As Democratic presidential candidates start popping up in Iowa and President Trump holds forth at rallies in Wisconsin, attention is again gravitating toward the heartland because of its pivotal role in our electoral future. To make sense of this symbolically loaded region, outsiders can turn to newly launched magazines, Midwestern studies programs, the Midwestern History Association and even an interpretive encyclopedia of the Midwest. Nevertheless, the country’s geographic core — and especially the rural Midwest — remains distorted by the filter of myth. Here are five lasting misconceptions.
Many urbanites assume that the Midwest is “getting its collective butt kicked by globalization,” as one critic wrote in a review of Richard Longworth’s book “Caught in the Middle.” The president has described the impact of freer trade in terms of “scars” and “empty buildings” in the region. It’s true, of course, that blue-collar workers have been hurt by the race to the bottom in wages and working conditions as once well-paid union jobs have been off-shored and foreign competitors have gained market share.
But factory jobs are not the whole story, and such notions overlook the globalizing impulses emanating from the Midwest itself, as well as the long-standing fractures within it. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. corn exports to Mexico and Canada increased sevenfold, and pork exports saw similar gains. Recent tariff hikes have caused financial distress for corn belt farmers, leading industry organizations such as the National Pork Producers Council to underscore their support for free-trade agreements. The region has long been a motor of globalization, not a helpless victim.
Free-trade organizations representing Midwestern interests, such as Farmers for Free Trade, urge open commerce because it will “expand export opportunities.” Historians, too, have emphasized the export side of the ledger, as seen in “The Roots of the Modern American Empire,” published 50 years ago. In this enduring account, William Appleman Williams drew attention to Midwestern farmers’ “export-dominated relationship with the world marketplace.” The conviction that prosperity has emerged principally from exports helps explain Trump’s lament at an Ohio rally that today, in contrast to the era of William McKinley, “trade comes in, goods come in.”
Although exports are undeniably important to the region’s bottom lines and global impact, Midwesterners since the 1800s have built their economy by importing capital, equipment and other means of production. From a historical perspective, this is especially true for the agricultural sector. With the exception of maize, which originated in Mesoamerica, the region’s staple crops have ocean-crossing immigrant ancestors. Wheat, oats, rye, sorghum, millet, barley, alfalfa, soy: None are native to the Americas. Recent charges from Trump that China has been stealing secrets from American agribusiness underscore the commercial value of plant and animal lines obtained from other parts of the world.
As one of the essays in a volume on Midwestern isolationism put it, “Isolationism was rooted in the interests and values of agriculture in the upper Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio river valley.” An article on History.com attributes Midwestern isolationism to location: “Geography has played a large part in fostering American isolationism. From the perspective of America’s heartland, the rest of the world can seem very far away.”
The term “isolationism” took hold in the 20th century as a political slur that distracted attention from specific policy preferences such as noninterventionism and unilateralism. Pinning this overblown term on the rural Midwest made it all the more denigrating, by insinuating that only hayseeds would object to the nation’s expanding projection of power.
Although some Midwestern congressmen did join colleagues from other parts of the country in opposing interventionist and collective policies, going at least as far back as the entry into World War I and the debate over joining the League of Nations, these leaders did not urge total abstention from international affairs. Midwesterners Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower rank among the greatest architects of U.S. global reach during the early Cold War. Even Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who argued against involvement in European crises in the 1930s, became a staunch internationalist in the postwar years.
Moreover, Midwestern agriculturalists have a long and deep history of collaborative relationships with their foreign counterparts, especially in Canada and Europe, aimed at advancing agrarian interests and collective security. Turning specific policy stances into an “ism” is more than an exaggeration, it is a distortion that has hidden globalist commitments and outlooks.
When attention to globalization went supernova in the aftermath of the Cold War, library shelves filled with studies of internationally connected places, from major cities to coastal areas and borderlands. In the emerging geography of globalization, places such as Appalachia and the rural Midwest began to stand out as points of contrast — examples of “localism transcendent.” In contrast to much of the rest of the country, the Midwest supposedly “enjoys a degree of insulation from drastic changes.” Note the Urban Dictionary definition of “hick”: The first entry pins the label to the rural Midwest; the second claims that hicks dislike cities and rarely venture into them. If Chicago is a reach, then forget about the rest of the world.
But a dense web of threads has felted the Midwest into the global fabric since the early years of colonial contact. The myth also overlooks the immigrants, missionaries, military personnel, scientific agriculturalists, consular officers and circus performers, among others, who have connected the heartland to the world since the days of sail and steam.
It ignores, as well, the politics of localism in the region. Although the pioneers proclaimed themselves locals as part of their effort to assert ownership over newly claimed lands, they had all come from elsewhere. The native peoples they displaced — including the Kickapoo people, who call themselves “those who walk the earth” —strenuously resisted forced confinement on reservations, in boarding schools, and within national borders.
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg channeled this idea when he attributed the rise of white identity politics to economic disruption in the Midwest. Such assertions echo arguments surrounding the 2016 election that a number of white voters in the deindustrializing Midwest lashed out at their economic decline by “embracing white nationalist rage.”
Such claims downplay the long history of racism in the Midwest. Recent historical scholarship has illuminated the enslavement of African-origin people in Detroit and Illinois. The soul-wrenching history of the Trail of Tears had ethnic-cleansing antecedents and parallels in what was once called the Old Northwest, including in the histories of the Delaware people and the various communities in the Sandusky River region of Ohio.
In the antebellum era, Midwestern states denied residency rights and equal citizenship to people of color. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s attracted more than a quarter of all white men in Indiana. Well into the 20th century, the Land of Lincoln was dotted with sundown towns that forced African American workers to leave at the end of their shifts. Motorists hoping to stop in small Midwestern cities found sparse listings in the “Green Book.” White identity politics has shaped the Midwest — and the wrongheaded perception of the heartland as quintessentially American — from the start.
Read more from Outlook: