As the Iowa caucuses approach (just four days away!), the pandering can become intense. And there’s always a temptation to pander to a particular group by telling them that they’re just better than other people. Or, in a slight variation, that I’m one of you, and we’re both better than other people.

That idea, and its specific expression in the notion of the “heartland,” is getting Pete Buttigieg in a bit of trouble. Buttigieg tweeted this on Wednesday afternoon:

Even though politicians have been lavishing praise on the “heartland” for decades, suddenly people weren’t having it. Prominent people of color such as Ava DuVernay, Post contributing columnist Michele Norris and Sherrilyn Ifill called attention to the way the term is usually used to denote not just the Midwest but a white, small-town vision of the Midwest.

“Uhhh... what? Shaping by the heartland is better?” tweeted Soledad O’Brien. “Is that where all the ‘Real Americans’ live? Is that the only place where ‘American Values’ can be found? This is offensive and disgraceful.”

To be fair to Buttigieg, given the very visible problems he has had convincing non-white voters to support him, it’s unlikely he was consciously trying to send an exclusionary message. He released a statement saying; “I understand that family, faith, freedom, patriotism aren’t owned by any one party or point of view, and neither is the American heartland."

Buttigieg’s statement continued: “In my experience the heart of America is shaped by racially diverse voices — including my hometown, which is 40 percent people of color. And while we are racially diverse across the Midwest, the values we hold aren’t exclusive to the middle of the country.”

So I guess the Midwest is just like everyplace else, which does make one wonder why we would need a president from there.

More than any other of the Democratic contenders, Buttigieg has been campaigning against “Washington,” this place that has supposedly failed us all. There are certainly plenty of things wrong with the federal government right now, but I’d like to consider this idea, not as a bromide but as something real.

Is the problem with Washington that it lacks enough of a “heartland” perspective? I could name you some pretty despicable Midwestern congresspeople and senators. And what exactly would the “heartland” perspective bring to Washington? Is there some way of policymaking or problem-solving or negotiation that is unique to the Midwest, and that the rest of us just haven’t heard about?

The truth is that whenever anyone talks about the virtues of the “heartland” as it relates to politics, it means nothing practical. It’s just a way of establishing affinity, which is what Buttigieg is trying to do: You folks are from Iowa, I’m from Indiana, so we’re the same kind of people, and you should vote for me. He isn’t the only one; Amy Klobuchar said at one point that “I think it’s important to have someone from the heartland on the ticket.”

We see this all the time in state and local races, where candidates tell voters, “Congressman Cornpone has [insert our state] values. But State Senator Smith? He’s just not one of us.” You see it all over, but with particular frequency in the South and Midwest. Here’s a candidate touting “Eastern North Carolina values.” This one has “Alabama values.” Rand Paul’s got “Kentucky values.” Here are some “Nebraska values.” This guy standing by bales of hay has “Wyoming values.” “Arkansas values”? You bet. Want some “Oklahoma values”? Here you go.

In those cases, the candidates are all from the same place, but the argument is that one of them (usually the Democrat) is actually alien, not part of our tribe.

And what exactly are those values that are supposed to be unique to one state? It’s often not specified, but when it is, you hear things like “Hard work. Faith. Helping out a neighbor in need.” In other words, things you can find anywhere.

And if you asked Buttigieg or Klobuchar what specifically they possess because they’re from the Midwest that a candidate from California or Massachusetts lacks, they’d probably hem and haw a little bit and try to change the subject. That’s because unlike some people who use this kind of language — say, Sarah Palin — they surely don’t believe that virtue is in greater supply the farther you get from the coasts. They just want Iowans to feel connected to them.

Nevertheless, the blowback Buttigieg is getting should be a lesson to everyone: People who come from the Northeast or the West, or who live in big cities, or who don’t adhere to a stereotype of what the “heartland” is supposed to represent, are getting pretty tired of the implication that they’re somehow less American — no matter who votes first in the primaries.

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