How on earth did Donald Trump become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016? How did we wind up with such a nasty and bitter election between two of the most disliked candidates in modern history? Is there any hope for a better, more civil politics? These questions will surely launch scores of books in the years to come, but for now, we have two excellent ones to start with, both of which offer compelling, if pessimistic, explanations for how we got where we are (including anticipating Trump, albeit indirectly), and why things are unlikely to get better anytime soon.
Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker is the product of a six-year listening tour in which Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, got in her car and drove around rural Wisconsin to learn how voters there actually discuss politics when they talk to each other over coffee and in discussion groups. Cramer isn’t interested in putting down working-class whites because they may get their facts wrong or fail to vote their self-interest. She’s interested in understanding how they reason through a complex world. As a result, these conversations—many of which she quotes verbatim—infuse The Politics of Resentment with a complex humanity that is rare in books about public opinion. The payoff is a narrative with both nuance and depth.
For many rural voters, resentment toward urban elites has become the organizing principle of their politics, writes Cramer. They look around and see their towns struggling. They believe that they are ignored by policymakers, and convinced that they do not get their fair share of resources. (This is more perception than reality: data shows that mostly rural Wisconsin counties actually get a little more state and federal money per capita than mostly urban counties. At the national level, a Mother Jones analysis found that 81 percent of predominantly rural states got more federal spending than they paid in taxes, while only 44 percent of predominantly urban states did.) These rural Wisconsinites do not feel that their values and lifestyles—which they see as fundamentally distinct—are understood and respected by those living in cities. “Our votes mean nothing,” said one person; “I think we are just hung out there to dry,” said another; “I think you’ve forgotten rural America,” said a third.
Thus it follows that big-city politicians must be taking that money and spending it on their constituents. “Many people in small towns perceived that their tax dollars are being ‘sucked in’ by Madison or Milwaukee, never to be seen again,” writes Cramer.
Rural voters often resent how much government employees make—that information is public, and it looks to them like pretty good money, especially with the benefits these employees get. And they don’t understand what those people actually do, other than occasionally harassing them for fishing without a license or telling them how to run their small business. To rural residents, public employees are, in the words of one respondent, “[s]ecretaries, with secretaries, with secretaries.”Politics is far more about identity than it is about ideology; that is, most voters and even politicians care far more about their side winning than they do about specific policy principles.
Which is very different from how these voters see themselves. “Many people [take] enormous pride in using their hands rather than . . . sitting behind a desk all day,” Cramer writes. “I still know how to work,” boasted one man. “I’m eighty-two years old and I’m driving a semi.” Some have two or three jobs, each demanding hard physical labor. There was special disdain for those who, in the words of one interviewee, “shower before work, not afterwards.” Add this up, and you begin to see how many low-income residents in rural areas who would very much benefit from some redistribution have come to resent government.
Conservative politicians have played skillfully on these resentments, rallying these folks to small-government causes on the premise that government spending is just a giant wealth transfer from hardworking honest country folks to undeserving urban dwellers, of both the paper-pushing government bureaucrat type and the stroller-pushing welfare queen type.
And yes, there is a racial element to this, as Cramer notes. “Urban” can be code for black. But she’s careful to point out that the racial element can’t be disentangled from a larger sense of identity. Racial differences are far from the only aspect of the “us versus them” construct that separates rural and urban identities.
It is little wonder that both Donald Trump and Scott Walker do so well among this demographic. Walker is seen as somebody who is finally sticking it to those bureaucrats, who lazed around in their cushy office jobs all day. “There is no reality in Madison,” said one person Cramer interviewed. In a survey Cramer conducted, 16 percent of suburban and 25 percent of urban respondents felt rural areas received “much less” or “somewhat less” than their fair share. But 69 percent of rural respondents felt that way. “The people at the top,” said one respondent, “they are just milking us dry on taxes.”
Rural counties have always been poorer, and there is less private investment because the workforce tends to be less skilled and less well educated. Local ownership of mom-and-pop businesses, which were once the commercial lifeblood of rural towns, is disappearing. According to an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, the effects of the recent recovery haven’t always trickled down to rural counties. Between 2010 to 2014, roughly two out of three of those counties lost jobs, compared to under one in five who lost jobs in the 1990s. So despite the actual public investment, Cramer reports, “many rural residents perceive that rural communities are the victims of economic injustice.”
To this, the conservative pitch has been simple: You country folks keep sending money to the government, and all you get is disrespected and ignored. So let’s just stop sending your money and cut government spending instead. Donald Trump has skillfully played on these grievances, simply by acknowledging them and promising to right all wrongs, using vague promises to return to a halcyon, prosperous past. In Cramer’s telling, this is precisely the message that America’s rural residents have been waiting to hear for years.
Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolf, professors of political science at Vanderbilt University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively, have together written Why Washington Won’t Work, about the decline of trust in government. Theirs is a simple takeaway: our politics have become so polarized that Democrats only trust Democrats and Republicans only trust Republicans. It becomes increasingly difficult to deal with political opponents if you suspect that they are acting in bad faith. And so a negative spiral of dysfunction, disappointment, and further distrust is created.
Both of these books cast doubt on the prevalent narrative long pedaled by conservative elites: that America was a deeply conservative country that loves free markets and hates government entitlements, proven by the electoral successes of conservative Republicans who ran against big government and won. As Trump has demonstrated, Republican voters were indeed angry. But not because government was spending too much. Rather, as these voters saw it, government was spending mostly to help people other than themselves.
Both books also cast doubt on the long-enduring, bipartisan fantasy of compromise being just a matter of politicians’ willingness to engage in a little give-and-take at work and then grab drinks with their colleagues after hours. Instead, the authors demonstrate that the us-versus-them divisions run deep in American politics, with powerful pressures that cannot simply be papered over by Beltway socializing. Polling by the Pew Foundation discovered that 52 percent of registered voters—regardless of color, gender, or age—want to see their candidate be willing to compromise. (Interestingly, that number jumps to 63 percent among registered Democrats, while only 35 percent of registered Republicans want their candidate to reach across the aisle.)
Had pundits internalized the analysis of these two books, they might have been less surprised by Trump’s rise, because they would have understood that politics is far more about identity than it is about ideology; that is, that most voters and even politicians care far more about their side winning than they do about specific policy principles. Witness the many Republican politicians who denounced Trump for the entire primary campaign but then quickly got on board to support him after he became the Republican nominee, because he, like them, identified as a Republican. After all, even the craziest Republican has to be better than a Democrat. Identity, be it partisan or geographic, invariably pushes voters to ask, “Is this good for my side?” They might also have understood that conservatives who believe philosophically in smaller government have a natural incentive to stoke resentment and distrust of government among their constituents—but that distrust and resentment is not the same thing as an actual preference for smaller government.
Where the Politics of Resentment draws on face-to-face conversations, Why Washington Won’t Work is a more traditional political science public opinion book: a few chapters of theory, then a few chapters of survey data analysis. That said, it’s clearly and engagingly written, and full of intelligent insights.
Where Cramer focuses on rural consciousness and resentment as the organizing concepts of political conflict, Hetherington and Rudolf focus on partisanship and distrust. “Political trust is critical,” they write, “because it helps create consensus in the mass public by providing a bridge between the governing party’s policy ideas and the opinions of those who usually support the other party.” If Republicans trust the government to do what is right even with a Democrat in the White House, they’ll give Democrats at least some benefit of the doubt in negotiating a policy compromise. But without that reservoir of trust, there’s no room to negotiate. Hence, the current gridlock. Trust is a complex indicator, driven by multiple factors. But generally it declines when government screws up, when the economy is bad, and when the political process seems messy and corrupt.
During the recession in 2008, trust in government declined somewhat generally. When Barack Obama took the White House in 2009, Republican trust in government declined dramatically. In that sort of environment, it became very difficult for Obama to get any Republican support for the needed stimulus, which forced a compromise stimulus bill that many believed was far short of what was actually necessary. (By contrast, tax cuts sell well in a low-trust environment: if you don’t trust the government to spend your money, why give it to them in the first place?)
The noisy and visible conflicts that have increasingly dominated Washington turn people off from government and politics. The gridlock of these conflicts also further depresses the responsiveness of government. “Americans do not like to see democracy in action,” write Hetherington and Rudolf, “even though they profess loving democracy in theory.” Which might explain why the recent economic numbers showing rising incomes across the board failed to assuage voters’ anxiety. “If economic performance is the engine that drives political trust,” Hetherington and Rudolf write, “that engine needs to work about four times as hard for about four times as long to raise trust as it does to lower it.” That’s because when the economy improves, people stop paying attention to it and fail to notice the good job government is doing. Instead, they focus on new problems.
And, like Cramer, Hetherington and Rudolf note that conservatives have an obvious incentive to fan the flames of mistrust, because they benefit politically. While liberal policy initiatives depend on government activity, a lack of political trust “will more often put a brake on liberal policy initiatives than conservative ones.”
Both books end on a pessimistic note. In their final chapter, “Things Will Probably Get Better, but We Are Not Sure How,” Hetherington and Rudolf argue that the high-trust era of the 1950s and ’60s may be a historical anomaly, since it benefited from the unique combination of long-run economic growth and the predominance of international issues, both of which tend to improve trust in government.
Certainly, a global conflict would be one way to improve trust, since as Hetherington and Rudolf write, “Out-group threats trigger various manifestations of in-group solidarity.” (Think 9/11 and George W. Bush’s stratospheric approval ratings.) War may be good for the health of the state, as Friedrich Hegel once put it. But it has other obvious drawbacks.
Both books note that many specific sectors of government and individual government programs do enjoy high approval and trust, and suggest that politicians who want to build more trust in government and reduce resentment focus more attention there. For example, people have favorable opinions about government programs like Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, talking about government programs that function well is boring, and not newsworthy by modern media standards. The headlines and political rewards go to those who are crusading against corruption and wrongdoing. These are powerful incentives.
“My fear is that democracy will always tend toward a politics of resentment,” admits Cramer, “in which savvy politicians figure out ways to amass coalitions by tapping into our deepest and most salient social divides: race, class, culture, and place.” The evidence is compelling. The norm of American democracy appears to be deep and divisive conflict between competing social groups and political tribes, all of whom want government to spend money on them and them alone. This stands as a powerful counterargument to those who are convinced that the problem with Washington is that politicians don’t spend enough time after hours in Georgetown salons, where Rs and Ds give way to Maker’s Marks and Woodford Reserves, and where moneyed elites can all agree that the biggest problem is government spending on entitlements.
In a broader sense, these books vindicate James Madison’s age-old observations about the unavoidability of factions. Political conflict, resentment, and mistrust may just be the natural state of things, with the postwar era of bipartisan consensus being an aberration that resulted from a rare period of continued economic growth, shared prosperity, and the primacy of international conflict. If we grant this conclusion, perhaps the task of political reform becomes not trying to minimize conflict, but instead accepting, channeling, and managing the inevitable struggles that are endemic to politics—just as Madison divined.