What emotions drove the 2016 presidential election?

Katherine J. Cramer might have one answer. She is author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, and a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she heads the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Her work focuses on the way people in the U.S. make sense of politics and their place in it. Cramer’s methodology is unusual and very direct. Instead of relying polls and survey data, she drops in on informal gatherings in rural areas—coffee shops, gas stations—and listens in on what people say to their neighbors and friends. It is a method that likely gets at psychological and social truths missed by pollsters. Scientific American MIND Managing Editor Claudia Wallis interviewed her in the wake of the election.

Katherine J. Cramer
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Claudia Wallis: Were you surprised by the election of Donald Trump?

Katherine J. Cramer: I was surprised, but probably not as much as many people. I had a sense that support for Trump was very strong—even among people who readily recognized his flaws but felt that finally this was someone who was going to shake things up—and said wasn’t it about time?

CW: Your state, Wisconsin, was one of three so-called “blue wall” states that turned red for Trump. Why, in your view, did that happen?

KJC: In Wisconsin, as was true across the nation, there was a very strong rural turnout and a not so strong urban turnout. And in our rural areas what I have learned is that there are many people who feel that neither party represents them and many have a strong resentment toward the cities and urban elites. They feel as though they are not getting their fair share of power—no one is really listening to them. They are not getting their fair share taxpayer dollars—the money goes to the cities, and also they are not getting their fair share of respect—people assume folks in small towns are ignorant and racist. That mix of resentment is pretty fertile ground for a right-leaning candidate.

Many times this resentment comes out as a feeling of, I’m a deserving person, a hardworking American and the things I deserve are actually going to other people who are less deserving. Donald Trump’s message really tapped into that sentiment. What I heard him saying was: You are right, you are not getting your fair share, you should be angry, you are a deserving, hardworking American and what you deserve is going to people who don’t deserve it. He pointed his finger at immigrants, the Chinese, bad trade deals, Muslims, uppity women. He gave people concrete targets, and it was a way of sparking anger and mobilizing support.

CW: We’ve seen an economic recovery in the past eight years, including a drop in unemployment below five percent. Are the folks in small towns in the Midwest not getting their piece of the action?

KJC: Yes. When the latest economic figures came out—the report showed that the economic recovery was much less in rural areas. Folks in small towns and rural places see the coasts are doing well. And, Silicon Valley? Holy cow! We are getting left behind.

CW: How did the “Make America Great Again” play?

KJC: I never had someone say: Wow, isn’t that a great campaign slogan? But even back in 2007, before Trump seemed like a viable candidate, so much of what I heard in these communities was how their communities were in decline and people felt nostalgic about how their communities used to be so vibrant, and people used to be able to have the kind of job their parents had and make a good life. So much of what they told me was about a sense of loss for a pretty good past: I’m doing what people told me I’m supposed to do, I’m working hard, I’m a family person—How can it be that I’m not getting my just deserts? Part of it was stories about how the economy had changed, outsourcing and jobs going overseas and that notion. So “Make America Great Again” really hit that note.

CW: Did Bernie Sanders hit that note, too?

KJC: I don’t think his message resonated quite the way Trump’s did.

CW: You’ve written that many rural folk feel they have been unfairly tagged as racists by urban elites. Could you talk about this?

KJC: People assume that this resentment toward the city is coded language for racism; they say urban and they really mean black. But that doesn’t capture the complexity of people’s views. They are talking about wealthy, urban white folks, too. People in small towns resent having it characterized as racism—and also, there’s so much racism in our cities, so rural folks say: What are you talking about?

CW: You write about the “Wisconsin nice” character of your state’s residents. Why did these nice, god-fearing Midwesterners so easily look beyond Trump’s bullying, attack-dog persona; his predatory behavior toward women; and other not-so-nice aspects of his character?

KJC: I can give you some examples of the things that people told me. One man in central Wisconsin said: I know he’s obnoxious. I know he’s saying some crazy outlandish things, but there’s no way that I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s partly that. One man in the same group—this was months ago—said: Look, it’s time for the reckoning. Things are so out of whack that they are about to implode, and we might as well just bring it on. Let’s elect Donald Trump and he will completely change the nature of Washington, D.C. The brashness was kind of an asset. Another person said: Yes, he’s kind of obnoxious but that’s what we need on the world stage these days. Other world leaders, like Putin, are obnoxious, brash characters.

CW: Did you hear a lot of, “There’s no way I’d vote for Hillary?” What did she represent to these voters?

KJC: I started to hear their thoughts about her candidacy back in 2008. There was a perception of her as your prototypical not-genuine D.C. politician, doing whatever she needed to get ahead. Some didn’t feel very positively about Bill Clinton and that was rubbing off on her.

But I think, too, unfortunately, part of it was this sense of what kind of a woman is this? Who is this hyper-public person—very ambitious, very assertive? For many people it doesn’t fit their sense of the way women ought to behave. She didn’t come across as warm. We know that for women running for office there’s this very fine line that they must tread of having enough male-like characteristics that people can imagine them in an executive position but at the same time, if they are not warm enough, they get labeled as something really distasteful. For many people I spent time with, Hillary Clinton was not traditionally female enough.

CW: Isn’t that just sexism?

KJC: I’m not using that word, but I guess it is sexism.

CW: Where do you think the politics of resentment will lead?

KJC: In the short term I think they will lead to support for some pretty significant policy changes. To enact some pretty bold legislation. Change in immigration laws, canceling the trade agreements. Tax cuts.

But I don’t know how that’s going to make people happier about their political systems. There’s a lot of discomfort with politics as usual. There’s a lot of pain this week. I see it among my students both Republican-leaning and Democrat-leaning. I think we are in for a rough ride. My hope, especially for younger people, is that they aspire to something different. That they figure out a way to actually get along and cooperate without demonizing the other side.

CW: Finally, is there something else you’d like to add as you head back out to listen to listen to more conversations around the state?

KJC: The one thing I would add is that when I talk about this research—and people know I’m a middle-aged social scientist from Madison driving my Prius to outstate Wisconsin—they say: How do you do it? How do you stand listening?

But these are often delightful conversations. People are warm. Much of the resentment that they convey to me they are doing with humor. Oftentimes there is a lot of pain in the conversation, especially with this nostalgia stuff. But they are sharing very human conversations.

This interview was originally published by ScientificAmerican.com.

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