“What in the hell is going on in Madison?”

by John Sides on March 1, 2011 · 8 comments

in Political science,Protest,Public opinion

madisonprotest.jpg

I asked Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to guest-post on attitudes toward public employees and unions in Wisconsin. She has been conducted extensive qualitative interviews on these and related subjects. Below is her post.

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What in the hell is going on in Madison?

I have had more than one friend, family member, and fellow political scientist ask me that in recent days. People seem pretty surprised by all the ruckus in the land of cheese and Packers. Yes, the demonstrations in response to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to end collective bargaining for most public unions arose quickly, but the sentiments underlying the intense politics of the past few weeks have been brewing for some time.

I grew up in Wisconsin, but my knowledge of the divisions we are seeing comes primarily from a study I’ve been conducting since May of 2007. I sampled 27 communities across the state, which varyied in region, size, partisan leaning, economic background, and racial and ethnic diversity. Within each community I located a group of people who meet regularly in a place I could get access to. The groups are typically morning coffee klatches—groups of people on their way to work or retirees—in diners, restaurants and gas stations. I invited myself into their conversations and listened to the way they make sense of the issues they consider most prominent in their communities. (For more details on my methodology, see here).

What I have learned is that there’s a map that can explain a lot of the current tensions in Wisconsin. It is the map of the state itself. In Wisconsin, there are two main metro regions, one surrounding the largest city and industrial center, Milwaukee, and the other surrounding our state capitol and home of the flagship public university, Madison. The rest of the state is referred to as “outstate.”

For many of the people I’ve talked with in outstate Wisconsin, their understanding of power, values, and resources goes like this (I’m paraphrasing here):

All of our taxpayer dollars get sucked in by Madison, diverted to Milwaukee, and we never see them again. The people in Madison are out of touch with the lives of people in rural and small town Wisconsin, and they are liberals and elitists who for the most part work for the state and have cushy health care and pensions. In addition, they are lazy. They can’t possibly be working as hard as the rest of us who are working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet out here in these communities from which we can see businesses, industry, and farms leaving on a daily basis.

In this framework, public employees, especially public union members, are an easy target. Enterprising politicians, in the midst of a downturned economy can portray public employees as people out of step with hard working Americans. They can tap into the following types of sentiments (again paraphrasing):

They don’t know what it is like to spend upwards of $1200 a month for health care for one’s family. They don’t know what it is like to live in a community that most politicians never visit or listen to. And they certainly don’t know what it is like to have dedicated one’s life to hard work and traditional values.

So the lines of us vs. them are easily drawn: public workers vs. private workers. It appears that Governor Scott Walker is taking advantage of those divisions.

Here are some examples of the conversations I’ve recorded, from a small logging community in northwest Wisconsin. The following is from an early-morning group of men who meet in a gas station on their way to work. On my first visit to this group, in June 2007, I heard quite a few comments about public employees.

KCW: So how about taxes, to raise a sore issue. Do you feel like—with respect to state taxes, do you feel like you pay your fair share up here?
[short pause]
Jim: Who doesn’t think they pay their fair share? We’re all paying too much, the way they waste money. They should have to run the state like you do your own business. If they had to, they’d all go broke. Every government agency.
KCW: What do you see them wasting money on?
Fred: Well we get road jobs out here and they come up 2 years ahead of time, to survey the sucker, and they are getting 50 dollars an hour and extra to resurvey it again, and the next year to resurvey. To me it is a waste of money.
Jim: Too many studies.
Fred: Not enough work.
Jim: Too much bureaucracy in the system.
Fred: They do waste a lot of money on surveying roads.
Sam: All those state employees—we look at ‘em and we don’t think they do much.

Later on in the conversation, I asked about the value of hard work.

KCW: Sometimes people say—survey researchers ask about different occupations and they ask people which one they think works the hardest. Tell me what you think—if you compare a professor, a public school teacher, a waitress, a farmer, and a construction worker, which ones do you think work the hardest?
Sam: The last 3.
Steve: Yeah.
Sam: And for no benefits.
KCW: Yeah? How about those first 2, like—
bq. Sam: I think a school teacher—I know it can be hard. But they got great benefits. Tremendous benefits. And if you’ve been there for 15, 20 years, you’re making 50 grand a year. There’s nobody in town other than them making 50 grand a year. The guys in the [local] mill makes 20 thousand.

Here is how I would characterize this view of the world: “Government employees are lazy. If they do work hard, they get great benefits, so that doesn’t really count as hard work. In other words, they aren’t really like those of us who have struggled to make ends meet, and done so with our hands, ever since we can remember.”

But perhaps what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks is a complication of this simple ingroup/outgroup distinction. With major, enduring protests come media attention, and with that media attention and the casual banter that arises around it might come a little bit of reconsideration. The pictures of the people at my state capitol include UW-Madison students, who are sometimes written off as radicals, but they also include firefighters, teachers, families, people of many walks of life. It is likely that there is growing recognition that public employees are not just state workers in Madison, but our kids’ teachers, librarians, city clerks, state troopers, etc. They look like ordinary people, too. Are they really the enemy?

Those possibilities are speculation on my part. What little reliable polling there has been so far in Wisconsin since the protests began doesn’t allow us to gauge change, but does suggest that for the moment, opinion is not all that bent against public employee unions, and is perhaps leaning against Governor Walker. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polling data for the AFL-CIO, released February 21st, showed 49% unfavorable for Walker, and 62% favorable for public employees, and 53% favorable for unions (margin of error of +/- 4.0 percentage points). A pro-union poll (though automated and conducted on one day, February 17th) showed 51.9% disapproving of Walker’s plan (margin of error of +/- 2.0 percentage points).

What this data says to me is that as with any ingroup/outgroup distinction, the lines of division are not inevitable. They can be replaced with other divisions, depending on the context. Maybe for some, the protests have drawn attention away from the public vs. private employees distinction toward the battle lines of Governor Walker vs. the people.

We know predispositions matter a lot, though, so if the Madison vs. the rest of the state map plays heavily in your understanding of the world, you likely see the protests and the resulting public school cancellations as yet another sign of indulgent, spoiled public workers, who just don’t get it.

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