City Life

Kathy Cramer: The road-tripping scholar

Professor discovers surprising political feelings

Kathy Cramer didn’t set out to be the bard of bifurcation in Wisconsin. She just wanted to listen to people talk.

“I always wanted to study Wisconsin,” says Cramer, 45, a Grafton native and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The method she had in mind was unusual for an academic study—no formal interviews, or focus groups.

Instead, eight years ago this spring, Cramer—then an associate professor of political science—toured the state in her Volkswagen Jetta, stopping in small towns and inviting herself into the kinds of discussions that transpire daily around gas station coffeepots across Wisconsin.

“Do you all mind if I join you this morning?”

Cramer would explain she was a public opinion scholar at UW–Madison and curious about what was on their minds.

People were generally welcoming.

“They liked telling their stories,” Cramer says. “The coldest reception I got was, ‘I don’t know what you’re up to, lady, but go ahead and sit down.’ By the end of 45 minutes, they were telling me I had to stay because there was someone else I needed to hear.”

Cramer made a point of asking for opinions on UW–Madison, usually near the end, and what she heard gave her pause. Outstate residents told her they loved the Badgers and the marching band. Maybe they were proud of some scientific breakthroughs on campus. But they also spoke about how they, as rural citizens, felt a lack of respect from the university and big-city elites; they wondered if those on campus realized how good they have it.

“My first time around the state,” Cramer says, “health care was a top concern just about every place. We’d get around to UW and they’d say, ‘Those professors and state workers—our taxes are going to pay for their health care, and we can’t afford our own.’ They were angry.”

Cramer came back to Madison and was much in demand as a speaker on campus. Sharing what she’d learned about outstate perceptions opened some eyes, though the idea that in some communities public employees are the wealthy people—they have health insurance—proved hard to grasp on campus.

With Scott Walker’s election as governor in 2010 and the subsequent furor over legislative efforts to weaken public employee unions, Cramer seemed almost a prophet. There was a deep divide in Wisconsin and she had sensed it early.

Rather than rest on her research, Cramer hit the road again, revisiting groups she’d seen several years earlier and adding others. It wasn’t productive; emotions were too raw.

“I went to places where the conversation had been great in the past,” Cramer says. “But I couldn’t get people to talk about it. People would see me coming and say, ‘We’ve agreed not to talk about politics these days. So don’t go there.’ I would stick around anyway and at some point someone would pull me aside and say, ‘We can’t stand what’s going on at the Capitol.’ Or, ‘I don’t agree with Scott Walker, but I can’t bring it up in this group.’”

Cramer made another tour a year later, and people were more open. Still, it was different. It’s what former state Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville was getting at when he noted that golf foursomes who’d played together for decades broke up in the turmoil and bitter feelings following Walker’s election.

This month, all those miles Cramer put on her car, and all that listening, reach fruition with Cramer’s highly anticipated new book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, published by the University of Chicago Press.

At first blush, Cramer is an unlikely standard bearer for unhappy tidings. She’s engaging, cheerful by nature. But she’s also a sophisticated scholar—a rising star on the UW–Madison campus—and determined to find the truth and meaning in her research.

Madison seduced her early, when her parents in Grafton—her dad was a teacher, and her mom an occupational therapist—brought her to a late October game at Camp Randall. She was 10. Kathy never forgot the student walking around with a hollowed-out pumpkin on his head. You think she’d go anywhere else for college?

Cramer did cross Lake Michigan to get her doctorate in Ann Arbor, but returned to Madison, and the political science department, where she is now a full professor, in 2000.

Sixteen years on, she sees reason for optimism amid the gloom.

“Because even though the story is depressing—that there’s this resentment out there—I heard it from people who were very endearing. They were delightful people doing their best to have a good life.

“I’m still hopeful about this state,” Cramer continues. “I think people are fundamentally decent, and they are not happy about how we are treating each other in our politics these days. I think they want to be good to one another. They were decent to me even though I represent a lot of what they despise."

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