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Photo of Pittsburgh courtesy of John Austin

Introduction by Ben Speggen

What can the Industrial Heartland of America teach us about American renewal today? About healing our fractured politics?

According to John Austin, Andy Westwood, and Jeff Anderson: a lot.

Austin, who directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution; Andy Westwood, a Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester; and Jeff Anderson, Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University, have been examining how U.S. and European industrial regions are being revitalized across various media. They link to past work in their essay here, including reports and conferences — all of which are worth clicking through to.

Here, they explain the emergence of two Midwests — and why this matters — and argue that rebuilding the Heartland should be on the U.S.’s foreign policy agenda. They caution about the rise of populism, and look for ways to close the cultural, political, social, and economic gaps that have widen over the years .

Here is their case:

The industrial Heartland of America stretches from Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri in the west along the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valleys to Pennsylvania and New York in the east. This section of the country, often unfairly brushed-off as “Rust Belt” in national discourse, includes all or part of 12 states that built a highly interconnected agro-industrial economy over generations.

Home today to more than 70 million people, there are two Midwests – the communities that have made the transition to a new, thriving economy in a changed world, and those that still struggle. Home, too, to “swing states,” including those that helped deliver Donald Trump the White House in 2016, the region continues to be in the national spotlight in our political discourse. For economic, political, social, and sheer human-decency reasons, declining communities must find new sources of economic vitality.  

In Europe there are similar historically significant industrial regions that, as in the U.S., are in a difficult phase of economic restructuring. As we have written for the Brookings Institution, communities that still struggle within former industrial powerhouse regions offer fertile ground for leaders who play to attitudes of nativism, nationalism, and nostalgia.

Much has changed in these older industrial regions since they were the centers of our countries’ economic might. Globalization, the march of technological change, and new competitors around the world diminished these regions’ economic primacy; it’s a familiar story. The U.S. term “Rust Belt” was applied, in different forms, to similar regions in the U.K., France, and Germany

Beyond familiar, anecdotal “guy in a diner” news stories, there is a growing body of real evidence that when older industrial communities decline, residents are more receptive to polarizing right-wing messages. But where former “Rust Belt” communities find new economic footing, the lure of resentful populism wanes, as residents grow more hopeful for the future.

This has certainly been the case in the American Midwest swing states. Residents of industrial communities that have made the transition to a new economy exhibit different attitudes and voting patterns than those in communities that still struggle. In regions anchored by resurgent industrial communities, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well a number of smaller Midwest former industrial communities that have turned an economic corner, we observe powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia and towards moderate centrism. This was true in both the 2018 U.S. Midterm elections and in the November 2020 election results.

The full story of the many similarly situated Midwestern communities that have either reversed economic decline or maintained themselves on the cutting edge of change and innovation is told in the 2020 Chicago Council on Global Affairs report A Vital Midwest and the subsequent transatlantic look at heartland regions in the Paths to New Prosperity. This more recent paper was prepared to support a transatlantic discussion of revitalizing older industrial regions in the West.

Both reports showcase the varied success paths that many formerly industrial communities have taken to find new economic success. The stories of these communities and their varied paths offer inspiration and illumination of how other communities can build on their storied past toward a new era of economic success—and finding themselves resistant to the polarizing populism that feeds on anxiety and economic decline. 

Knowledge work and knowledge workers have congregated in larger cities and their regions. The Midwest’s major metros—from the Twin Cities in the west to Indianapolis at the nation’s crossroads to Pittsburgh in the east—are today economically diverse, thriving hothouses of this work. What’s more, all of the communities anchored by one of the region’s numerous top-flight research universities (such as Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and State College, Pennsylvania) are thriving in an economic era in which talent and innovation dominate.

Many other Midwest communities that are neither major metros nor home to top research universities have also found paths to new success. They have done so by embracing the forces of economic change and building on their particular assets to create a new era of economic vitality. These include cities like Columbus, Indiana; Midland, Michigan; and Rochester, Minnesota. Others—like Rockford, Illinois, and Troy, Michigan—succeed by engaging economically and socially with the world, selling to global markets, and welcoming immigrant talent and new populations.

Meanwhile, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Adair County, Iowa; and Milwaukee are growing their economies and reinvigorating their communities through leadership in the sustainable “green” and “blue” economies of tomorrow, creating new jobs in clean-energy and smart-water technologies. Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Georgetown, Kentucky, are succeeding by marking themselves as either highly educated communities or places with workers equipped with the skills needed to compete in a changed economy. Places like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Nashville, Indiana, have harnessed particular local assets of natural location, historical and cultural attributes, and a special quality of life.

As we wrote recently in the National Interest, economic opportunity gaps by geography remain a root cause of our polarized politics. How do we offset these gaps? How can our leaders at the state and federal level best support effective efforts?

We learned at our recent transatlantic symposium that  success can’t be top-down or “done to” the community by outsiders; the plan for economic evolution has to come from within and be built from the communities own self-identity.

An important step on the path to new hope will come when our leaders understand the issues as local residents do— their concern over degraded communities and downtowns, the loss of local schools, and sports leagues, degraded Main streets, lost cultural facilities, pubs and bars, union halls, local papers, family-owned shops and restaurants too. These can mean losing one’s identity and losing the institutions that build and reinforce that identity – all attributes of civic pride from when these local economies were strong.

Seeing communities as residents see them is the first step. The second is providing resources to heal tears in the economic and social fabric of community and community identity.

Perhaps most important, leaders cannot talk down and patronize these communities’ residents.  They don’t like people calling them “left-behind” (as in the U.S.) or in need of “leveling-up” (as in the U.K.). They don’t consider themselves “post-industrial,” or in need of “restructuring,” or as living in “Rust Belts.” What residents need to hear from their leaders are: “We see you. We understand why you are upset with the conditions of your community.  You and your community and future success is a national priority. We are here to support and offer resources for you to build your own future.”

There is a real urgency to this work. And this is precisely the kind of work that can be done with and through the partnership that exists between the United States and Europe. Placing the future of the industrial heartlands squarely on the transatlantic agenda, and then finding ways to work together, learning from each other’s achievements and failures, will greatly increase the chances of success on both sides of the Atlantic.

And the stakes could not be higher. Unless local and federal leaders in the Western nations focus on and accelerate economic success for people and places where residents are alienated and feeling left behind, these citizens will continue to drive a polarizing populist politics that is undermining both our democracies and our Western alliance.

John Austin Directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution

Andy Westwood is Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

Jeff Anderson is Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University

Colleen Dougherty and Jack Farrell contributed to this article.