Some of the people we met expressed the conservative-leaning view that changes in society and the family were to blame. One, a technical-skills instructor at the Chippewa Falls school, questioned whether women belonged in the workplace at all. “That idea of both family members working, it’s a social experiment that I don’t know if it quite works,” he said. “If everyone’s working, who is making sure the children are raised right?”
Others expressed more liberal-minded sentiments, seeing insufficient government action as the root of the community’s problems. A school-board official cried as she described the problems plaguing education. A group of middle-class women who met through local activism lamented the area’s lack of diversity and hidden pockets of poverty.
Politics, though, was not the focus of the Third Way interviewers, who believed there was more to be gained by asking neutral, open-ended questions. In accordance with Third Way’s ideology, they believed that political partisanship was not most people’s primary concern. But sometimes the Wisconsinites brought up politics anyway.
At the Labor Temple Lounge in Eau Claire, nine gruff, tough-looking union men sat around a table. One had the acronym of his guild, the Laborers International Union of North America, tattooed on a bulging bicep. The men pinned the blame for most of their problems squarely on Republicans, from Trump to Governor Scott Walker. School funding, the minimum wage, college debt, income inequality, gerrymandering, health care, union rights: It was all, in their view, the GOP’s fault. A member of the bricklayers’ union lamented Walker’s cuts to public services: “If we can’t help each other,” he said, “what are we, a pack of wolves—we eat the weakest one? It’s shameful.”
But their negativity toward Republicans didn’t translate to rosy feelings for the Democrats, who, they said, too frequently ignored working-class people. And some of the blame, they said, fell on their fellow workers, many of whom supported Republicans against their own interests. “The membership”—the union rank-and-file—“voted for these Republicans because of them damn guns,” a Laborers Union official said. “You cannot push it out of their head. A lot of ‘em loved it when Walker kicked our ass.”
Debriefing after this particular group, the Third Way listeners said they found the union men demoralizing. “I feel like they can’t see their way out,” Hale said.
“They were very negative,” Paul Neaville, another researcher, concurred.
They were so fixated on blaming Republicans, Hale fretted. “It was very us-and-them.”
On the long drives between stops, I asked the researchers about their views and what they had been hearing around the country. They admitted that some of the things they had heard had shocked them. In South Florida, Hale told me, a local chamber of commerce official had calmly asserted, “We don’t have any Muslims here, and that’s a good thing, because Muslims are trouble.”