706 (kwalsh2@wisc.edu). group consciousness that has been overlooked using I am sincerely grateful to the hundreds of people who allowedme to take part in their conversations for this study. I also thank our typical top-down procedures: rural consciousness.Tim Bagshaw, Emily Erwin-Frank, Valerie Hennings, David Lassen, By “rural consciousness” I mean a concept with theRyan Miller, Tricia Olsen, Kerry Ratigan, and especially Sarah following characteristics:1Niebler for transcription, translation, and research assistance. I amgrateful to the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endow-ment Grant and the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department 1. It is a set of ideas about what type of geographicof Political Science for funding that made this research possible. place one is from, and where that place stands inSpecial thanks to the members of the Center for the Study of Demo- relation to others in terms of power and resourcecratic Politics colloquium at Princeton University, the members of allocation.the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University, the 2. It contains ideas about what people are like in ruralmembers of the Department of Political Science at the Universityof Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the Center for Political Studies at places—that is, their values and lifestyles—with athe University of Michigan, the Chicago Area Behavior conferenceat Northwestern University, Larry Bartels, Jim Gimpel, AlexanderShashko, several anonymous reviewers, and especially Joe Soss for 1 This description borrows from the approach used by Lane (1962,feedback on earlier versions. 14–15). 517
  2. 2. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 particular emphasis on the importance of hard work together. That is, even if the individual group members in rural areas. were to talk about the very same issues differently in3. It operates as a lens through which people think mass sample survey interviews, which would be a more about themselves, other people, and public affairs, true manifestation of their opinions? Both have impor- among other things. tance. Before the emergence of survey research, schol-4. As a form of group consciousness, it contains a social ars conceptualized public opinion as the product of identification with rural residents, as well as a per- groups of people competing with one another (Blumer ception of distributive injustice toward this group. 1948) and the understandings that are created as citi-5. This sense of injustice is a perception of deprivation zens and journalists share their impressions with others relative to other groups—in this case, residents of (Bryce 1913), not the aggregation of the expressions of metropolitan (i.e., urban and suburban) areas. isolated individuals. For many decisions, especially at6. This injustice is perceived as the fault of political lower levels of government, political actors use other elites located in urban areas. sources of information besides polls to determine what7. Rural consciousness encompasses orientations to- constituents think or feel, including face-to-face group ward government. In particular, it encompasses po- conversations (Fenno 1978; Walsh 2009). This study litical trust because it contains judgments about the assumes that what gets said in groups is an important past performance of the government and an expec- manifestation of opinion. tation that future actions will not be in line with My purpose in investigating what people say in the rural interests (e.g., Hetherington 2005). groups they normally inhabit in a particular set of com-8. Rural consciousness also encompasses the concept munities within one state is to better explain how the of political alienation, which includes lack of sup- perspectives people use to interpret the world lead port for the system as well as a sense of political them to see certain stances as natural and right for isolation from others. That is, it contains a “rejec- people like themselves (Soss 2006, 316). It is motivated tion of political norms and goals that are widely held by the interpretivist goal of providing a “coherent ac- and shared by other members of a society” (Finifter count of [individuals’] understandings as a prerequisite 1970, 391). The rural consciousness uncovered here for adequate explanation” (Soss 2006, 319; see also includes a perception that the rules of the game do Adcock 2003). In other words, to explain why people not apply equally to people from all places. Alien- express the opinions that they do, we need to examine ation is also a part of rural consciousness insofar as and describe how they perceive the world. In this arti- the former concept encompasses political efficacy cle I explain the contours of the rural consciousness I (Finifter 1970, 390). Specifically, rural consciousness observed and then specify its particularity by contrast- involves low external efficacy, or a belief that gov- ing it with conversations among urban and suburban ernment is unresponsive to the concerns of rural groups. That is, this is a constitutive analysis (an exam- residents (Craig 1979). ination of what this thing, rural consciousness, consists of and how it works) versus a causal analysis (e.g., This article contributes to our understanding of the an examination of whether living in a rural place pre-connection between interests and preferences the in- dicts rural consciousness—McCann 1996; Taylor 1971;sight that in some places, people have a class- and place- Wendt 1998). The point is not to argue that we seebased identity that is intertwined with a perception of consciousness in rural areas but not in other places,deprivation. In the rural consciousness examined here, nor to estimate how often it appears among rural res-people view rural deprivation as the fault of (urban) idents, nor to describe what a population of peoplepolitical elites. Thus they favor limited government, thinks. Instead, the purpose here is to examine whateven though such a stance might seem contradictory this particular rural consciousness is and what it does:to their economic self-interest. The results encourage how it helps to organize and integrate considerations ofus to move beyond pitting interests against values as the distribution of resources, decision-making author-explanations for preferences and suggest that we in- ity, and values into a coherent narrative that peoplestead consider the role of group-consciousness-based use to make sense of the world. This is not a studyperspectives. of Wisconsin; it is a study of political understanding The purpose of this study is to think about politi- and group consciousness that is conducted in Wisconsincal understanding not in terms of what people lack— (Geertz 1973, 22).knowledge or sophistication or mass belief systems To clarify the stakes, contributions, and implications(e.g., Converse 1964)—but what they have. This article of this study, allow me to contrast it with positivist ap-examines what people have with respect to political proaches. I examine here how people weave togetherunderstanding by using an ethnographic approach. It place and class identities and their orientations to gov-investigates how people make sense of the political ernment and how they use the resulting perspectives toworld in the course of everyday life while interacting talk about politics. A positivist study of this topic mightwith members of their social networks. I studied public measure identities and orientations to government, andaffairs conversations among people embedded in 37 then include them as independent variables in a mul-groups across 27 widely-varying communities, over 4 tivariate analysis in which the dependent variable isyears, in the state of Wisconsin. a policy or candidate preference. Such an approach is This approach flows from a conceptualization of pub- problematic in this case in the following ways. The pos-lic opinion as the understandings that people create itivist model specification assumes that values on one518
  3. 3. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3independent variable move independent of the other. havior and attitudes (Gainsborough 2001; Oliver 2001;Or if using an interaction term, it assumes that people Putnam 2007). Second, scholars have expected thatwith particular combinations of these variables exhibit different demographic compositions across geographica significantly different level of the dependent variable. areas would result in differences in social structure andHowever, the object of study, or my dependent variable culture (Knoke and Henry 1977; Wirth 1938) and thusin positivist terms, is not the position on an attitude in socialization (Agnew 1987; Lipset 1981, 263–67). Forscale. It is instead the perspectives that people use to example, Campbell et al. (1960) argued that farmingarrive at that position. My object is not to understand occupations exposed people to less political informa-the independent effects of identities and attitudes such tion and mobilization than was the case with industrialas trust, or how people with different combinations labor jobs in urban areas, resulting in rural/urban dif-of these compare to others, but to understand how ferences (425–30). Third, scholars have conceptualizedpeople themselves combine them—how they constitute rural/urban differences as labels for underlying classperceptions of themselves and use these to make sense conflict (Black and Black 1987; Key 1949). Finally, an-of politics. other argument has been that the rural/urban divide What is at stake in this analysis, then? If the goal is is a conflict that arises from competition over materialnot to establish that a particular variable or combina- resources (Bowen, Haynes, and Rosentraub 2006).tion of variables predicts a particular political attitude, This article makes a different contribution. It showsthen what is it that I have to establish? I have to show, how place consciousness itself serves as a perspectiveconvincingly, that a particular perspective is influential through which people interpret politics. The analysesfor the way some people think about politics. The bur- that follow examine how this framework structures per-den is on me to show that rural consciousness structures ceptions of the distribution of power, resources, andhow the people under investigation think about poli- values. In doing so, this study argues that the signif-tics, that is, that it screens out certain considerations icance for politics of being a rural resident is not justand makes others obvious and mundane. that people in rural areas have a different demographic When I claim that a perspective is influential on the profile, or that the different experiences in rural areasway people think about politics, is that not a claim result in different attitudes. It also goes beyond theabout causation? If this is not a positivist approach, argument that rural/urban divides are manifestationsthen why am I talking about explaining? If by explain- of class conflict or conflict over material resources.ing we mean establishing causation in the traditional Instead, it shows how consciousness of being a ruralpositivist sense, then I am overstepping my bounds. But resident itself can make preferences for limited govern-if by explaining we mean identifying and clarifying the ment obvious, appropriate, and expected even amongresources and reasoning processes people use to make low income people.sense of politics, then explanation is in the domain of aconstitutive approach such as this one, too. This study suggests a revision of the way we study the UNDERSTANDING AS CATEGORIZATIONgap between interests and votes, as well as an expansion AND SOCIAL IDENTIFICATIONof the methods we use to study public opinion. Thereis a need in our scholarship for listening to the peo- To understand why rural consciousness is likely im-ple we study and attempting to discover the categories portant for political understanding, it is necessary tothat they use to understand politics. This investigation recognize the psychology behind understanding in gen-was conducted in the hope that positivist and consti- eral, and also the importance of place in this process.tutive approaches can inform one another. I return to Psychology tells us that when people make sense ofthis claim in the conclusion and outline the way this the world, they categorize (Chi, Feltovich, and Glaserstudy complements positivist analyses by generating 1981; Medin and Cooley 1998). In politics, a partic-hypotheses, suggesting new measures, illuminating ex- ularly powerful act of categorization is the parsingisting puzzles, and confirming previous findings. of people into “us” and “them” (Tajfel 1981; Turner To further specify what this article contributes, notice et al. 1987). Identities as members of social groups,how this is not an analysis of whether opinions correlate whether friendship groups or societywide categories,with place of residence. We already know from history serve as reference points for social comparison and(e.g., electoral maps from 1896 and 1948) that rural boundaries of allegiance, help guide notions of ap-vs. urban distinctions matter for public opinion. How- propriate behavior and attitudes, and influence whatever, when research has examined how or why location messages people pay attention to and incorporate intomatters, it has not in fact examined how consciousness prior beliefs (e.g., Brewer and Miller 1984; Sears andas a person from a certain type of place matters for Kinder 1985; Tajfel et al. 1971; Tajfel and Turner 1986).political understanding. Instead, there are four main Social group identities play a central role in the man-ways in which place has been studied with respect to ner in which individuals interpret the political world,political behavior. First, previous work has looked for influencing political attitudes and behaviors (Campbellcomposition effects, or the way that other social cate- et al. 1960, chaps. 12 and 13; Conover 1984; 1988; Huddygories affect behavior (Agnew 1987, ix; Freudenburg 2003). The group consciousness literature has taught us1991; Keith and Pile 1993, 2). For example, scholars that when social identities are imbued with notions ofhave paid attention to the relationship between place, distributive justice, they are particularly important forlevel of political and cultural diversity, and political be- political behavior (Miller et al. 1981). 519
  4. 4. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 We should expect that group consciousness rooted in modern Democratic Party—the election of Democratplace plays an important role in understanding because William Proxmire to the Senate in a special electionplace is a tool for understanding that people commonly after McCarthy’s death—is commonly understood asuse to make sense of many aspects of life (Boroditsky the result of a successful appeal to “rural discontent”2000; Creed and Ching 1997; Soja and Hooper 1993). (Fowler 2008, 173). Part of the tension may have beenWe interpret ourselves and others with reference to magnified by the fact that state legislative seats haveparticular places (Moore 1998). One of the first ques- been apportioned by population since 1954, giving ur-tions we use to make sense of new acquaintances is, ban Democrats proportionately more representation“Where are you from?” Although social science often in Wisconsin than in states in which seats were allocatedassumes that distinctions between places are fading and according to geography until Baker v. Carr was decidedbecoming less relevant to social life (Knoke and Henry in favor of representation according to population in1977), modern life has not erased the importance of 1962 (Ansolabehere and Snyder 2008; Epstein 1958,place (Agnew 1987). It may have instead increased 27).the need for people to draw boundaries, more crisply Since the mid-twentieth century, Wisconsin hasdefine their geographic communities (Bell 1992; Cohen largely reflected the national map of blue cities and1985), and perform elements of their identity rooted in red rural areas. The Democratic Party’s success in thephysical places, such as speech patterns (Purnell et al. metropolitan and larger cities is likely due to stronger2005). union organizing in those places (Fowler 2008, 184). We should expect that place matters for political Also, the rural areas may retain an anti-Democraticunderstanding in the form of group consciousness Party stance that is a holdover from World War I andfor many reasons. Representation, and thus many re- World War II. A large portion of Wisconsin residentssources, is allocated by geography in the United States. claim German heritage (43% in 2000; Fowler 2008,Therefore, individuals’ perceptions of distributive jus- 205). German voters were strongly isolationist duringtice are likely related to place, especially among those World War I and World War II, and therefore likely towho perceive that their communities are relatively de- vote against the Democrats, especially in rural areas,prived. We should expect rural consciousness because where unions had little influence (Fowler 2008). As wegroup identities tend to be more salient among mem- shall see, the connection between most rural areas inbers of minority groups, and rural residents compose Wisconsin and Republican leanings is not just a vestigejust 17% of the U.S. population2 (Creed and Ching of the past.1997, 4; Wong and Cho 2005). Even though there is Wisconsin is a fruitful place for examining what ruralcontention over how “rural” is defined, studies of rural consciousness is and how it structures understandingcommunities suggest that the term carries a great deal of politics, because rural areas in the state are moreof meaning for people who identify with it (Bell 1992; volatile than the correlation between rural and Re-Mellow 2005). Also, the conflicts between rural and publican suggests. Both the northwestern and south-urban areas within states are intensifying (Gimpel and western corners lean Democratic, although they areSchuknecht 2003, especially 385), suggesting more sen- predominantly rural. This is due in part to high levelssitivity to distributive inequalities across these areas. of poverty in those areas, the influence of the city of In Wisconsin, rural/urban divides have been a part Superior in the northwestern corner, and commuters orof the state’s politics for at least a century. It may have outmigrants from Madison in the southwest (Fowlerbeen contrasts between rural and urban that brought 2008). Also, many Wisconsinites identify as indepen-both Joe McCarthy and Bob LaFollette to power in dents, and the state’s political institutions have longthis state. Granted, part of the mystery of how such reflected its “confidence in the independent and moreseemingly different figures could arise within the same or less self-informed citizen” (Epstein 1958, 310). Forstate is solved by noting that both started out as Re- example, the state has open primaries, which allowpublicans and Wisconsin was a Republican one-party voters to remain independent until receiving a ballot,state for much of the first half of the twentieth cen- nonpartisan municipal elections, and until the recenttury (Epstein 1958). However, both men tapped into passage of voter identification legislation, very lenientrural skepticism of distant institutions of authority to voter registration laws (Epstein 1958, 22–32).win their campaigns. La Follette’s Progressivism took This independent streak is especially strong in ruralhold in a nonmetropolitan Midwestern state, in which areas of the state.4 That, combined with the fact thatrural skepticism of party organizations outweighed al- most of the population lives outside the two metropoli-legiance to urban political machines (Epstein 1958). tan areas, make the rural areas of the state a politicalLikewise, some argue that it was the small town and battleground. Whereas only 10 of the 64 nonmetrorural skepticism of globalization and distant institu- counties voted for the Democratic gubernatorial can-tions with no attachment to the local community (i.e., didate in 2010, only 10 of them went for the Republicanurban) that McCarthy successfully exploited to wina U.S. Senate seat.3 Even the breakthrough of the 4 A University of Wisconsin–Madison Survey Center Badger Poll,2 Rural is defined here as nonmetro (http://www.ers.usda.gov/ a statewide public opinion poll of Wisconsin, conducted June 17 toBriefing/Population/). July 10, 2011, found 42% identifying as independents or leaners, 62%3 http://jeremisuri.net/archives/tag/tea-party, but see Fowler 2008, among people identifying as rural, and 56% among those identifying161–62. as urban or suburban (χ2 2.51, p = .113).520
  5. 5. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. (There are ´ met in local restaurants, cafes, or gas stations early72 counties in the state). on weekday mornings. (See supplemental Online Ap- Before we proceed, a few words on the definition of pendix A – available at http://www.journals.cambridge.rural are in order. Clearly, there is no one single way to org/psr2012011 – for descriptions of these groups anddefine what constitutes a rural area, even according to communities.) When possible, I spent time with multi-government agencies such as the USDA that allocate ple groups in a given municipality, to provide greaterlarge sums of money by type-of-place designation.5 socioeconomic and gender variation. I visited each ofMoreover, residents often classify their communities the groups between one and five times between Mayin ways that contradict analysts’ classifications.6 This 2007 and May 2011.7 To protect the confidentiality ofstudy focused on residents’ perceptions of their com- the people I studied, I use pseudonyms and do not iden-munities and of how their communities compared to tify the communities by name, except for the largestothers. The important distinction in their comments municipalities, Madison and Milwaukee.emerged as metro vs. nonmetro, or major urban area To gain access to a given group, I greeted the mem-vs. other areas. I thereby refer to a place as rural if the bers and asked for permission to sit with them. I passedmembers of the group regarded it as nonmetro. out my business card and explained that I was a public opinion researcher from the University of Wisconsin– Madison, and said that I wished to listen to their con-METHODS cerns about public affairs and the state’s flagship publicThe fieldwork analyzed for this study began as an inves- university. I asked for their permission to record ourtigation of the role of social class identity in political conversation,8 and gave them “tokens of my appre-understanding. Recall that the purpose of this study ciation” such as football schedules, donated by thewas not to generalize to a population in the statistical Wisconsin Alumni Association. I then asked, “Whatsense; thus my concern with case selection was not are the big concerns for people in this community?”whether Wisconsin was more or less typical of all U.S. and continued with other questions on my protocolstates. Instead, I chose a state that has a good deal of (see supplemental Online Appendix B), adjusting theeconomic heterogeneity across communities and there- order and number of questions asked when necessary.fore was likely to provide variety in perceptions of This strategy meant that the people I spent time withsocial class. As I conducted my fieldwork, I became were predominantly male, non-Hispanic white, and ofaware of the prominence of rural consciousness in in- retirement age. Of the 37 groups I studied, 12 weredividuals’ attempts to understand politics. Fortunately, composed of only men, 4 were exclusively female, andWisconsin has a salient urban vs. rural divide, facilitat- the rest were of mixed gender, but predominantly male.ing my attempts to examine how this lens structures Most groups (20) were composed of a mix of retireesunderstanding of politics. and currently employed people, though retirees were I chose the sites to study by sampling particular com- in the majority in these groups. Of the other groups,munities using a stratified purposeful approach (Miles 5 were composed solely of retirees, 8 of people cur-and Huberman 1994, 28). I categorized the counties in rently employed or unemployed, and 4 of high schoolWisconsin into eight distinct regions, based on partisan students (4H groups). Although each of the 37 groupsleaning, median household income, population den- was mainly homogenous with respect to occupationalsity, size of community, racial and ethnic heterogene- and educational background, across groups I obtainedity, local industry, and agricultural background. Within socioeconomic variation, from people who were “oneeach region I purposely chose the municipality with step from homelessness” to wealthy business owners. Ithe largest population, and randomly chose a smaller categorize the groups in this study as lower-income ormunicipality. I included several additional municipal- upper-income by inference from their stated occupa-ities to provide additional variation. The result was a tions.sample of 27 communities. Because this sample is composed of voluntary To identify groups to study in these communities, groups, the people I studied may be more attentiveI asked University of Wisconsin Extension educators to current events, be more talkative, and have largerand local newspaper editors to suggest groups of peo- social networks than the average person. Many of theple who met regularly and informally of their own ac- groups contained local political or business leaders.cord in a gathering place to which I could gain ac- That is, many of these people were opinion leaders incess. My informants typically suggested groups that their communities (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944). This slice of leaders varied across the municipal- ities I sampled. In some places they were executives of5 See http://www.ers.usda.gov/Features/RuralData/#ruralstatus.6 multinational corporations; in others, the owners of the A Badger Poll conducted June 9 to July 10, 2010, included a subjec- businesses on Main Street. Their perceptions may nottive measure of residency in a rural area. (“Would you describe theplace where you live as urban, suburban or rural?” When necessary, be representative, but they are likely consequential forinterviewers used this prompt: “Urban is a big city like Milwaukee, the way others in their community think about manyMadison, Green Bay, etc. Suburban is a built up place close to a big public issues.city and Rural is less built up with fewer people and further awayfrom a big city.”) Respondents’ classifications were consistent with 7 The size of the morning coffee klatch groups varied from about 4standard Survey Sampling International classifications a maximumof just 60% of the time (58% for rural, 60% for suburban, and 49% to 10 members.for urban). 8 All but two groups allowed me to record their conversations. 521
  6. 6. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 Of course, my presence altered these conversations. Consistent with classic conceptions of group con-I intentionally steered the conversations, and the par- sciousness, identification as a rural resident was moreticipants likely altered what they said because of my than a geographic reference for many of the people I ´presence. When I sat in a restaurant, cafe, or other studied. It was imbued with perceptions of inequalitiesvenue before asking the group members for permis- of power, differences in values, and also inequalitiession to join them, I glimpsed what their talk was like in resources. In the following sections I explain thesein my absence. They appeared to swear less and talk three elements of this group consciousness, and thenpolitics more when they knew I was listening. More illustrate its particularity by contrasting conversationsimportantly, my presence as an outsider and urbanite in groups exhibiting this rural consciousness with con-most certainly raised the salience of place identity for versations in urban and suburban groups.rural groups. Because the purpose of this study is toinvestigate not whether place matters but how peopleuse it for understanding, this heightened salience facil- Poweritated the investigation. The rural vs. urban lens structured many rural resi- I designed my interview protocol to generate talk dents’ ideas about which geographic areas of the stateabout several topics that pilot studies suggested were had the ability to force other areas to do somethinglikely to invoke economic considerations and refer- they otherwise would not (i.e., the classic definitionences to social class: tax policy, immigration, higher of power, Dahl 1961) as well as ideas about who hadeducation, and health care. To analyze my data, I used power over the agenda (Bachrach and Baratz 1963).data displays and adjusted my collection as I pro- Commonly, people in rural areas would claim that theceeded to test the conclusions I was reaching (Miles and major decisions in the state were made in the urbanHuberman 1994). That is, as I collected transcripts from areas, by urban people, and communicated outward.the conversations, I read through them, looking for pat- Madison was the main target, because it is the state cap-terns across groups with respect to the kinds of consid- ital. Rural residents complained that authority flowederations people brought to bear in talking about public out from both Madison and Milwaukee, never in re-affairs. I displayed my data in a matrix in which the verse, and was exercised without regard for the con-rows represented particular groups, and the columns cerns, values, or knowledge of people in rural areas.represented different characteristics of the group and For example, in a far north central resort community,the broader community. I met with a group of leaders from the local government As I proceeded, I wrote memos detailing the patterns and public schools who gathered every morning in theI perceived (Feldman 1995). I analyzed what additional town hall. On two different visits, the members of thisevidence I would need to observe in order to validate small group asserted that the cities in the state held themy conclusions (and altered my protocol accordingly), majority of power. They complained that even stateand used the visual displays to test whether the patterns employees living in rural areas had little say in thewere pervasive and whether they varied across group regulations governing their communities. One man, atype (Miles and Huberman 1994, chap. 10). To further former employee of the state Department of Naturalverify my conclusions, I considered how my presence Resources, remarked that he had little control over theaffected the conversations, reexamined conversations way in which policies were implemented because “NowI deemed inconsistent with the patterns observed, con- the governor appoints all the big shots and they don’tsidered spurious relations, added additional groups to know [about our needs].”test for similar patterns among people of different de- Complaints of powerlessness were not just expres-mographic backgrounds, and sent detailed reports and sions of antigovernment or limited government sen-gave brief verbal reports of my results to the groups I timents: Half of the nonmetro groups perceived thatvisited so that they could comment on my conclusions public officials were particularly dismissive of non-(Miles and Huberman 1994, 262–77). metro people.9 That is, these antigovernment perspec- tives were rooted in residents’ place identities. TheyEMPIRICAL ANALYSIS claimed that officials had little experience of or under- standing with rural life and made little effort to listenWisconsin has two main metropolitan centers, both to rural residents’ concerns. One member of a group oflocated in the southern region: Milwaukee, the main retired and working women meeting for breakfast in aindustrial area, and Madison, the state capital and rural, far northern resort community explained:home of the state’s flagship public university (Uni-versity of Wisconsin–Madison). The rest of the state Theresa: As a former educator, I resented, highly, com-outside these urban centers is often called “Outstate,” ments such as, “There is no education north of Highwayand the northern tier of the state, largely a tourist area, 8 [a U.S. highway that runs East-West across the middleis typically called “Up North.” of the state]. These kids aren’t—” and we send them such For many rural residents, their identification as peo- absolutely excellent and well prepared students there thatple living in a rural area was central to the way theytalked about themselves and current events. For exam-ple, 18 of the 24 nonmetro groups called themselves 9 This perception was volunteered (i.e., I did not ask whether people“rural people,” or people “out here” or “up here,” agreed with such a statement.) Unless otherwise specified, that is thereferencing the rural/urban geography of the state. case for all other findings reported.522
  7. 7. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3 they—the attitude that the hick area of the state—was Values and Lifestyles painful. The second important dimension of this rural con- KCW: So who did you get that from? Recruiters? sciousness was the way the identification as rural was Theresa: Professors. imbued with claims that rural people have distinctive values and lifestyles in contrast to people in metro ar- KCW: Really? When they would visit? eas. Rural residents often talked about themselves as a Theresa: Yeah, or publish in newspaper articles or other, particular kind of people, and invoked this distinctive- you know—and that was a little distressful because I think ness to talk about the relative economic positions of northern Wisconsin feels a little far away from Madison their communities. anyway. And we keep waving our hands and saying, “Yoo In a small hamlet in the northwestern part of the hoo, there’s another half of a state up here! Up north is not state, a group meeting in the basement of the local Wausau [the main city in the central part of the state]!” church Tuesday mornings described their community as poor and lacking in jobs. They viewed health care The rural consciousness I observed contained atti- as part of an overarching crisis of inequality in whichtudes of trust, alienation, and efficacy with respect to decision makers in the urban power centers of the statepowerful institutions including the flagship university were out of touch with the lives of rural, ordinary folk.and the government. Many rural residents identified as They perceived that they had to work harder than peo-rural people and equated membership in that category ple in other parts of the state, and that people in urbanwith systematic disenfranchisement from the exercise areas, especially professionals, were lazy. When I askedof power in the state. them what the University of Wisconsin–Madison does We expect that who has a say in politics is under- not do well, they explained that people in Madison andstood in terms of haves and have-nots. But for rural Milwaukee have qualitatively different lifestyles thanresidents, the identification as rural drove notions of people in the rural parts of the state.who constituted the “haves” and “have-nots” and thuswho got attention. In this way, they intertwined place KCW: What do you think the University of Wisconsin–and class. Even higher income people in nonmetro ar- Madison does not do well? When you think about [it]. . . .eas used this lens. They saw themselves as of a lower Martha: Represents our area. I mean we are like, we’restatus than upper income people in the metro areas. strange to Madison. They want us to do everything forFor example, one group of professionals meeting for Madison’s laws and the way they do things, but we totallycoffee every morning in a diner in a city in the center live differently than the city people live. So they need toof the state remarked that it was unusual for someone think more rural instead of all this city area.from Madison to go to an outstate community to listen. Donna: We can’t afford to educate our children like they can in the cities. Simple as that. Don’t have the advantages. I think that we are impressed [that you come up here to Ethel: All the things they do, based on Madison and Mil- visit with us]. Because most of us, particularly in a state like waukee, never us. Wisconsin where politicians—none of the national ones Martha: Yeah, we don’t have the advantages that they give come and see us—you know we only have 10 electoral their local people there, I think a lot of times. And it is votes. I mean none of the politicians come to see us at all. probably because they don’t understand how rural people live and what we deal with and our problems. Such comments were often resentful and defensive.Thirty percent of nonmetro groups in places with popu- These comments exemplify how rural identity of-lations under 10,000 (N = 20) assumed that public deci- ten included claims that rural people live a particularsion makers in the metro areas held common negative lifestyle and those claims were interwoven with claimsstereotypes of rural residents, such as “hicks,” “country about inequality. People perceived that members of thebumpkins,” “rednecks,” and uneducated folks (Creed outgroup were a threat to their community, their values,and Ching 1997; Jarosz and Lawson 2002). They fired and their livelihood. For example, one April morning instereotypes back: Slightly more than a third of these 2008, a group composed mainly of retired public schoolgroups ridiculed urbanites’ lack of common sense, and teachers that met in a service station in a rural hamlet inprided themselves on understanding the land and earn- central Wisconsin criticized the public schools fundinging a living using their hands rather than sitting behind formula implemented under former Republican gov-a desk. ernor Tommy Thompson. One man said, In other words, like other group consciousnesses, thisrural consciousness simultaneously conveyed a sense of We know that many areas in northern and central Wiscon-pride in the ingroup and a sense of relative deprivation. sin, there are schools that are going to be forced out of their communities, and the problem with that really in aRural residents’ resentment of cities was not a percep- small town like this is that the only identity this town hastion that cities are idyllic places to live. Conversations anymore is the school. The school is the most importantin 11 of the 20 groups in nonmetro places smaller than business in town, and if the school wasn’t here, especially10,000 in population included comments that despite with the higher fuel costs, there’s really no reason that allthe hardships of rural life, they preferred their lifestyles the people who live here would choose to live in a smallto the fast pace and lack of rootedness of city living. place. . . . It’s not the first time in history that small towns 523
  8. 8. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 have been dried up and blown away, you know, in the boom ability to learn. How important do you think that reason days of the West, they did that all the time, but it’s really is for why some people have better jobs? going to change the fabric of rural America. Charlie: Basically what it amounts to is who has more ambition than the next person. Rural residents often blamed threats to rural life oncold, distant bureaucracies located in cities. They of- KCW: More ambition? Yeah?ten regarded governments, WalMarts, and even head- Charlie: Some people don’t have any ambition and theyquarters of corporate farms as urban entities, out of don’t wanna work.touch with the values that had at one time made ruralcommunities stable and secure places to live. In this Sam: That doesn’t mean you’re going to make more money.framework, rural residents readily viewed government Mexicans got more ambition than anybody. They keep the wages low.as antirural. KCW: Yeah? So one of the standard reasons they give isHard Work because some people just don’t work as hard. Is that—is that kind of what you are talking about?One value in particular that was central to the ruralconsciousness I observed was a belief in hard work. Jim: Yeah Sam kind of hit the nail on the head.Many Americans value hard work (McClosky and Za- Sam: He goes to work every day, does the same thing, ifller 1984, chap. 4). But many of the rural people in they cut the price [of timber], you ain’t gonna make nothis study understood even this common value through money. Cut the price, work longer.their group consciousness, and used these notions to Stu: Yeah—I worked all weekend.talk about government and government employees.To illustrate, I examine the way Republicans and then KCW: So even working hard, that’s not what counts forDemocrats invoked this value.10 Many Republicans in earning a higher income?general, regardless of type of place of residence, linked Jim: Well no—what are you going to do? We’re in thatideas of hard work with opposition to social welfare industry. . . .programs. They would say that people do not work Sam: You’re really not rewarded a lot as far as. . . .as hard as they used to, or that certain people workless than others and thus are less deserving of taxpayer Jim: No you’re not.money. For example, in a breakfast group in a Mil-waukee suburb, the members repeatedly lamented thatyoung people are not willing to work as hard as people The members of this group called themselves “ain older generations. Rural Republicans, in contrast to bunch of sawdust heads,” in other words, loggers, ormetro Republicans, would express similar sentiments people who earned a living in a distinctively rural in-but would emphasize their commitment to a work ethic dustry. They saw themselves as rural people: peopleby claiming that the rural way of life in particular man- who worked hard and who are by definition of a placedated hard work. that is economically disadvantaged. Democratic groups talked about hard work in a dif- The manner in which rural consciousness worked inferent way from Republican groups: Hard work was these conversations illustrates how people use groupimportant, but not necessarily enough to make ends consciousness as well as partisanship to understandmeet. For example, Democrats among a group of log- politics. Partisanship helps explain how these peoplegers meeting in a rural, northwest town talked about relate hard work to economic success. But their ruralhow much people in their community work, and said consciousness is doing part of the work as well.that people in general should work for the benefits If rural consciousness is not subsumed by partisan-they receive (akin to comments in Republican groups). ship, then is it explained away by race? The wideningBut when I asked them a standard survey question to conflict between urban and rural areas is driven in partprobe their ideas about income inequality, their com- by racial mobilization (Gimpel and Schuknecht 2003);ments departed from the typical Republican group con- racial resentment is likely a big part of the resentmentversation: toward urban areas. The striking extent of racial seg- regation in Wisconsin makes it undeniable that when KCW: In America today, some people have better jobs and people refer to “those people in Milwaukee” they are higher incomes than others do. Why do you think that is, often referring to racial minorities. However, it is a that some Americans have better jobs and higher income vast oversimplification to regard the rural vs. urban than others do? There is a bunch of different reasons peo- sentiments in these conversations as simply racism. For ple typically give—and you all tell me whether you think example, when white outstaters complained of the lazi- it is a bunch of bunk, or whether you think that is a good ness in the cities, their comments were almost always reason. One is, because some people have more inborn directed at white people: government bureaucrats and faculty members at the flagship public university.10 I assessed partisanship via listening to volunteered identities, re- If we simply write off rural residents’ antipathy to-sponses to questions about voting history, and perceptions of atten- ward urban areas as a cover for racism, it does three un-tiveness of the parties to concerns of “people like you,” and also bybluntly inquiring about partisanship. If such direct prompts were not fortunate things for our understanding of public opin-fruitful, I did not classify groups as leaning toward one or the other ion. First, it implies that urban life is less racist thanparty. rural life, an assumption belied by the striking level524
  9. 9. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3of racial segregation within U.S. metro areas. Second, average household incomes are higher in urban areasassuming that rural consciousness is centrally antipathy in this state, but there is only slightly more poverty andtoward people of color in urban places prevents us from unemployment in the rural areas.14recognizing the orientations toward government in this Although the empirical evidence does not consis-group consciousness. Tea Party campaigns may partly tently support the view that rural residents suffer fromappeal to racism, but they also resonate with many economic distributive injustice in Wisconsin, the ruralof the perceptions of inequality and alienation from residents I observed often assumed otherwise. Theygovernment observed in these conversations. That is, perceived that the rural vs. urban distinction was thethe preference for limited government that stems from main way to characterize the distribution of taxation,this particular intertwining of class- and place-based wealth, and the cost of goods and services in the state.identity and perceived deprivation in itself suggests In the breakfast group of women in a rural tourist town,attraction to many Tea Party messages. Third, writing people complained that their utility and public serviceoff rural consciousness as just about race prevents us bills were much greater than in the urban areas of thefrom confronting the complexity and intractability of state. One woman said,the racism that did emerge in these conversations. The cost of the water and sewer here is outrageous com- pared to what they pay in Madison. So here is big richResources Madison, with all the good high-paying jobs, getting theThe third prominent dimension of the rural conscious- cheapest water, and we have people up here who haveness I observed was an understanding of the distri- three months of employment [because of the short tourist season], what are they paying? And I feel like there shouldbution of resources such as jobs, wealth, and public be more sharing—less taxes going to Madison to help off-expenditures in rural vs. urban terms. Seventeen of the set. . . .24 nonmetro groups perceived that their communitiesdid not receive their fair share of resources, and also A man in the northwest logging group about one hourbelieved metro residents misunderstood this inequal- south lamented, “I mean, rightfully so, you know, popu-ity. They felt that people in the urban areas downstate lation centers, that’s where the majority of the stuff hasbelieved that those “Up North” lived leisurely lives in eventually got to go. It just makes sense. But you can’tidyllic recreation areas. They said that such perceptions ignore everything up here either, you know.” Likewise,obscured the “fact” that economic resources were con- a group of men at a diner in a rural northern centralcentrated in the cities. They perceived that urban areas tourist town talked skeptically about the Obama ad-had less unemployment and the best jobs. They reg- ministration stimulus proposal, because they assumedularly complained that their tax dollars were “sucked none of the funds would focus on rural areas. One manin” by Madison and spent on that city or Milwaukee, said, “But the trickle down won’t get to here becausenever to be seen again. we don’t have any business. So the trickle down will These perceptions are only partially supported em- stop at Green Bay, Wausau [cities south of where theypirically. In Wisconsin, rural counties do receive fewer live]. . . .”public dollars than urban counties.11 However, when These comments display the ways people used theiranalyzed on a per capita basis, rural residents do not rural consciousness to understand the aggregate distri-receive fewer federal tax dollars than urban residents, bution of wealth. Rural residents also used this con-and actually receive more state tax dollars.12 Also, sciousness to understand the individual-level distribu-when we move to the municipal level and look at the tion of wealth, claiming that all the wealthy people liveallocation of resources by county governments in this in urban areas (cf. Bell 1992, 78). For example, in thestate, rural residents appear to be getting more than diner group just mentioned, a man remarked, “Every-their fair share of resources (McGee 2002). With re- body in [the] northern [part of the state] makes moneygard to taxation, rural residents do pay more state and off of tourists . . . [the tourists] bring some of that freshlocal taxes on a per capita basis.13 Regarding income, money up.” On a different visit to the same group, a11 The analyses supporting this paragraph were conducted by county, different man said simply, “When you get down in theas correlations between percentage rural (according to the 2000 U.S. city, people are making more money.” A woman inCensus) and the variable of interest. Because this is census, not a northwest rural town said, “Just remember that upsample, data, I do not report significance levels. Regarding whether here many people have two and three part time jobsrural counties receive fewer public dollars than urban counties, the to survive,” implying that people in other areas of the2002 Census of Governments shows a negative correlation betweenruralness and total federal allocations at r = −0.37 and between state do not need to work multiple jobs.ruralness and total state allocations at r = −0.55.12 The correlation between percentage rural and federal dollarsper capita was r = 0.05; between percentage rural and state dol-lars per capita r = 0.31. Also, an analysis of federal dollars allo- local (r = −0.64), state (r = −0.55), and federal (r = −0.38) tax thancated through the 2009 stimulus legislation, as indicated by Propub- urban counties, respectively, but per capita, people in more rurallica.com, a public interest investigative journalism Web site (http:// counties do pay more local (r = 0.62) and state tax (r = 0.47), butprojects.propublica.org/recovery), showed only a slight relationship slightly less federal tax (r = −0.19).on a per capita basis with ruralness (r = 0.17), although rural counties 14 The county-level relationship between percentage rural and aver-receive less in the aggregate (r = −0.55). age household income is r = −0.64; percentage rural and percentage13 Based on the 2009 Wisconsin Department of Revenue Report on below federal poverty line is r = 0.01; percentage rural and percent-Revenues and Expenditures, in the aggregate rural counties pay less age unemployed is r = 0.09. 525
  10. 10. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 When residents of rural tourist areas complained that meets in the town hall, and the suburban groupabout the mistaken impression that they live leisurely meets in a local diner for breakfast.lives, they would explain that it was impossible for them Both groups complained that people in governmentto enjoy the good weather months because they were do not listen to their concerns, described themselvestoo busy working multiple jobs at that time of year. In as hard-working Americans, and believed that taxpay-addition, they said they were too poor to live a tourist ers too often cover the cost of social welfare benefitslifestyle. Tourism jobs are seasonal, low-paying, and for lazy, undeserving people. The suburban Milwau-insecure, they said, necessitating hard work, not leisure. kee group argued that the main problem with health The rural perception of being on the short end of eco- care is that we already have national health care innomic inequality was often expressed as statements of the United States: We pay for the entire cost of emer-systematic injustice. Ten of the 24 nonmetro groups as- gency room visits for illegal aliens and lazy “welfare im-sumed that people in the metro areas are taxed at much migrants” from Chicago. They complained that hard-lower rates than rural residents. Another common per- working Americans like themselves die because theyception was that urbanites had driven up property val- cannot afford better care.15ues in their communities by purchasing expensive vaca- The rural group likewise said the health care systemtion homes. Some claimed these increases had driven is broken. (It was the first community concern theylocals out of their own communities. They described mentioned when I first invited myself into their groupthese rising property values, driven by urbanites, as a in January 2008.) In contrast to the suburban group,threat to their personal and community identities (cf. however, they said that health care was a major concernBell 1992, 76). For example, on the first morning that in their community because rural economies were soI met with the group of women in the rural northwest downtrodden. They portrayed the inability to pay fortourist town, one member showed me a list she had health insurance as simply part of rural life. Also, theycomposed of 60 people who had been forced out of blamed the inability of their community to overcometheir homes by urbanites buying expensive vacation economic challenges on urbanites’ bad decisions. Onehomes. “The old time families have left or are leaving,” man explained that “Another of the big concerns upshe said. “The character of the town is changing and it here is that people have moved in here, and they’veis just too bad.” been here for two or three years, and then they start telling the people around here how the county should be running [laughter], and they don’t know anything about it.” Within minutes of my meeting them, theRural Consciousness in Contrast to group members had introduced me to the perspective that rural residents face special problems: an economyUrban and Suburban Conversations in which jobs are scarce, and when available, only sea-To further clarify the nature of this rural consciousness sonal, low-paying, and without benefits. And they didand explain how it structured political understanding, so by contrasting themselves against city people (thoseI contrast conversations in rural groups with those who have “moved in here”) who assume they under-occurring in urban and suburban areas. Many urban stand rural life but make decisions to the contrary.and suburban people mentioned place when describ- In other words, both groups made references to placeing themselves and their views to me. However, it was in their conversations about health care. However,only among rural residents that I observed the use of members of the rural group talked as though they are ofperspectives that equated where one lived with the a particular type of place and that affiliation is synony-distribution of power, values, and resources in soci- mous with their relative position in society. That basicety. For example, a group of African-Americans in identification conveyed their perception of inequality,Milwaukee that met in the basement of their church power, and values and their sense of right and wrong.after Sunday services referred to their ZIP code while People in both groups considered themselves hard-arguing that city officials give them little power in city working Americans. But the rural group saw them-decision making. Suburban Milwaukee groups pointed selves as a particular subgroup of hard-working Amer-to the city as attracting an unfair share of resources. icans: rural folks, who truly knew what it was to live inHowever, when these metro-area residents described difficult circumstances.unjust allocations of resources or power, they did not Another illustration of the way consciousness as arefer to place. Instead, they referred to race, political rural resident structured understanding comes fromideology, or citizenship status. conversations that took place several months after To illustrate the particular way rural groups used Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took office in Jan-their place consciousness, I first contrast discussions uary 2011 and gained national attention for his bud-about health care within a northern rural group with get proposals. These proposals, issued in early 2011,those within a suburban Milwaukee group. Both groups eliminated most collective bargaining rights for mostare comprised of self-proclaimed conservatives, and public employees, and required public employees toboth are comprised of retired and current small busi- substantially increase their contributions to health careness owners, and also retired public school teachers.The northern group also includes one current state De- 15 I visited with this group four times in January and February of 2009,partment of Natural Resources employee. Both meet before the peak of the health care reform battle, in the summer andevery weekday morning. The rural group is the group fall of 2009.526
  11. 11. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3and pension benefits. Hundreds of thousands of peo- Harold: Let me tell you something. There is nobody thatple demonstrated at the state capitol in protest over had a rougher childhood and place to stay than I did.a period of several months. I contrast the reactions Stu: I’m not—to these events among two blue-collar groups, manymembers of which said they vote Democratic, but of- Harold: Now wait a second [wagging his finger]. I usedten expressed moderate or conservative views. Both to work and swing a 16-pound maul. I built the first pierare located in predominantly Democratic areas of the in front of The Edgewater [a lakeside hotel in town], see, and I was about 12, 13 years old and swinging a 16 poundstate. One meets every morning at a diner in Madison, sledge from the minute I got out of school until the sunand the other is the one that meets every morning in a went down . . . and I got a quarter a week if the guy gotgas station in a rural northern town. Both groups are paid by the sorority house/fraternity house [behind whichcomposed of current or retired laborers; many in the he also built piers] . . . I used to have to catch 100 fishMadison group are former union members. Most of the before breakfast if the whole family was going to eat thatmembers of the rural group are currently working in day. Clean ’em and skin ’em and sell them for a quarter athe logging industry, as owners of small logging busi- dozen or 2 cents a piece. So I know what it is to be on thenesses. One of the members of that group is a current bottom. And I would do it all over again. But the people atlocal elected official (a Democrat). the top, they are just milking us dry on taxes. That’s what During my visits prior to 2011, members of both it is. And 90% of ‘em, up in that state office building or wherever the hell they are working, if they lost the job theygroups had complained that state employees have ex- got, they would lay down in the gutter outside here andorbitant health care and pension benefits, are ineffi- die, since they don’t know how to do anything else. Therecient, and do not work very hard. However, in 2011, the ain’t very many of ‘em that sweat. . . . I still know how toMadison group talked about the protests and budget work. I’m 82 years old and I’m driving a semi!issues with reference to their individual status as hardworkers, whereas the rural group discussed the protestsand budget through the lens of rural people governed Harold’s notions of deservingness centered on hisby arrogant urbanites. personal identity as someone who has labored ex- On a February 2008 morning visit to the Madison tremely hard his entire life. The members of this groupgroup, I asked what the important concerns were in in general interpreted the merits of Walker’s budgettheir community. Immediately, their resentment to- proposals by considering whether or not public em-ward public employee benefits was clear. One man ployees worked hard and were therefore deserving ofturned to me and asked, “How about wages for people? taxpayer support (Soss and Schram 2007). This con-Ya educated people get all the money. . . . I worked, trasts with the group of loggers who used their placewe worked in the trades, we don’t get anywhere that consciousness, not personal identity, to talk about de-kind of money that they get, and all the benefits they servingness.get.” Then another man, Harold, turned to me and When I first visited the group of loggers, in Junesaid, “That includes you, too. They bleed the rest of us 2007, I asked them whether they thought they paidto death.” their fair share in taxes. Their perception that govern- When I visited this group shortly after the protests ment is wasteful and government workers are lazy waserupted in Madison in February 2011, all of the mem- quickly evident as they talked about the state govern-bers agreed state workers should pay more into their ment wasting money on road projects. That part of thepensions and health benefits, but only Harold agreed conversation ended this way:with Walker’s attempts to eliminate most collectivebargaining for most public employees. “The teachers’ Jim: Too many studies.union—they been in there—they were in there like the Fred: Not enough work.cat at the bowl of milk. Then they turned it to cream.And then they turned it to ice cream. And finally it’s Jim: Too much bureaucracy in the system.gonna melt!” And then one of the pro-union members Fred: They do waste a lot of money on surveying roads.said: Sam: All those state employees we look at ‘em and we don’t think they do much. Stu: Oh no it’s not only the teachers’ union, it’s all the unions—state employees. Later in my visit, I asked the group about hard work: Harold: You name me one thing that they’ve given up in KCW: Sometimes people say—survey researchers ask the past 45 years. It’s nothing, nothing, nothing. about different occupations and they ask people which one they think works the hardest. Tell me what you think—if Stu: It’s not a matter of what they are giving up. It’s taking you compare a professor, a public school teacher, a wait- away collective bargaining. ress, a farmer, and a construction worker, which ones do Harold: I’m sick of collective bargaining. And I’m a tax- you think work the hardest? payer. And you are too! And you sit here bellyaching about Sam: The last three. paying taxes and you don’t want to. . . . Steve: Yeah. Stu: No no no no! Sam: And for no benefits. [“Time outs!” from some members. KCW: “I don’t mean to start a fight here.”] KCW: Yeah? How about those first two—like— 527
  12. 12. Putting Inequality in Its Place August 2012 Sam: I think a school teacher—I know it can be hard. But agencies do not benefit society. They just meddle in they got great benefits. Tremendous benefits. And if you’ve people’s lives, especially the lives of people they know been there for 15, 20 years, you’re making 50 grand a year. nothing about—rural people. There’s nobody in town other than them making 50 grand a year. The guys in the [local] mill make 20 thousand. Ron: The Koch brothers [major funders of Walker and other conservative candidates nationwide], they’re private During this and other visits, they explained that ru- individuals, private businesses. OK? The only ones thatral communities like their own faced especially dif- are paying, they’re charging their customers like you or Ificult economic circumstances. They said that unlike whatever you’re using. They’re dumping all that expensethe metro areas, their community’s economy was not onto their customers, the consumer. And the, and the, andin a temporary downturn or recession, but rather was the whole ball of wax, the consumer is paying, one wayenduring a long, slow death. During my first visit to or the other. But, like, Koch brothers or whatever they’retheir group in June 2007, they explained: into, they are creating jobs that are producing something that are beneficial, like, whatever they’re, like electricity or whatever, you know? So you—just tell me, how can I Louis: [It’s a great place to live] if you like poverty. put this politely? Frank: Yeah, it is poverty [describing their town]. [The KCW: Oh you don’t have to! group chuckles.] There ain’t no businesses going in up here. Ron: No, no, I’m just saying— KCW: Yeah, a lot of folks leaving? KCW: You don’t have to put it politely. Louis: No, most of us can’t afford to leave. Ron: How can you, I mean state employees, I mean you’ve Frank: Yeah. got lots of, lots of divisions in the state that are just, just Charlie: Well I stayed here all my life, I never made enough take like the DNR, ok? You’ve got the DNR with all this money to leave. environmental bullshit, we got a job, 1700 good paying jobs if this mine starts up [referring to a controversy over a KCW: Gosh. proposed nearby iron ore mine that would allegedly have Frank: No industry up here. major environmental impacts yet provide an estimated 800 jobs for 15 years.] They’re all fighting it. . . . Because of the Jim: Only thing we have up here is lumbering, trees, or water pollution and the air pollution and everything else. logs or what have you. Every one of us here— But it’s, the chances of [pollution] happening are so slim that it’s, you know, because they’re gonna be so dictated to, Fred: We’re all a bunch of sawdust heads. what they can do and what they can’t, but [the politicians and state workers] are not worried about the 7 or 800 In April 2008, when I asked them what they thought jobs, they already got their jobs with their benefits andabout the presidential race, they said the outcome did everything else.not matter to people so far removed from the urbancenters. Steve put it this way: “I can’t see the differ-ence it’s gonna make up here anyway. We’ve been in a Later in the conversation, another logger arrived justrecession up here for 30 years, 40 years. We don’t know as I was about to leave. I explained that I hoped to beany different. People talk about recession, you oughta back within the year, and he mentioned the mine issuecome up here.” (unaware that others in the group had talked about it This consciousness of themselves as people perpet- earlier).ually in economic hard times characterized their con-versations long before Walker became governor, and it Luke: Come back if they shoot down this mining. Thenstructured the way they talked about state politics once we’ll really be mad.he was in office. When I revisited this group in May2011, several months after the protests, just a few men Ron: Well, the thing is, if they do it the way it’s set up rightwere present, all self-proclaimed Walker supporters.16 now it would take 10 years to get all the permits and. . . .Two of them had recently attended a nearby Repub- We need jobs now, not 10 years from now.lican fundraiser at which Walker spoke. I asked them Luke: Well in 10 years, this probably won’t be here prob-why they leaned Republican even though the surround- ably [motions to the town outside.]ing area tended to vote Democratic, and they said that Ron: Yeah we won’t be here in 10. You know, I meanthey were both small business owners, and their eco- we need ’em now. And the local people are, truthfully, 90,nomic views better aligned with the Republicans. probably 98 percent of the local people are for this mining, I asked Ron why the prevailing economic divide is you know, but you got these small groups that, you know,public workers versus private workers, rather than the every day you look in the paper there’s somebody writingpeople versus big business. He responded through the articles against it, you know. . . . We need good paying jobs.lens of his rural consciousness. He said big business Simple as that. . . . We can’t afford to lose them up here.produces things beneficial to society, whereas state People down south have good, basically have some good advantages, getting some good paying jobs. . . . They have no clue, other people don’t have no clue what’s going on16 When I first arrived, there were three men present, but over the up here.course of my hour-long visit, attendance ebbed and flowed betweenone and four people. Luke: No.528
  13. 13. American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3 Ron: Down in the cities, they don’t even know their neigh- did not get their fair share of resources), people were bors most of ‘em. often astonished that I found it necessary to ask (Soss KCW: Well yeah, I just meant— 2006, 319). Luke: What I, what I get a kick out of is now, with this going on, is now it’s garnering like national attention and CONCLUSION everybody from out of the area rushes up here and says how great and wonderful it is and how much they love it up This study contributes to the preoccupation with why here. They probably never been here before in their life. people vote against their interests by implementing an But they want to save it. Well where that mine is gonna go ethnographic approach to the study of public opinion. is where my deer stand is. . . . But, for the general good of It draws attention to an important form of group con- my grandchildren, and the other children and the people sciousness, rural consciousness. That is, studying con- that live in this area who’ve been struggling to get by their versations about public affairs among 37 groups of peo- whole life: Hey, put the mine in. ple that meet of their own accord across 27 communi- Ron: Yeah. ties in Wisconsin reveals the role that class- and place- based social identities combined with perceptions of Luke: Let’s get some, let’s get some life in this area. distributive justice play in the construction of political Ron: Yeah. meaning. The study explains the nature of rural con- sciousness among particular people in Wisconsin, and Luke: Let’s re-, let’s rejuvenate our future. how it works to frame their understanding of politics. Ron: Our lights are just about shot. The reader may wonder whether rural consciousness Luke: Yeah. . . . They all have their big jobs and their big is just epiphenomenal— a byproduct of feelings of dis- fancy cars. trust, alienation, and lack of efficacy, or simply a way for people to rationalize those sentiments. The fore- Ron: Yeah. going analyses instead show that rural consciousness is Luke: And their lifestyle and they come up here and tell more accurately understood as an explanation for these us how to live. orientations to government. Treating orientations to government as more central to political understand- Ron: Yeah, yeah. ing than group consciousness assumes that politics is more central to most people than their social identities. Like Harold in the Madison group, these men have The theories of psychological understanding consid-been “struggling to get by their whole life.” But in ered earlier, as well as the conversations investigatedcontrast to Harold, their economic circumstances are in this study, suggest otherwise.inseparable from their identification as people of a cer- What does this examination of rural consciousnesstain type of place. Harold’s attitudes about benefits to do for our explanations of political understanding andpublic workers are a function of his individual expe- for future positivist analyses? First, it suggests hypothe-rience, but for the men in this rural group, they are a ses. Beyond the questions of generalizability (e.g., Doesfunction of their rural consciousness. That is, because this rural consciousness show up in other states? Doesthis rural consciousness is a lens through which they group consciousness matter for rural Americans?), itview the world as rural residents/people of relatively suggests the use of different hypotheses in researchinglower income/ people of less power, they screen out the the gap between interests and votes. In the conversa-possibility that public workers are people like them- tions of this study, it is not the case that people expressselves. They view those workers as outgroup members, a reluctance to tax the rich because they believe theyas wealthier people with different values and interests too may be rich someday. Indeed, many of the ruralthat are inconsistent with their own. residents in this study perceive that they and their com- In this and other groups, is it the case that my pres- munities are stuck in endless cycles of poverty. Instead,ence as an outsider and urbanite in the rural groups their reluctance to tax the rich is rooted in a complexmade people use the lens of rural consciousness? In narrative in which government action is by definitionrural areas, my presence likely heightened the salience an injustice to themselves, and taxation only resultsof the outgroup of urbanites of which I was a part in rewarding the antithesis of good Americans’ work(Turner et al. 1994). However, rural consciousness was ethic. We also do not see people focusing on socialnot an artifact of my presence. First, the contrast with issues such as abortion. In fact, in the 82 conversationsthe urban and suburban groups underscores that rural observed over the four years of this study, no one everconsciousness was not just a place identity. It contained mentioned abortion.17perceptions of the distribution of power, values, and re- Thus, this analysis suggests that in future positivistsources that could not have been constructed suddenly approaches we hypothesize that preferences for smallin my presence. Second, the readiness with which rural government are a function not just of policy type,consciousness arose in conversations suggests the peo-ple I spent time with used it frequently even before Imet them. Third, rural consciousness was so fundamen- 17 Surely at least some of the people I spent time with felt intenselytal to the manner in which rural residents made sense of about abortion, but perhaps guarded their views on the assumptionpublic affairs, that when I asked about it directly (such that I was pro-choice. Nevertheless, the lack of mention of this topicas asking whether they perceived that rural residents is striking. 529