Which Elites Are They Complaining About?

When the president-elect of the United States has been endorsed by the KKK, you can rest assured that media pundits will be exploring the "maybe it's not racism" angle. People love a counterintuitive premise.

As a result, Katherine J. Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is enjoying a bit of a moment. She's the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness In Wisconsin And The Rise of Scott Walker.

 An interview with Prof Cramer in Scientific American captures the spirit of these pieces:

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

Prof Cramer: 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?

Kevin Drum pulled this quote on Election Day from an interview with Cramer in the Washington Post  (emphasis Drum's) :

What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power....Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff....And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect....So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

....What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff, or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

When people are talking about those people in the city getting an “unfair share,” there’s certainly a racial component to that. But they’re also talking about people like me [a white, woman professor]. They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full-time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right? It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people.

Drum reacts to these points with a shrug. Resentment is unavoidable. He notes that the country has gotten much less rural over time and that a shrinking rural population means shrinking rural political power. As to attitudes, Drum says it has always been this way:

And then there's respect. But what's the answer? Rural beliefs that city sophisticates look down on them has been a feature of American life forever. Hell, it was a feature of life in the Roman Empire. Urban areas are more cosmopolitan, and city mice do tend to be contemptuous of the old-fashioned mores of the country mice. This is not something that's going to change.

It's common to explain white resentment as a function of demographic change: whites used to be the vast majority of Americans, but they're steadily losing that distinction. And that's true. But it's a tiny rivulet compared to the tsunami of de-ruralization. Take a look at the chart on the right. In 1900, rural communities made up 60 percent of the population. Today it's 20 percent. Even if rural communities get more attention than their numbers deserve, they're still a tiny minority these days. They simply don't have much political power anymore.

Rural-urban tension has been woven into American history since its very beginning. Thomas Jefferson represented the yeoman farmers at the turn of the 19th century and William Jennings Bryant represented them at the turn of the 20th. But if "Eastern elites" held a stranglehold over rural interests even then, today it's far worse. Eastern elites no longer really even care. Except when they come by courting their votes, they just ignore the country folks.

So, yeah: power, money, respect, and racial decline. It's all part of the stew. And it's hard to figure out any way to really make a dent in this.

 But Drum is wrong for two reasons: 

  1. It's not generic city mouse versus generic country mouse, and Cramer makes this quite clear, and
  2. Cramer's subjects don't talk about declining rural populations. They talk about elites, and the only way they can form opinions about people they have never met is through the media. 

Jeff Guo of The Washington Post interviews Professor Cramer. Notice the location of the elites raised by rurals (emphasis mine):  

Jeff Guo: Some people on Twitter have been asking: Why do we need to be the ones who now need to go out and understand the white working class, Trump voters, and rural people? Shouldn’t those people also have a responsibility to understand city folk, immigrants and minorities?

Prof Cramer: In the group that I visited this morning, they were asking me, What is going on with those students in Madison? How can they vote for Hillary Clinton? How can they not see what a liar she is? What a total say-whatever-will-get-her-ahead politician she is?

In other words, they were saying to me basically what people in Madison say about residents of upstate Wisconsin. How can people be so stupid?

In a democracy, we’re making choices that govern each other. So yes, we all have an obligation to understand each other. Rural parts of the United States have to understand that the people in cities are humans too, that they are working hard to make ends meet, that they have families and struggles of their own.

But I think the fact that most of our information is produced in the cities means that we have to put special effort to understand what is going on in rural places. I think the way this election caught many of us by surprise is a case in point.

Meanwhile, local newspapers are dying and the news sources that survive get more elite everyday. Andrew McGill highlights both these trends in The Atlantic:

But there’s little question the journalistic class has diverged sharply from the country it covers. In 1960, nearly a third of reporters and editors had never attended a single year of college; in 2015, only 8.3 percent could say the same, according to Census figures extracted with the help of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS project. That year, 46 percent of adults 25 and older nationwide had never attended a university.

To a modest degree, journalists have also become increasingly sequestered on the East and West coasts, to the detriment of newsrooms in the interior of the country. In fact, as of 2011, 92 percent of journalists worked within a metropolitan area, up from 75 percent a half century earlier. The map below charts the share of America’s reporters who work in a given county. See that big circle? That’s Manhattan, which saw its share of journalists increase between 1990 and 2015, now hosting around 13 percent of the nation’s reporters. Meanwhile, Midwest centers like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kansas City suffered. (There are fewer journalism jobs overall since the heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, but non-coastal regions have been hit harder than New York.)

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The elites are the journalists in New York who are a terrible substitute for the old local,rag that used to feature church bake sales and the list of kids who made the honor roll. The elites are in the college towns like Madison, Ann Arbor, Columbus, and Columbia.