Environmental Resentment on the Political Right

Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker (University of Chicago Press, 2016) 

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Eighty-two year old Lee Sherman of DeRidder, Louisiana has led a storied life. He’s played professional football, raced NASCAR, and been poisoned by the petrochemical plant where he used to work. For many years, he fitted pipes at Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG), pipes that carried and exposed him to hazardous chemicals like mercury, lead, and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Once, Sherman was doused in chemicals that burnt his clothes and shoes clear off. The company later ordered him to surreptitiously dump these same kinds of chemicals in a local bayou. When the chemicals caused a mass fish kill, he stood up at a public meeting and pointed the finger at himself, wearing a sign declaring: “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU.”

His accident and the fish kill turned Lee Sherman into an environmentalist. It also made him an ardent Tea Party supporter who votes for candidates vowing to dismantle environmental regulations—a political position that many liberals find paradoxical, given the environmental movement’s historical dependence on government regulation of pollution. How is it that people most familiar with and vulnerable to the health and environmental costs of industrial pollution are often the very ones most opposed to government regulation of it? Two new books aim to make sense of this paradox by exploring how people feel about the role of government.

The “Cowboys” of Cancer Alley

Strangers In Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Lee Sherman’s story—and others like it—appears in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (2016). Hochschild, a sociologist and self-described Berkeley liberal, sought to tear down an “empathy wall” she saw between herself (and liberals) and Tea Party supporters. She spent over five years off and on in southern Louisiana talking to people like Sherman. The area is beset with environmental problems—home to “Cancer Alley,” the BP oil spill, and an eroding coastline. While minorities tend to bear the brunt of pollution’s impact in the area, Hochschild’s story is mostly not about environmental justice. Instead, Hochschild focuses on those who resign themselves to the polluters in their backyards or even welcome them.

Hochschild employs archetypes like “cowboys,” “worshippers,” and “rebels” to characterize people living the paradox. She defines each not in terms of class or other economic indicators, but in terms of “what they feel, what they want to feel, and what they should or shouldn’t feel” (15). For a “cowboy” like Lee Sherman, honor is paramount and this is exactly why he outed himself for dumping pollutants in the local bayou. Honor means not thinking of one’s self as a victim. Instead, one should be willing to take risks and endure. As Hochschild puts it, “I’m strong. You’re strong. Mother Nature is strong. We can take it” (190). Though not all the cowboys Hochschild finds are white men, it is an especially white male identity.

Through Hochschild’s emotions-oriented lens, Jackie “permitted herself to feel sad about environmental damage, but renounced her desires,” as good Christians do, “to remediate it.”

One of the most telling lines in Strangers comes from a “worshipper,” Jackie Tabor, a devout Christian that Hochschild grows close to:“Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.” (179) Tabor mourns her son’s best friend, a nine-year old who just died of a rare tumor. Through Hochschild’s emotions-oriented lens, Jackie “permitted herself to feel sad about environmental damage, but renounced her desires,” as good Christians do, “to remediate it.” (177)

For “rebels” like Mike Schaff, environmental problems aren’t simply to be endured, they are to be fought against. A waste disposal company breached a salt dome beneath his home, forming a sinkhole and releasing noxious methane gases. Instead of blaming the company, however, Schaff blames what he sees as cowardly and corrupt state public officials. Another, similar-minded Louisianan feels that the aims of regulation are skewed: “The state always seems to come down on the little guy…. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go” (52). Rebels don’t trust the state because it permitted all the worst forms of pollution in the first place.

Hochschild summarizes her subjects’ feelings about government through an extended analogy about the American Dream—what she calls their “deep story.” They have worked hard, endured and struggled with honor, never asked for a handout while waiting in line for the Dream. Economic prosperity achieved by others should be their reward. They feel, however, that they have been unfairly passed while waiting. Who is cutting in line? Endangered pelicans, minorities, and public sector workers, aided by government initiatives like the Endangered Species Act, affirmative action, and cushy taxpayer-funded jobs.

Guys and Gals at Gas Stations

The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer.

The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer.

In another study of the emotional politics of those on the right, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016), the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer focuses not on archetypes but the links between place and identity in Wisconsin. From previous research, she knew that listening to everyday conversations among small groups of people was the best way to understand how they make sense of politics. Most of the groups she met with are coffee klatches that gather in the back of gas stations, cafe corners, or church basements in small towns. Most of the people in these groups are white (and usually middle-aged, mostly male), reflecting the overwhelmingly white (83%) population of the state.

Among these rural coffee drinkers, Cramer notices a pattern of resentment towards urbanites. In northern Wisconsin, residents appreciate the income generated by nature tourism—which has long been part of the economy and culture—but feel disrespected by urbanites who tend to see only a landscape of leisure and wilderness and ignore the realities of living and working in rural areas. One woman tells Cramer: “Just remember that up here many people have two and three part-time jobs to survive” (81). In a gas station on the Wisconsin River, one man says the tourists “be there with their canoes, bring their food with ‘em, their water, all they leave on the sandbars is shit” (60).

One woman told Cramer: “Just remember that up here many people have two and three part-time jobs to survive”

Resentment towards urbanites is also connected to deeply held notions of what constitutes hard work: demanding physical (and masculine) labor in traditional extractive industries like logging. University professors like Cramer, on the other hand, sit in comfortable desk chairs all day. As with those Hochschild met in Louisiana, rural Wisconsinites hold in contempt government workers, such as those the Department of Natural Resources, who, from their desks, impose unfair regulations and whose knowledge is out-of-touch with local experience.

In 2010, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker successfully leveraged these resentments to get elected. Cramer argues that conservative populists like Walker don’t create these feelings but instead stoke and use them to their advantage. One way Walker did this was to campaign against a proposed high-speed rail line that would have run between the state’s largest cities, Madison and Milwaukee, and would have been primarily funded by $810 million dollars of federal funding. For environmentalists, the project was a no-brainer. But Walker framed it as a waste of taxpayer money, especially because it wouldn’t benefit those living in rural Wisconsin. Soon after becoming governor, he killed the project to rave reviews among his supporters.

For Cramer, these resentments form a crucial part of a “rural consciousness” that resembles many of the perceptions expressed by what Hochschild refers to as her “Tea Party friends” in Louisiana. It boils down to “a sense that decision makers routinely ignore rural places and fail to give rural communities their fair share of resources” and “that rural folks are fundamentally different from urbanites in terms of lifestyles, values, and work ethic” (5-6).

Feeling Toxic

It can be difficult to listen to the stories Cramer and Hochschild tell. In particular, race haunts both of their books. Cramer acknowledges the racism expressed by some of her participants, but says that rural resentment is not just directed towards people of color but also towards white urbanites, political and intellectual elites, and public employees. Hochschild discusses how Tea Partiers like Mike Schaff do not feel racist, because to them, racism is calling someone the N word, and they do not do that (anymore). She rightfully notes, however, that when Schaff and others claim they, “the little guys,” are overregulated, they are whistling past the many freedoms and privileges granted to them and not to blacks.

What Hochschild and Kramer can help us with is understanding the emotional core of the Tea Party. Their subjects’ stories are grounded in very real experiences of suffering and disrespect, and these emotional wounds shape politics in a profound way. This resentment has deep historical roots.

Cramer draws upon the work of historian Robert Gough, who reveals how Progressive Era experts within government and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison treated rural people in northern Wisconsin. Social scientists studying the area dismissed locals as ignorant, lazy, and even biologically inferior. One researcher remarked in 1912, because of “generations of eugenic carelessness, they lack the fiber to do anything for themselves…. The way they live is bound to breed degenerates” (34). These experts played pivotal roles in crafting top-down policies that would shape the economy of the region for decades to come, an economy that has never thrived and has left residents feeling disempowered and resentful.

The sublime nature of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands have long attracted urban tourists to northern Wisconsin. The tourist experience, however, can overshadow the challenges permanent residents face in making a livelihood. Photo by Andy Davey, 2015.

The sublime nature of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands have long attracted urban tourists to northern Wisconsin. The tourist experience, however, can overshadow the challenges permanent residents face in making a livelihood. Photo by Andy Davey, 2015.

These dynamics were common across the country, as historian Samuel Hays showed in his classic environmental history of the era, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. Conservation experts—typically urbanites—believed they had the scientific knowledge and skills to properly manage natural resources for maximum public benefit. They believed in centralized control and power. On the other hand, rural residents and grassroots groups “shared a violent revulsion” against these “scientific, calculated methods of resource use” (272). They “desired financial and technical aid from the federal government… but none could feel a deep sense of participation in the process by which technical experts made resource decisions.” Moreover, as Karl Jacoby chronicled in Crimes Against Nature (2001), the creation of state and national parks championed by conservationists often came at the expense of residents, including both Native Americans and whites. Almost overnight, their subsistence activities of hunting and fishing were legally transformed into the punishable offenses of poaching and squatting. This history has played an important role in the unproductive environmental politics of today. It leads many of those with whom Cramer and Hochschild met to see environmentalists as privileged elites who disrespect their way of life and foist upon them unfair laws and regulations. Their views echo the bitter question posed in Richard White’s essay: are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?

For those in communities of color or urban communities struggling directly with their own environmental injustices, resisting oppression and fighting the powers and structures perpetrating that oppression makes abundant sense. There are clearly fights to be fought. At the same time, for those of us who can act from a place of at least some social or economic privilege, who are trying to research, understand, and improve the dynamics of American environmental politics, Hochschild and Cramer make compelling arguments that we need to spend more time listening to “ordinary” people with different political views and open up some space for empathy and nuanced dialogue.

Listening and empathy are not panaceas. Not even close. But they are crucial ingredients in moving away from the toxic politics of resentment. Listening to the stories of visceral environmental suffering, like that of chemical worker Lee Sherman, might help environmentalists better understand the complexity of whom and what they seem to be fighting. Advocacy that relies solely on the collection and dissemination of more and better facts is clearly insufficient. What Cramer and Hochschild offer us are particularly rich portrayals of people’s emotional worlds—not just their local environmental knowledge—and how this shapes their engagement in politics. A large part of what’s required for environmental change is engaging people at the level of emotions, meaning, and deep stories of identity and place.

Andy Davey is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently studying how and why different models of environmental ethics and education, such as Catholic stewardship, evangelical creation care, and secular environmentalism have developed at American liberal arts colleges. He is also working with community groups in the city of Madison to help facilitate place-based storytelling about food, gardening, and racial justice. ContactWebsite

Eric Nost is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research describes how technology—from interactive webmaps to sediment diversions and environmental modeling tools—shapes how regulators, non-profit conservationist groups, and the private sector design and evaluate ecological restoration and climate adaptation projects. He is currently looking at efforts to plan coastal restoration in Louisiana following decades of land loss. Contact.

14 Responses

  1. Annis Pratt says:

    Dear Andy and Eric: a stunning, useful article. Have you heard of Groundwork (www.groundworkcenter.org) in Traverse City, MI that used to be the Michigan Land Use Institute? They do good work mediating between rural folk and urban environmentalists.
    Annis Pratt

  2. Andy Davey says:


    Thanks for your kind words about our essay. I had not heard of Groundwork but look forward to learning more about their work — thanks for the recommendation.


  3. Chris Conz says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful review essay and I look forward to looking at these two books. The parallels between the foundations of rural identities and politics discussed here, and those in other parts of the world are striking. In my own work on rural Lesotho (southern Africa), I have found that in both past and present contexts people interacted with conservation policies in ways that depended as much on who implemented the policy as on what the underlying policy was. In other words, if the local chief who enforced grazing regulations was well respected, then the policy (whether or not based on appropriate knowledge) had a fair chance of “success.” So, in conjunction with environmental experiences, people’s identities are bound up in many layers of allegiances, be it to a hereditary local chief or a populist governor like Scott Walker.

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