The Midwest region has become a bellwether of American national politics. Media discourses often presume that Midwestern attributes or plights manifest themselves in voting blocs with shifting, but internally consistent political allegiances. These homogenizing narratives have drawn our attention as ethnographers of Midwestern communities. In addition to living some of our formative years in Midwestern towns, each of us has tried in our writing on transnational waste flows (Reno 2016) and faith-based humanitarianism (Halvorson 2018) to work against stereotypical notions of people and places in the Midwest—particularly inherited images of bucolic insularity and working-class white disaffection. But the recent revival of these regional tropes has led us to reflect on their persistence. More than just clichés, such mass-mediated regional tropes help produce exclusionary nationalist narratives. In subtle ways, they can serve as mobile images of national citizenship and belonging based on race and/or class, building on a significant cultural history of the Midwest serving exactly this role in the United States.
After both the 2016 and 2018 elections, media narratives referring to a homogenous Midwest proliferated. The titles of 2016 postelection news accounts made this clear: “In the End, the Midwest Won the Election for Trump” or “How Donald Trump Won the Midwest.” Other accounts were more subtle, but still tried to explain how Trump’s appeal to Midwestern voters changed the electoral map, as in a New York Times interactive map: “[Trump’s] most significant support came from counties in the industrial Midwest where whites without a college education are the majority. . . . Mrs. Clinton . . . was soundly rejected in smaller cities, especially in the industrial heartland.” After Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2018, the titles changed but retained the same regionalizing style: “Poll: Midwest Abandons Trump,” “Trump’s Grip on the Midwest was Illusory,” and “Is the Midwest Really Trump Country?”
What these examples demonstrate, first, is that the form that Midwestness takes is fairly stable, even though the content shifts in at least two ways. First, the political allegiances of this supposed voting bloc can shift from one election to the next. Second, what Midwestern people consist of—farmers of the heartland or industrial workers, rural or urban dwellers, whites or Midwesterners of all races—is different in each account. The power of the regional trope is precisely its ability to conjure a stable, homogenous form despite purporting to represent such widely distinct groups, places, and histories. Anthropologists Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (1997) discuss region and related constructs as a mapping of space that advances certain forms of governance. Yet, as we see in the examples here, region, like notions of place, landscape, and home, also has implications for how people experience and represent specific locations and their histories.
The term Middle West was initially used by the settler state to survey land, referring to a north–south ordering of space on the plains from the vantage point of Kansas and Nebraska (Shortridge 1989). Punctuated by the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the 1862 Homestead Act, this symbolic realignment of space was part of political efforts to remove Native Americans from their land on behalf of incoming settler colonists (Hixson 2013). It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, that the Midwest regional label absorbed nationalist sentiments associated with the farming livelihood of white European settlers and began to evoke the full range of dominant cultural associations that the region bears today. The formation of regionalist belief and investment in a distinct Midwestness dates to this time period, as a counterpoint to the perceived changes wrought by rapid urbanization and industrialization. As art historian Jason Weems (2015, 162) argues: “The anxiety over the eclipse of rural identity in the face of consolidation by mass culture, urbanism, and industrialization inspired much of the ‘regionalism’ that suffused the American countryside during the 1920s and 1930s.” He relates the emergence of an ambivalent American Midwestness to the rise of air travel and surveillance and to the modes of everyday perception and understanding they made possible. As people increasingly saw themselves as Midwestern, aerially derived images combined with existing representations and, in so doing, “fostered a set of idealized preconceptions of midwestern culture” (Weems 2015, 44).
The widely popularized pastoral imagery of the Midwest never reflected the economic diversity of the region. The northern sections of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan have featured mining, lumbering, and manufacturing industries since the nineteenth century rather than agriculture, a fact that still holds true today. For instance, in Wisconsin, “less than 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product derives from agriculture and forestry” (Collins 2012, 8). This is to say that dominant representations of the pastoral Midwest were thoroughly modern constructs that sought to present the region and its inhabitants through the lens of a selective tradition of Midwestern farming, as a foil to the technology and modernity of industrial labor as well as its toil, pollution, inequalities, and forms of alienation. In this way, at a time of rapid political and economic transformation, the trope of the Midwest as pastoral heartland served as a “depositor[y] for various national values” (Shortridge 1989, 135), especially those linked to U.S. settlement, rural populism, and white landholding. In remarkably parallel ways to today’s uses of this trope, it began to function in the early twentieth century as an idealized representation of an imagined earlier form of economic production and social relations, which was tacitly coded as white.
Thus, the use of the Midwest as a unitary concept in contemporary political discourse, particularly at a time where whiteness is being reimagined as a force in U.S. national politics, is neither coincidental nor new. Whitened representations of the pastoral, rural Midwest conceal persistent forms of structural inequality linked to race and class in Midwestern communities, a topic that has received considerable ethnographic attention (e.g., Hartigan 1999; De Genova 2005; Cox 2015; Vega 2015). In Barrios Norteños, for example, Chicano studies scholar Dennis Nodín Valdés (2000, 18) describes how contemporary portrayals of the recentness of Mexican migration in the Midwest actually date from Chicano settlement in the 1920s, attesting to the tenacious, century-long role of this discourse in whitened constructions of belonging and citizenship. Midwest regionalisms that accord insularity to the region and circumscribe citizenship contribute to bordering as an ongoing cultural process (see Khosravi 2010) and produce a multitude of internal “borderlands” (Vega 2015, 148). That is, as circulated images of citizenship and belonging, regionalisms implant symbolic borders in everyday activities that shape nativist ideologies of rootedness.
In addition to the notion of the Midwest as an insular pastoral heartland, dominant national constructions of Midwestness also advance the notion of the Midwest as a unitary Rust Belt. Rust Belt imagery would seem to conflict with that of the pastoral heartland. However, a closer analysis suggests that these two dominant images perform different but complementary functions in political discourse. When viewed together, such regional imagery indexes the political-economic and racial features of a population-in-the-making: the white working class. Here, too, the anthropological literature on Midwestern communities challenges reductive regional images. Deindustrialization has undoubtedly devastated many Midwestern families and tied them intricately to labor, production, and financial markets in other locales, both in the United States and abroad. However, as anthropologist Christine Walley (2013, 55) shows in her book Exit Zero, common narratives of Midwestern deindustrialization obscure how global capitalist processes profit from and deinvest in manufacturing. Additionally, the entire Midwest is no unitary Rust Belt, suffering a similar fate. Capital flows in the Midwest have produced a patchy landscape where some towns and residents suffer incredibly, while other areas reap the benefits of resource inequality.
Recent writing on scale helps to further explain how such mass-mediated regional tropes become iconic and why they persist. Regionalisms, as cultural categories, shift scales (Carr and Lempert 2016). The term Midwest, for example, can refer to a fuzzy geographic area, a set of attitudes or characteristics, or a person living in the region (“a Midwesterner”), and can moreover evoke all of these at once. Thus regionalisms ideologically link and shift across scales of nation and individual person. Regional representations have an ongoing cultural life that is dynamic and historically variable, and they highlight dominant identities and qualities such that over time these come to represent essences of the region and its inhabitants. These iconic representations of person and place simultaneously obscure other interconnections and histories that do not fit dominant narratives of region (and the interests they serve). Both moments are critical to the discursive construction of region as national essence and border: the elevation of some stories and people as paradigmatic cultural figures—central to myths of common white struggle based on regional economic and political circumstances—and the simultaneous erasure of other narratives.
Pursuing research in the Midwest over the past fifteen years, we’ve both been struck by the exclusionary work performed in the national media when notions of the Midwest are tacitly coded as white and parochial. Conflating regional images with lived experiences impoverishes not only our understanding of Midwesterners’ lives but also the political work of regionalisms. Regional imagery facilitates a politics of cultural distinction: simplified portraits of a region and its inhabitants are portable discursive units that can reinforce a series of cultural oppositions, including those of parochial/cosmopolitan, white/racially diverse, and traditional/modern. Anthropologists, of course, participate in these cultural projects, both as individuals with complex identities and biographies and as ethnographers immersed in regionalizing processes.
Critical approaches to region are central to developing a deeper understanding of contemporary politics. While nationalisms are produced in an ongoing and dynamic fashion, they do not emerge out of nowhere. They rely on historically rooted cultural channels and associations. Seen in this way, regional images have political relevance because of how they articulate with forms of nationalism. In the United States, nationalist narratives about white settler economic and political interests have long deployed images of the Midwest—regardless of how those images represented or spoke to Midwesterners themselves. Regionalisms operate discursively not only as linguistic references, as in overt mentions of Midwestern character, but include stereotypical cultural images of folksy or backward Midwestern people, maps and paintings, national myths, allusions to “real Americans” or “flyover country.” Midwestern tropes attain cultural meanings in contrast to what the Midwest is imagined not to be (i.e., global, cosmopolitan, racially diverse, Eastern, or coastal). Considering the wide-ranging cultural field on which regionalisms draw and to which they contribute is key to understanding their role in forms of nationalism. Not to do so is to affirm dubious claims that entire regions can make history, swing elections, or experience uniform kinds of alienation and disaffection. Such claims are actually partaking in a project of regionalism far older and more insidious than is commonly acknowledged.
Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert. 2016. “Introduction: Pragmatics of Scale.” In Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life, edited by E. Summerson Carr and Michael Lempert, 1–24. Oakland: University of California Press.
Collins, Jane. 2012. “Theorizing Wisconsin’s 2011 Protests: Community-based Unionism Confronts Accumulation by Dispossession.” American Ethnologist 39, no. 1: 6–20.
Cox, Aimee. 2015. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
De Genova, Nicholas. 2005. Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and ‘Illegality’ in Mexican Chicago. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1997. “Culture, Power, Place: Ethnography at the End of an Era.” In Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, edited by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, 1–51. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Halvorson, Britt. 2018. Conversionary Sites: Transforming Medical Aid and Global Christianity from Madagascar to Minnesota. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hartigan, John. 1999. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Hixson, Walter L. 2013. American Settler Colonialism: A History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Khosravi, Shahram. 2010. “Illegal” Traveler: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Reno, Joshua O. 2016. Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill. Oakland: University of California Press.
Shortridge, James R. 1989. The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. 2000. Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Vega, Sujey. 2015. Latino Heartland: Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest. New York: New York University Press.
Walley, Christine J. 2013. Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weems, Jason. 2015. Barnstorming the Prairies: How Aerial Vision Shaped the Midwest. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.