I heart the heartlands: in defence of the misunderstood Midwest
“Can we give you a hand?”
The jogger with the close-cropped steel-grey hair was already hoisting up one end of our 42in flatscreen television, while her husband grabbed the other and headed up the dimly lit, narrow stairs of our fourth-floor Chicago walk-up.
“We’re your neighbours from across the alley. We can get that up to the top floor in no time,” she said, with the cheerful (sometimes irritatingly so) can-do spirit of the American Midwest.
Even as a child growing up in Detroit, I was aware that the rest of the country — not to mention the world — looked down on us Midwesterners. The phrase “flyover country” was coined to describe a part of the US that many Americans only see while travelling coast to coast on an aircraft.
But these days we are faulted not just for being hicks — we’re also held responsible for almost single-handedly ushering Donald Trump into the White House.
Next month, the first presidential primary contests in Iowa will unofficially kick off the 2020 US election campaign. Reporters from around the world will once again touch down in flyover country, briefly to study the natives before explaining them to the world.
As the FT North America correspondent, I’ll be doing it too: trying to figure out what role the Midwest — from the industrial suburbs of Detroit to the dairy farms of Wisconsin, from the rust belt to the prairies — may have in determining whether President Trump will win a second term. Then I will try to explain it to FT readers in Shanghai and Mumbai, not to mention really foreign places like Palo Alto and Manhattan.
As in every election, we will all — local reporters or coastals, Americans or foreigners — struggle mightily to capture that special Midwest essence without descending to caricature. In the 2016 election, when swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin handed Trump a surprising victory, clichés abounded: this was, we were told, a region of opioid addicts and unemployed factory workers, racist whites and backward religious conservatives.
I was not blameless but I knew those particular caricatures did not do justice to my homeland — or even do much to help anyone understand why Trump won there.
By far the most prevalent cliché about the Midwest is that the natives are friendly. And running into the sixtysomething joggers was certainly a welcome-to-the-Midwest experience of the first order.
I and my two then teenaged daughters were unloading our worldly goods from the back of our Honda after eight years in China. We had no idea how we were going to get my brother’s cast-off flatscreen up the stairs of our 1930s apartment block on a day when humidity and temperatures were soaring. If it weren’t for the neighbourly contingent from across the alley, we’d probably still be standing there fighting about it.
I had begged the FT to send me to Chicago after Shanghai — and earlier stints in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Accra, Lagos, Brussels, London and Washington. I wanted my (Chinese adopted) children, raised almost entirely in China, to get a dose of the Midwest values I’d been raised on — that old “Welcome Wagon” thing that is honoured among Midwesterners even overseas. If you get in trouble in a foreign place, I always told my girls, find the nearest Midwesterner and they will help you.
One of the other clichés about the Midwest is that it’s full of small, lily-white towns; but there is plenty of diversity in places like Chicago. That’s why I enrolled my daughters at Evanston Township High School, in a close-in suburb, where African Americans, Latinos and a handful of Asians slightly outnumber the population of white students.
I was so focused on the quality and ethnic mix of the school, and the difficulty of finding a place to live on a public transport route, that I failed to notice that our new flat was only three blocks from Lake Michigan and walking distance from one of its prettiest beaches.
That’s another thing flyover journalists seldom mention about the Midwest: much of it is close to water. When I was a child, one of the largest rivers caught fire because of industrial pollution and one of the Great Lakes was so full of waste it was said to have “died”. These days, the waters are clean and the air is blue — and not only because the rust belt has largely stopped making things.
Quality of life is a big selling point for the region these days: migration from both coasts to some Midwest cities is on the rise. In summer, I spend every morning watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan, which has waves like the sea but none of its annoying salt. In winter, I can drive across Wisconsin’s frozen Lake Winnebago just for fun, or snowshoe by candlelight across Lake Superior.
This isn’t the Midwest that usually makes the headlines.
“Work-life balance, check. High-tech jobs, check. America’s heartland has more than meets the eye,” says Becky Frankiewicz, Chicago-based president of ManpowerGroup North America, a multinational staffing company. “We tell employers all the time that a job may attract someone to a city, but it’s the quality of life that makes them stay.
“At first blush, attracting people to the Midwest isn’t always easy,” she admits. “Chicago is popular but other cities like Indianapolis and Minneapolis may not be as well known.”
But once they move here it’s a different story: “The quality of life is good, the cost of living is good, the region has fantastic universities. Even at Manpower, we move people from all over the world to the Midwest and often they want to stay.”
What is the Midwest anyway? Few Americans can agree on firm geographical boundaries for the region: is Pittsburgh in it? Most Pittsburghers say they are Midwesterners but many outsiders would dispute that. Detroit, where I grew up, is most definitely a Midwestern town; but, geographically, it’s in the eastern third of the US land mass. The Midwest is more a state of mind than a place on a map.
A famous 1976 New Yorker magazine cover captures the Midwest’s image problem. The cartoon shows the US from the mind’s eye of a Manhattanite: skyscrapers in the foreground, Pacific Ocean in the distance, and nothing in between apart from an almost invisible note that says “Chicago”.
To many Americans, the Midwest is a place where matrons wear garish appliqué Christmas sweaters halfway into January (I’m still wearing mine); a region that came to the American party late — Chicago was only founded in the 1830s — and prospered for little more than a century, on the back of steel and carmaking and commodities trading.
At the suggestion of an FT reader and Midwest expat living in London, Anne Shreiner, I asked every Midwesterner I know what three adjectives first came to mind to describe the region. Almost all immediately delivered the same one: friendly. Then came “straightforward”, “down to earth”, “solid”, “honest” or “what you see is what you get”.
But if the Midwest is a state of mind or a set of values, those are apparently no more clearly defined than its map coordinates. Many non-Midwesterners I canvassed opted for an entirely less charitable string of adjectives: bigoted, gun-toting, conservative, uber-religious, even racist.
Shreiner says: “I think it’s ultimately that people in the Midwest tend to be genuine. Whether they’re racist, religious, dumb, smart, they meet you at face value and I think that’s the thing I miss the most. I’ve been in the UK five years and I still wonder if people mean what they say.”
We agreed that today’s Midwest is not the one of our childhoods: heading into the Iowa caucuses, opinion polls put Pete Buttigieg, the gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, somewhere near the top of a crowded Democratic field. That is just one sign of how the region has changed.
But for journalists like me, there is still the problem of portraying the Midwest without either romanticising or belittling it. When I tried to capture the colour of a county fair in Wisconsin recently, by writing about its deep-fried Oreos and pulled-pork “sundaes”, more than one reader thought I was sneering. In fact, I adore all the improbable foods that can be bought deep-fried at a Midwest fair, and would gorge myself on them happily were I not diabetic. It’s hard always to get the tone right.
And tone matters in the Midwest, because Middle America is allergic to the idea of being “talked down to” by the liberal media, especially from the East Coast. Wayne Youngquist, a Wisconsin political analyst and retired pollster, says a big reason Trump won there in 2016 was because many Midwesterners are “culturally non-coastal”.
There’s a strong conservative religious tradition in Wisconsin, he says, and “the sense among the religiously conservative that everyone looks down on them as poor hicks adds to the sense of cultural alienation. That’s more the reason that Trump won here than any great love for the man.”
“When Hillary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as ‘deplorables’ [before the 2016 vote], I think that sealed the election right then,” he adds. Wisconsin voters abhor being condescended to by the likes of Clinton, a born Midwesterner who abandoned the region to spend decades on the coast. They hate being sneered at. And while many factors, economic and sociological, can explain the rise of Trump, I agree with Youngquist that the biggest factor was this sneering.
The last thing I want to do is sneer. But even a girl with the Midwest burnt deep into her soul — so deep that 40 years of living mostly overseas could not erase it — will struggle to portray the region during an election campaign without reducing it to something one-dimensional.
Part of that is just reality: with so few words and so little time, often the best we journalists can do is aim to get the big picture right, alas sometimes at the expense of nuance.
Too positive or too negative, my words will occasionally prove an inadequate shorthand for the homeland I love. But any time I am tempted to condescend, I will think of our neighbours trotting up the stairs with our TV.
I’ve lived all over the world, in cultures from one end of the earth to the other, and no one else has ever carried a flatscreen up four flights of stairs for me. That, surely, is nothing to sneer at.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent
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