Wisconsin politics professor Katherine Cramer has a pretty good idea about how and why a country that elected a visually black man as its president twice over, could swing all the way round to someone spouting white nationalist ideas.
Professor Cramer is the author of The Politics of Resentment, which was published earlier this year, and she found through successive interviews with people in rural Wisconsin, that the apparent paradox is not much of a paradox at all.
First, because many of the same people who were willing to give Barack Obama a chance – because he was a different candidate, racially and all – found themselves disappointed and decided to go for change once again. Then, it became, Professor Cramer recently said, a “very, very partisan” issue. The very fact that there was an African-American president became “a threat” and a source of anxiety, she said.
About what exactly, some of us may wonder. What is so bad about life in American 2016? Isn’t it great, we might ask, that everyone has more rights? Not so. Professor Cramer discerned a general bitterness “toward elites and city dwellers”.
There’s the notion, she found, that desk-bound people aren’t really engaged in hard work. Over and over, she heard people say, “Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.” They also resented people they thought were getting more than their “fair share… immigrants. Muslims. Uppity women.”
She noticed the resentment against elite city folk when she started to visit rural Wisconsin to research their views. “…within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.”
After lots of time spent talking – over multiple visits – she found that the barriers had fallen and those people quite liked her as did she them.
To me, that sounds like the way forward. To understand each other – for me to understand why someone would vote for Brexit or for Donald Trump – I would have to do what Professor Cramer says.
“That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together. As Pollyannaish as that sounds, I really do believe it.”
That doesn’t mean I would convert to opinions I regard as partisan, or that they would accept mine, which are looser, but at least we would become more complete human beings to each other. Not scary caricatures.