Op-Ed

What is America’s ‘Heartland?’ Maybe not what you think.

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“Heartland,” a term coined in 1903, today generally refers to the central part of the United States and includes key electoral battlegrounds—like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio—where conservative social and political values hold sway. When we think of “heartland” we imagine “wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet,” and “amber waves of grain.” In our mind’s eye, America’s heartland is rural, where hardy, outdoors people—chiefly white—grow and build, work and worship. Overwhelmingly, the connotations of “heartland” are warm and bright. If “home is where the heart is,” then the American homeland is surely the heartland.

Perhaps in 1895 when Katherine Lee Bates drafted “America, the Beautiful,” or in 1943 when Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Oklahoma!” the idea that the nation’s heartland lay in the rural Midwest made sense. Today this use of “heartland” is a politically misleading anachronism, especially when it refers to Americans who admire Donald Trump.

Surveys reveal that U.S. rural voters especially tend to self-identify as “American.” But that does not make them more “American,” patriotic, self-reliant, or virtuous than others. Calling Trump voters heartland voters, diminishes his political opponents who live in cities and suburbs, or the coasts.

Since the 1990s rural voters have become increasingly Republican and distinct from metropolitan voters along social and economic lines. Rural Americans more often live in the state of their birth than city or suburban people. Rural residents are less educated and more commonly volunteer for military service. Statistically, they are older than urbanites and more often own their home. According to a Pew survey, rural and urban people often gaze resentfully across a cultural chasm, disrespected, they believe, by the “others.” Rural Americans see themselves mocked on late night comedy, while Fox News reinforces their conviction that liberal elites and the “liberal media” scorn them.

Simultaneously, metropolitans resent being stereotyped as “latté-drinking, bleeding heart, out-of-touch liberals.” They do not live in crime-infested “inner cities.” In fact, today’s city centers more often possess wealth, high property values and falling crime rates than ghetto poverty.

Sadly, the small towns and countryside of the imagined “Heartland” have experienced a dramatic rise in the social and economic disorders the president attributes to cities. The 2008-2009 recession hit hard a rural America already suffering from job loss and economic decline. While most cities have grown safer in the past decade, elsewhere violent crime has skyrocketed. Economic recovery bypassed small towns, whose shrinking tax bases and populations have cut resources for schools, emergency services, and law enforcement.

Similarly, rural death rates from opioid overdoses exceed rates in cities. Methamphetamine production and abuse has exploded in rural areas where meth making is both profitable and difficult to detect. High teenage birth rates, seen as a minority problem, are almost two-thirds higher in small towns than in cities—partly owing to scarce health services, counseling, and contraception.

The closing of rural hospitals and the loss of health services in the countryside has created grave disparities in the quality of life between rural and metropolitan residents, whether in Maine or Missouri. The 46 million occupants of rural America, fully 15 percent of the U.S. population, are experiencing greater rates of mortality and morbidity. Lacking preventive health care, maternal deaths are higher, as are deaths from cancer and other diseases.

We believe public policies must address the harsh realities confronting Americans. All across the nation, for people of all ethnicities and colors the consequences of economic dislocation and the nation’s growing inequalities are harmful. Americans, once praised around the world for their “heart,” must reawaken their generous impulses. “Heartland” does not belong to the right or the left, or to the Midwest only. Every American dwells in the heartland—from sea to shining sea.

Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Connecticut. He is the author of Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017).

Ron Formisano is Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Kentucky, held the William T. Bryan Chair of American History. He is the author of American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (University of Illinois Press, 2017)

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