-graphic by Berklee Klauck
While Wisconsin sometimes finds itself as the punchline to coastal states’ jokes, we find our identity in our lifestyle. People all across the state boast of our top-class cheese, beautiful lakes and undying support of the Packers.
However, more than we might care to believe, Wisconsin is a state divided. As much as we agree on dairy and football, the lifestyles and ideologies between people in urban and rural areas of the state are changing.
“I think the everyday challenges that you would see are going to be a lot different,” says Alesha Guenther, a member of the College Republicans of UW-Madison who was raised in Berlin, a small town about 20 miles west of Oshkosh. “I think the way of life is a little bit different for these different areas, but I think that everyone still wants the same thing for their families, for their children.”
Still, in Wisconsin and the country, the rift between people in urban and rural areas is deepening. One of the key factors in the separation is political ideology. Over time, rural communities have leaned further right, while urban areas have shifted further left. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans perceive an urban-rural divide over political values. More than half of rural Americans responded that they feel most people in urban America do not share their same values, and more than half of urban Americans reported the same for rural Americans. Some of the most divisive issues between the two communities include abortion, immigration, marriage equality and support of President Donald Trump.
In addition to ideological division, a lack of understanding of one another has begun to grow as well, according to the center. Rural and urban Americans both report other groups look down on them, argue that other groups can’t relate to their problems and that people in other groups don’t share the same values as themselves. When asked to choose from a list of positive and negative words regarding the other party, both Democrats and Republicans frequently responded with “closed-minded” and “immoral.”
As Wisconsin, and the country, have slowly crept towards deeper ideological differences, it was inevitable that fears and worries would begin to emerge within communities.
“The strategy [for politicians] has been sort of pitting different groups against each other,” says David Helpap, an associate professor of political science at UW-Green Bay. “It’s a lot of business and politics that Wisconsin really wasn’t known for prior to 10 years ago.”
Helpap points out that one of the methods used today to motivate and mobilize people is increasing societal fear. Across America, fears have been growing along with dissension. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of politically active Democrats responded as being “afraid” of Republicans, and politically active Republicans responded the same regarding Democrats.
“You see this with the health care debate, that right now the Democrats are claiming that if Republicans stay in power, that people with pre-existing conditions aren’t going to get insurance coverage anymore. That’s fear,” Helpap says. “Republicans are saying that if you continue to allow undocumented immigrants coming into this country, crime is gonna increase, jobs are gonna go away. I mean, that’s fear. So you see fear being generated in a lot of different policy areas, really — from health care to immigration to unions to just basic party policies.”
For some people, fear and anxiety can be the root of their political ideologies. Amber Wichowsky, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, says when economic hard times hit a community, the ways people explain to themselves why they’re struggling can be a decisive factor in controversial issues.
“You have places that are really perceiving that they are falling behind, that they have been ignored by [the] government, that they don’t receive their fair share of benefits,” Wichowsky says. “In rural America, where they are perceiving that they are economically falling behind, there’s some resentment and some anxiety there. And how individuals perceive their economic situation and the stories that they tell, that we all tell ourselves, about why the world is the way that it is and who’s to blame and who’s deserving … in many rural communities, it seems that the story is one in which they’re not getting their fair share.”
Wichowsky’s research, conducted with Loyola University’s Meghan Condon, has looked into some of the ideologies in urban and rural communities. They were particularly curious to learn if it was more comforting for Americans to think about people who are very wealthy or to think about all the people they are wealthier than.
Wichowsky and Condon asked participants to think of their economic worries and then read a story of a wealthier or poorer person. The participants were then asked to compare themselves to the character. The results showed that when people experienced economic anxiety, they generally preferred to look down at people who were financially worse off than themselves. But the most striking, Wichowsky found, was a trend toward rural Americans looking down the economic ladder much more than other participants.
“Where does one direct their anger and resentment?” Wichowsky asks. “What’s the causal story you tell about why the world is the way that it is? And rural Americans appear to be slightly more open to thinking about blaming and focusing on issues of immigration, and not being so concerned with issues about racial inequality and racial discrimination.”
Waukesha County exemplifies many of the trends of Wisconsin’s political ideology divide. The city of Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee, is an old manufacturing town with nearly 73,000 residents, around 12 percent of whom are Latino. The surrounding county is much less diverse than Waukesha and has a median income around $18,000 higher than residents in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“When [people] say Waukesha, they may be thinking of the city, but what they’ve heard about is the county, which is predominantly Caucasian and relatively well off — but that’s not [the city of] Waukesha,” says Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly. “I would call Waukesha itself purple, and then all around us is red.”
Reilly thinks that the biggest problem about the current political divide is communication between parties. He has observed less and less cooperation between parties, he says, and he’s worried about what that will do to politics in Wisconsin.
“I’ve followed politics my whole life, and even 20 years ago, you could take really strong positions, but you knew in the end there would be compromises, and I don’t see compromises being made,” Reilly says.
In the 2018 midterm election, voters turned out in record numbers and chose Democrat Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, over Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Wichowsky points out that Wisconsin’s urban populations were the driving force for the state’s swing back to blue after Trump won here in 2016.
“Fear and anger are two mobilizing emotions. They can lead people to seek out more information [and] to be mobilized to participate,” Wichowsky says.
She mentions that the last two years have been anxiety-inducing for Democrats, and that fear motivated them to respond in the 2018 midterm elections in Wisconsin and around the country.
“Particularly, what we’ve seen is the mobilization of wome – women running for office, women of color, especially – running and winning,” Wichowsky says. “[Fear and anger] are emotions that can mobilize, and I think we saw that [in the 2018 midterm election], in terms of the turnout.”
While there are fears on both sides about the deepening divide, Helpap agrees Wisconsinites need to come together to work toward a solution.
“There is no longer the sort of common core principles on the way the state should move, on what the state should look like,” Helpap says. “So I think if we can get back to some of those other things, that common ground that we once had, that would be a step in the right direction.”