The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters call on Buttigieg to embrace a diverse view of the ‘American Heartland’

Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg greets members of the audience at a campaign stop in Mason City, Iowa. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg has been open about his belief that his Midwestern roots empower him to appeal to voters in the Midwest who feel isolated by the extremes on the right and the left.

But a comment on Twitter from the Democratic presidential candidate stokes pushback from those who think that his view of “the American Heartland” might be too narrow to lead a party that is increasingly diversifying.

“In the face of unprecedented challenges, we need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect,” he tweeted.

For much of U.S. history, references to the heartland have embodied ideals about what America is at its core. Images of Norman Rockwell paintings, local schools hosting Friday night football games and Americans attending Sunday services before gathering for family dinners dominated literature, art and even politics over the past century as the U.S. continued to develop an identity and distinguish itself from the rest of the world.

In her book “The Heartland,” Kristin Hoganson, a history professor at the University of Illinois, wrote: “Americans may not agree on who they are as a whole but they think they know the nature of their heart. Local. Insulated. Exceptionalist. Isolationist. Provincial. The ultimate safe space. Love it or hate it, the heartland lies at the center of national mythology.”

But the concept of the heartland has long been a controversial one for what it arguably claims America is not. In the 2018 elections, Kansas voters sent a Native American lesbian to Congress. Voters in Minnesota helped elect a Muslim woman who came to the United States as a Somali refugee. Even Buttigieg, a gay man who is often joined by his husband on the campaign trail, challenges traditional ideals about what “American Heartland” means when culture wars about sexuality and gender can dominate political discussions.

But Buttigieg’s suggestion that his vision of America was shaped by his life in the heartland drew attention to ongoing concerns about the former mayor’s views — and more importantly, actions — toward the region’s marginalized groups. A constant part of the Buttigieg story has been his struggle to gain traction with black voters for multiple reasons, including claims he failed to adequately address the concerns of black residents during his time as South Bend’s mayor.

Post columnist Michele L. Norris has reported on race in America for decades, and said conversations about the heartland rarely feature the stories of the black people she grew up around in Minnesota.

“I grew up in the so-called heartland,” she tweeted. “Land of casseroles and county fairs and Friday night bingo. And yet it seems that term does not encompass the neighborhoods where I lived and the folk of the great migration that raised me.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights legal organization, tweeted the word “heartland” is used to appeal to white Americans who hold nostalgic views about a part of the country during a specific time.

“Heartland is code,” she tweeted. “And I’m over it. It erases the legitimacy of the experiences and reality of Black mid-Westerners and cloaks white mid-Western communities in a gauzy innocence and authenticity.”

In a statement to the Fix Thursday, Buttigieg said he understands that no region or group of people has a monopoly on American values.

“I understand that family, faith, freedom, patriotism aren’t owned by any one party or point of view, and neither is the American heartland,” he said. "In my experience the heart of America is shaped by racially diverse voices — including my hometown, which is 40% 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," Buttigieg added. “What we all have in common is a feeling politics in Washington has failed us.”

While Buttigieg has frequently criticized Trump, he has largely refrained from attacking the Americans who support the Republican president. Trump’s 2020 campaign is largely following the same template that helped him win the White House in 2016. He is appealing to the cultural anxieties of many Americans who fear the country’s demographic changes in the areas of race, ethnicity and faith are an affront to American ideals. Buttigieg is hoping voters who backed Trump in 2016 — and perhaps particularly those in the Midwest who share his values — will vote for him this year.

But anxieties that Buttigieg might be willing to alienate groups that have consistently voted blue to win white Midwesterners resurface doubts about liberal leaders’ commitment to marginalized communities.

For some critics, the problem with Buttigieg’s tweet wasn’t just that it was a dog whistle to white voters disappointed in Trump and hoping to find an option on the left that they can get behind. It also invokes a popular conservative talking point: that the big cities on the coasts that are filled with the people who regularly support the Democratic Party don’t embody American values.

Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay was among many high-profile individuals who expressed concern that Buttigieg’s words erased the role Americans in coastal cities played in shaping the country’s morals. She tweeted:

“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet? Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too. Serious question. Would love an answer.”

Buttigieg appears to be leaning heavily on his Midwestern identity to connect with voters in the region looking for a moderate option between the more left candidates seeking the Democratic nomination and President Trump. But the eventual Democratic nominee will probably need to find a way to celebrate the diversity of America’s regions while not valuing one over the other to move voters to turn out in large enough numbers to beat Trump in November.