Five myths about the Midwest


By Kristin L. Hoganson, Opinion, The Washington Post

May 10, 2019


Hoganson is a professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of "The Heartland: An American History."


As Democratic presidential candidates start popping up in Iowa and President Trump holds forth at rallies in Wisconsin, attention is again gravitating toward the heartland because of its pivotal role in our electoral future. To make sense of this symbolically loaded region, outsiders can turn to newly launched magazines, Midwestern studies programs, the Midwestern History Association and even an interpretive encyclopedia of the Midwest. Nevertheless, the country’s geographic core — and especially the rural Midwest — remains distorted by the filter of myth. Here are five lasting misconceptions.


Myth No. 1

Globalization hurts the Midwest.


Many urbanites assume that the Midwest is “getting its collective butt kicked by globalization,” as one critic wrote in a review of Richard Longworth’s book “Caught in the Middle.” The president has described the impact of freer trade in terms of “scars” and “empty buildings” in the region. It’s true, of course, that blue-collar workers have been hurt by the race to the bottom in wages and working conditions as once well-paid union jobs have been off-shored and foreign competitors have gained market share.


But factory jobs are not the whole story, and such notions overlook the globalizing impulses emanating from the Midwest itself, as well as the long-standing fractures within it. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. corn exports to Mexico and Canada increased sevenfold, and pork exports saw similar gains. Recent tariff hikes have caused financial distress for corn belt farmers, leading industry organizations such as the National Pork Producers Council to underscore their support for free-trade agreements. The region has long been a motor of globalization, not a helpless victim.


Myth No. 2

Exports are the foundation of the Midwest farm economy.


Free-trade organizations representing Midwestern interests, such as Farmers for Free Trade, urge open commerce because it will “expand export opportunities.” Historians, too, have emphasized the export side of the ledger, as seen in “The Roots of the Modern American Empire,” published 50 years ago. In this enduring account, William Appleman Williams drew attention to Midwestern farmers’ “export-dominated relationship with the world marketplace.” The conviction that prosperity has emerged principally from exports helps explain Trump’s lament at an Ohio rally that today, in contrast to the era of William McKinley, “trade comes in, goods come in.”


Although exports are undeniably important to the region’s bottom lines and global impact, Midwesterners since the 1800s have built their economy by importing capital, equipment and other means of production. From a historical perspective, this is especially true for the agricultural sector. With the exception of maize, which originated in Mesoamerica, the region’s staple crops have ocean-crossing immigrant ancestors. Wheat, oats, rye, sorghum, millet, barley, alfalfa, soy: None are native to the Americas. Recent charges from Trump that China has been stealing secrets from American agribusiness underscore the commercial value of plant and animal lines obtained from other parts of the world.


Myth No. 3

The rural Midwest has always been solidly isolationist... 


Myth No. 4

The rural Midwest is a holdover from a less interconnected era... 


Myth No. 5

White nationalism in the region stems from blue-collar layoffs... 


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