The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Midwest’ is not synonymous with ‘rural and white’

Lake Michigan behind the Chicago skyline in 2015. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

One of social media’s many swirling eddies on Wednesday morning had at its center a series of tweets from the New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman.

In the tweets, since deleted, Weisman was replying to Waleed Shahid of the group Justice Democrats, who shared a video clip of former senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) saying that “free stuff from the government does not play well in the Midwest.” Shahid noted that Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) were both from the Midwest and both supported the expansions of health care to which McCaskill was objecting.

“Saying @RashidaTlaib (D-Detroit) and @IlhanMN (D-Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying @RepLloydDoggett (D-Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D-Atlanta) is from the Deep South,” he wrote, using the politicians’ Twitter handles. “C’mon.”

He later added that “the [political] message that my fan-girl in-law loves on Lake Harriett” — an area of Minneapolis — “doesn’t work with my in-laws in Plymouth and Shoreview,” two suburbs.

One advantage of social media is that it doesn’t take long for a message to receive a response. In short order, Weisman’s determination that residents of big cities didn’t count as real members of regions such the Midwest, Deep South or Texas earned him no shortage of opprobrium. He subsequently deleted the tweets because, he said, “I did not adequately make my point.”

Or did he — albeit inadvertently?

Analysis of Weisman’s claims is complicated by the fact that, Texas aside, the boundaries of “the Midwest” and “the South” aren’t well defined. FiveThirtyEight has asked readers to weigh in on each, finding that opinions of which states should or shouldn’t be included vary widely. The Midwest is generally centered around Illinois; the Deep South around Alabama.

This vagueness is important for our purposes, however. References to “the Midwest” are references to this idea of what “the Midwest” is. Farmy. John Deere caps. In places, hulking, empty factories. Same goes for “the Deep South,” though here the evocations are magnolia trees or oaks heavy with Spanish moss. Texas is longhorns, cold beers and dirty pickup trucks.

To claim that a resident of Detroit or Minneapolis isn’t part of “the Midwest” is to say that cities aren’t part of that vague, picturesque sense of what the region “is.” In other words, it begs the question: “The Midwest” is this thing that doesn’t have to do with cities; therefore, people from cities aren’t part of “the Midwest.”

We blur these lines between concepts of places and the places themselves all the time. Any resident of Washington, D.C., understands that the District isn’t the D.C. of television and movies. References to things happening in the District are not generally references to things happening on U Street. The effect of that, of course, is that the parts of Washington that aren’t part of the federal-government D.C. often get obscured or ignored.

Same holds for the Midwest. When we talk about the Midwest in a political context, we generally talk about farms and unemployed autoworkers. We don’t generally talk about Chicagoans. When we talk about Youngstown, Ohio, we are referring to those often-white blue-collar workers, not the city’s large black population. We mean this concept — a concept that doesn’t really account for the complexity of the region.

Weisman’s tweet made explicit how we push anyone outside of that concept to the background. By applying the names of those cities to the Democratic officials, he was being clear that those people don’t fit into how the political media talks about those places. The problem, of course, isn’t that they shouldn’t fit — which is what Weisman was claiming. The problem is that the descriptors are lousy shorthand.

So if we’re going to actually evaluate who does and doesn’t belong in these regions, let’s look at some numbers. Let’s say the Midwest comprises Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. For the Deep South, let’s go with Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Texas, as always, is Texas.

Across those Midwestern states, more than three-quarters of residents in 2010 lived in urban or urbanized areas. In the Deep South, more than two-thirds did. And in Texas? More than 80 percent. In other words, in no region does a majority of the population reside in rural areas.

This is using the Census Bureau’s definitions, which are a bit wonky. So let’s look at it another way: How much of the population of these states and regions lives in large cities, cities with populations of 100,000 or above? In the Midwest, 1 in 5 residents live in one of its 40 big cities — a percentage boosted no small amount by Chicago. In the Deep South, about 1 in 8. In Texas? Nearly half.

Even here, “large city” is a bit broad. My father lives in a city of about 200,000 people outside Dallas, a city anchored by a courthouse and a town square. Cities can sprawl outward and encompass a lot of area, making even “city” a concept that defies easy characterization.

It’s important to note how race overlays with urbanity. Most of these states are majority white (here meaning whites who are not Hispanic). But in each state and in each region, the density of nonwhite residents is higher in urban areas than nonurban areas.

This isn’t surprising, either. We know that cities tend to be more diverse. But when we equate the real Midwest with our concept of “the Midwest,” we’re necessarily excluding more nonwhite residents from the discussion. That’s what happens with Youngstown. And it’s what Weisman’s tweet did explicitly with the elected officials he identified.

Weisman’s saying that he hadn’t adequately made his point undersells the fact that he did actually make a good point about our political conversation. There is a valid point to be made about how Democrats appeal to a broad, diverse national party as opposed to more-homogeneous states. It’s a subject that I tackled earlier this month.

For the record, McCaskill’s point is also wrong. The Midwest is more than happy to accept free stuff from the government, as Agriculture Department data compiled by the Environmental Working Group makes clear.

McCaskill is falling into the same trap as Weisman. Agriculture subsidies aren’t handouts; free health care or college education is. People in “the Midwest” like the former and not the latter because people in “the Midwest” are white and Republican and approve of subsidizing farmers but not health insurance. It’s again self-fulfilling: Democrats can’t embrace programs that “the Midwest” doesn’t like, but what “the Midwest” doesn’t like generally overlaps with what Republicans don’t like. So Democrats ... can’t do things Republicans don’t like?

This is also the game that President Trump played earlier this month when his administration proposed slashing food stamp use by $15 billion but Trump celebrated a $16 billion bailout of farmers. One is fine and important to “the Midwest.” The other is used by people in places such as Chicago or Youngstown, not in “the Midwest.”

These shorthands we use in politics are important. But when we ourselves — that is, we in the media or elected officials — don’t understand where they fall short, we have a significant problem.