This op-ed is part of Signal, an editorial project trying to talk about the Presidential elections in the USA while avoiding informational noise, presenting sharp points of view and taking into account geographical differences across States. While some of the facts the authors mention might need further investigation, the goal of the project is to read and listen unflitered electoral preferences. Marissa Eckrote writes from Wisconsin.
[cover image: original graphic by Stefano Grassi]
What makes Wisconsin different? I think this is a question that a lot of people have been asking themselves as we are in the midst of another election cycle. Why is Wisconsin such a hard state to win, such a hard place to tell which way it is leaning?
One of the first, and probably most obvious reasons that comes to mind is the urban/rural divide. Driving through Wisconsin as you head North on any highway, you will find some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States – I may be biased since this is where I grew up. But these are areas that have also seen increases in poverty and drug addiction. They have seen industries that they have relied on disappear or downsize. Many of the rural northern counties are seeing a drop in their population, which is also correlated with a drop in economic growth. In addition, these people historically have felt left behind by the political process and have felt like the government, especially the federal government, doesn’t care about them.
This is what Donald Trump was able to tap into in 2016. He realized that these rural voters, who typically felt disenfranchised and wouldn’t show up to vote in a typically year, would show up for him because he made them feel seen. He has continued to try to exploit this group by convincing them that his policies are what is best for them, by telling them that he is going to bring jobs back to the United States, that he is going to get people off of welfare, that he is going to lower government regulation, and that he is going to do what he can to make the government work for them. He has also worked to increase this urban rural divide. He plays into their fears and anger towards minority groups and the urban poor, even though many of them are also poor and do/could benefit from the programs he wants to cut. The rural poor see themselves as different than the urban poor, and probably rightfully so because there are many differences that drive their poverty.
A second driving factor that intersects this rural aspect is religion. There is a joke, that you will hear from many people that live in rural Wisconsin, that there are more bars than churches, and more churches than stoplights. And honestly, in my experience, that is true for lots of small towns. Even in some of your smallest towns you will find multiple churches, generally at least one Catholic church and one Lutheran church, but occasionally you will also find a Baptist, Methodist, or other Christian churches as well. For many families going to church on Sunday is just what you do, not only because you think it is what you should be doing, but also because you fear being judged by others in the community if you don’t. I have been to many Christian (Catholic and Lutheran) churches that have advocated for the Republican party and have either openly or indirectly shamed individuals for supporting the Democratic party and their views. Usually this boils down to one topic, abortion, but sometimes other topics are included in the discussion.
When it comes to voting choices for young adults these factors come into play even more. Growing up in a rural community, you are usually surrounded by friends, family, and a church that is teaching you that being a Republican is “right” and that is how you should vote. This is how it was for me, and the conservatism that I grew up around is worlds removed from the conservatism that we see playing out today. I have watched as many people I know distanced themselves from it. But, I have also watched others “double down” and lean in to this new type of conservatism even more. I have watched it play out in my own family and with people I used to consider friends. I have seen how it tears apart families and friendships, and have watched in horror as hate speech was spewed on social media. I have listened to my students talk about how it is impacting them and their lives, as they try to find some sense of stability in the midst of this election cycle and while going to college during a pandemic. It is exacerbated by the fact that the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the executive order that put the state in a lockdown, and pretty much left every institution, business, and individual to try to make what decision they think is best for themselves. I don’t know what the future holds, but the number of signs supporting Democrat candidates, even in some extremely rural areas of the state, gives me hope, and all we can ask for right now is hope.