The GOP Sees Rural Voters as More Legitimate Than Urban Voters

The current move to punish Democratic victors in Wisconsin underscores a sinister philosophy that’s been brewing for years.

Photo illustration of two overlapping outlines of Wisconsin, one in red and one in blue. The red outline has an inner rural image, and the blue one has an inner urban image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Maksymowicz/iStock/Getty Images Plus, reelwavemedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Master Sgt. Paul Gorman/Wikipedia, and KKNiteOwl/Wikipedia.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin Republicans escalated their lame-duck power grab, confirming 82 appointees from outgoing Gov. Scott Walker after passing bills to lock in conservative policy and keep incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers from exercising meaningful power over state government.

The hypocrisy is striking. In 2010, then–Gov.-elect Scott Walker asked outgoing Democratic incumbent Jim Doyle not to “finalize any permanent civil service personnel” as he finished his term. “I believe these appointees should be required to go through the same application process as any other civil servants,” wrote Walker, “and my Administration will review any new permanent hires during the next two months so they can be considered for termination during the probationary period.” He also opposed a lame-duck session to approve public employee union contracts as they would “tie the hands of the governor and the newly elected Legislature as they work to balance the state budget.”

Walker, a dedicated partisan, has no interest in reciprocity and has endorsed the GOP-controlled Legislature’s constitutional coup despite his previous stance. “Members of the Legislature were elected not on a term that ended on election day—they were elected in a term that ends in January, just like my term ends in January,” he said, attempting to justify his party’s open attack on the democratic transfer of power.

This is just public relations. More interesting are the statements from Republican legislative leaders that reveal the actual basis for this power grab, beyond extreme partisan self-interest. “Law written by the legislature and passed by a governor should not be erased based on the political maneuvering of an incoming administration,” said state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Tuesday, before adding “Citizens from every corner of Wisconsin deserve a strong legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison.” His last line echoes a comment made by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos just after the election. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority—we would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.”

The idea that you could remove the state’s major population centers and still have an acceptably democratic result is a reasoning that gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not just that Democrats are poised to undo gains made under Walker’s administration, but that Democrats themselves are illegitimate because of who they represent. Vos isn’t saying that Republicans should do better in Madison and Milwaukee, he’s saying that the state’s major cities shouldn’t count. And if they do count, says Fitzgerald, they don’t count the same way.
They are the wrong voters, and the Democrats they elect have no right to roll back a Republican administration backed by the right ones.

Their understanding of who counts, and who ought to count, is tied to an urban and rural divide that encompasses divisions along race, economic class, education, and ideology. In The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker, Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, shows how the state’s politics have been shaped by a rural sense of “distributive injustice—a sense that rural folks don’t get their fair share.” “(Their) sense of identity as people from a place that was disadvantaged economically coexisted with the perception that wherever their hard-earned money was going, it was not coming to them. It seemed instead to be going, in part, to bloated government programs and overpaid and underworked public employees.”

It’s impossible to disentangle these views from racist attitudes and racial assumptions embedded in the ideologies and identities that shape white Americans everywhere. But that’s particularly true of Wisconsin, which is “extremely racially segregated” with just 29 percent of its black population residing outside of Milwaukee and Madison. Even these two cities are highly segregated—the Milwaukee metro area is among the racially segregated in the country. For Cramer, “antiurban resentment is not simply resentment against people of color,” but it’s not unrelated. “Since the cities, particularly Madison, are perceived as liberal and vote Democratic in elections, people who harbor racial resentment may indeed be equating city people with racial liberalism. Now as in the past, racial animosity is directed toward groups of whites that help minorities, such as government employees and academics.”

Indeed, Scott Walker’s climb to the governor’s mansion, and his eight years in office, are marked by skillful use of rural consciousness, weaponizing resentments against urban liberals and racial minorities. As Cramer puts it, paraphrasing her conversations with voters across the state, “To people who perceived that public employee benefits came directly from their own pockets … Walker’s proposals were a victory for small-town Wisconsinites like themselves.”

The Wisconsin Republican Party’s legislative coup is happening in a political environment shaped and polarized by these divisions and resentments. Eight years of hyper-partisanship, premised on a belief in the illegitimacy of the opposition, has culminated in a so-far successful effort to rob that opposition of its ability to exercise power now that it has claimed the reins of governance.

The broader implications are clear. The nation at large is wracked by a rural and urban divide that encompasses deep divisions along race, culture, and education. Increasingly polarized along partisan identity, those divides have helped produce a Republican Party—led by Donald Trump—that sees its opposition as illegitimate and seeks to restrict its influence on the nation’s politics and governance.

The national Republican Party has yet to adopt the aggressively anti-democratic tactics of its state-level counterparts. But the ingredients are there. Indeed, if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election, we have may have seen it in action: Several Republican senators all but pledged to keep a President Clinton from ever filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court, directly challenging the president’s constitutional authority to fill the federal judiciary.

Should a Democrat—backed by a broad, diverse coalition of urbanites and suburbanites—win the presidency in 2020, will the GOP relinquish power? Or, facing not just defeat but reversal, will it bring the experiment in anti-democratic resistance currently being piloted in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan to Washington?