The loss of the so-called flyover states was the key—and very surprising—factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss of last year’s presidential election. Some pundits attributed the outcome to racism among white rural voters and even blamed these voters for supposedly making choices harmful to their own economic self-interest. Common as this analysis is, it may contribute to the pathology it seeks to combat.The very designation of flyover states conceals important divisions within those states. These divisions go beyond race and class to include intensely held sense of rural versus urban social identities. Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentiment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker, elucidates the vital role of rural consciousness in contemporary politics.
Rural consciousness is a form of social identity, the us in comparison to them in terms of which many make sense of the world. Us in comparison to them need not always be converted into denigration of difference but often can be in situations of flux and insecurity. Cramer’s work is an ethnographic study of just what is bugging the rural communities within the flyover state of Wisconsin. Rural small town Wisconsin is very different from both Madison and Milwaukee.
As much as is humanly possible she strives not to insert her politics into the mix. Rather than a pollster asking questions of a single citizen she sits in on local groups as they articulate and develop their own collective identity and politics. Her basic thesis, well documented, is the prevalence of a distinctive rural consciousness. This includes the sense that rural communities are different and worth preserving and enhancing. The pace of life is slower and individuals know their neighbors. One telling example of rural values is real estate transactions. Buyers would never think of requiring a house inspection as such a demand would indicate belief the seller would lie and would constitute a serious insult.
Part of this social identity is the widely held notion that these communities are under siege. Citizens in rural communities complained about such injustices as unfunded mandates and state government cutbacks in funding, leaving poorer rural communities with lesser tax bases in difficult straights. The complaint that struck me as most basic centered around the concept of power. Mandates are obvious and crude forms of power, but even more telling is the control over what gets discussed in…