A few days after last year’s presidential election, I decided to teach a new course called the Divided States of America. I teach at a predominantly white (and politically mixed) university in a majority-minority city in a mostly white state, which in 2016 voted Republican in a presidential election for the first time since 1984. We are — like many university campuses — a private institution filled with people whose circumstances are mostly quite different from those of our neighbors in the immediate surrounding area. Beyond our urban campus, Wisconsin politics had been fever-pitch divisive for several years before 2016. So it seemed like a good time to jump into those divisions in the classroom.
I’ve started the semester by assigning two important and recent books that both feature Wisconsin. To analyze the politically salient urban-rural divide, we read Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Both have won lots of awards and earned piles of accolades in and outside academia.
The comparison between the two works isn’t perfect, as Cramer’s sample features a significant number of older, retired men, who meet for coffee, games, and conversation. Desmond writes about mostly younger individuals, predominantly (though not solely) people of color — several of the families he follows consist of young women raising children on their own, as well as one single father.
But there are a few points of comparison that highlight how these works contribute to social science and expose some of the ways that social science frameworks reproduce, rather than challenge, the divisions they seek to study. The findings of both books also reveal a common politics of powerlessness that transcends some of the other differences.
Writing social science
One of the most immediately evident contrasts is in the way the two works are written, even though they draw from similar research traditions. Cramer puts the highly systematic nature of her research in the foreground and presents a fairly typical social science format, with theory and literature review in each chapter. The people she talks to are quoted in blocks of dialogue. Desmond’s work reads more like longform journalism — it reminds me of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. The more social scientific version of the research is presented in a scholarly article (thanks, Joe Soss, for directing me to this). There is also a section on the conduct of the search in the book, but most of the text is devoted to telling detailed stories rather than following social science convention.
This extends to the way the research subjects are presented. Cramer offers some demographic information and explanation of the characteristics and political leanings of the groups she presents. But we really only see them in these milieus. We get a much more intimate portrait of Desmond’s subjects, whose private struggles with family, relationships, drug addiction, and, of course, housing, are part of the book. We also get much more in the way of physical descriptions, including their skin tones. The portrait in Evicted is a sympathetic one, and Desmond clearly works hard to convey what he describes as the “deep humanity” of the people whose lives he chronicles. Cramer’s book has some colorful parts and is also a warm portrayal. But it may be an important comment on how we read social science that the humanity of her rural residents did not need to be so firmly established in her account.
One of the first things that became apparent in the discussion of both books was that it was hard to stay on track. We talked about all sorts of things other than resentment when we read Cramer’s book — democracy, social identity, age, economics. In some ways, this is exactly Cramer’s point. She argues that social scientists have been artificially separating out political issues, when they are interconnected in the minds of voters, and also tied in with identity.
The main intervention in Evicted is the emphasis on housing. Desmond writes that scholars and journalists have evaluated the carceral state, jobs and the economy, and other factors contributing to persistent poverty and instability. Once again, in our class discussions, we had a hard time sticking to the topic of housing, and instead got caught up in discussions about cyclical poverty, criminal justice, and race.
It’s possible this just illustrates that I’m not very good at keeping a class discussion on track. (Note: This is true. If my students are excited about a topic, I will almost always throw out the plan and run with it. Once I spent days planning a lecture about Eisenhower’s foreign policy and we ended up talking about the media imagery, the modern presidency, and depictions of first ladies in popular culture.)
In both instances, though, the discussion illustrated a central point of the respective works: Issues are interconnected and difficult to distinguish, and housing is so central that even in a book that’s mostly about housing, it’s easy for other issues to seem more dramatic and important. Furthermore, this offers an important lesson for social science: Variable-based research can offer a lot of insight, but it also has limits.
Power and the role of government
One of the questions we considered was whether rural and urban research subjects faced similar problems. We concluded that there was less evidence of resentment among the urban residents in Evicted, even when they were facing pretty terrible circumstances. But both groups felt powerless, and it was not difficult to see why.
Both groups also had complex relationships with government power. In The Politics of Resentment, Cramer argues that while the people she talked to claimed to favor smaller government, further conversation revealed more nuanced attitudes that saw government resources as misallocated — not principled belief in less government. State power was far more visible in Evicted. There were recipients of government benefits — Supplemental Security Income, welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing. Government policy shaped the housing situation at the center of the story, of course.
The individuals in the book also dealt with Child Protective Services, the police, and the court system. Tenants sometimes sought government intervention for problems in their apartments, calling the Department of Neighborhood Services. Landlords weren’t happy, but in many instances, the tenants ended up evicted for their efforts. As one student observed, the power of the state came down on the impoverished tenants, harming them even when they tried to use local government to improve their situations by making their landlords follow the rules.
Students of social science will not be surprised that different types of government power work differently, reaching into people’s lives in positive and negative ways — and sometimes slipping by unseen. But in deeply divided Wisconsin, it’s especially important to consider the complexity that underlies both political sides. Evicted doesn’t engage much with national electoral politics, although Desmond notes the sense of political powerlessness that comes with housing instability. We might imagine that many of these citizens, who frequently change addresses, might experience difficulty exercising their right to vote.
Milwaukee’s north side, where much of the book takes place, is generally deep blue in a presidential year, in contrast with the recent Republican lean of the areas Cramer depicts. These analyses both illustrate how abstract debates about the correct size and scope of government don’t map neatly onto the ways in which government power shapes people’s lives.
As goes Wisconsin?
Do insights about Wisconsin shed light on the rest of the country? Clearly, there are broad concepts here to be explored. Cramer’s insights about resentment in rural areas have helped to explain the 2016 result, of course. And Desmond’s quantitative work suggests that Milwaukee is comparable to other cities, and makes a good case for doing research in a city like this one instead of New York or San Francisco. But, for example, the racial dynamics in Milwaukee are slightly different, as African-American migration to there occurred somewhat later than with other places. So the mechanisms guiding urban politics might be different here than elsewhere, even if some outcomes are shared.
Reading The Politics of Resentment, especially as she depicts a coffee group where people described themselves as Democrats but also expressed “moderate and conservative views,” I couldn’t help but wonder if rural Wisconsin is just a place where ideological sorting happened slowly. A reformist political tradition, suspicion of party machines, and geographical isolation could all contribute to such a delay.
If Wisconsin is less than typical, this doesn’t mean that these books don’t offer useful insights. Instead, they suggest bringing back a priority that’s fallen out of fashion in many corners of political science: having specific and detailed knowledge of a particular context rather than striving for broad generality. Wisconsin and Milwaukee might not look exactly other places in the country — but these works suggest there’s a lot going on politically here.