When I was in elementary school in the early 1960s, Summit County, Ohio was ranked second among all the counties in the United States by median household income. All four of the major American tire manufacturers of the time—Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and General—had enormous production facilities in Akron, the county seat. The money rolled in, and life was good.
Twenty-three years later, on a dismally cold January morning, I left Akron, Ohio, and the Midwest, never to return except for the briefest of visits. What had happened?
According to Jon K. Lauck, an adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota, it’s because the Midwest, like Rodney Dangerfield, just doesn’t get any respect from anyone. In From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965, he argues that the Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century was perhaps the most dynamic and most “American” of all the country’s regions, as well as a hub of American literary excellence.
Eight of the eleven Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction from 1918 to 1929 were Midwesterners. Frederick Jackson Turner, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, became an eminent historian by writing a Midwest-centric regionalist narrative of America’s story and a laudatory view of Midwestern culture.
Then it all came unglued. Smart-alecky Eastern critics like Carl van Doren, H.L. Mencken, and Van Wyck Brooks willfully misread the themes of such Midwestern writers as Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In so far as these authors had literary merit, it was, according to the Easterners, purely because they rebelled against the stifling parochialism of their region, the so-called “revolt against the village.”
The charge was untrue, Lauck says, but it stuck anyway. Henceforth the Midwest would be viewed as a cultural Gobi Desert, full of retrograde boors, Bible thumpers, and the furtive malice of the small town.
On the academic front, a similar campaign of sabotage was underway. Professors from Harvard and Columbia made unfair attacks on the Turner school of Midwestern historical development, charging that a regionalist historical focus is always a slippery slope towards mere antiquarianism, if not out-and-out political reaction.
Beyond literary and academic criticism (the main focus of the book), virtually every development of the 20th century that Lauck notices seems to have conspired against the Midwest. The concentration of publishing in New York, the national focus of the New Deal, the outward orientation of the United States during World War II and the Cold War, the horrific example of Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy as Midwestern bigot par excellence, the homogenizing effect of television and postwar entertainment, even the invention of air conditioning which made the South and Southwest livable for the masses.
And on and on—the poor Midwest just couldn’t catch a break. The term “fly-over country” of course gets a despairing reference from the author, underlining the disrespect that Easterners supposedly feel for the territory west of the Alleghenies.
At this point, it becomes necessary to define our terms. The author is examining how the Midwest is perceived by the rest of the country, and the book consists of a back-and-forth between attackers and defenders of Midwestern culture. But the Midwest is a large region, far bigger than most European countries. There is a substantial difference between areas bordering the Ohio River and the wheat fields of Minnesota.
And what is “culture,” exactly? Is it the number of research universities and symphony orchestras in a given region? Or Midwesterners’ penchant for Jell-O salad? It would be useful for Lauck to define what is so precious about Midwestern culture that he is defending from national disregard.
It is also noteworthy that postwar cultural homogenization, which seemed like a genuine trend in the 1950s and the 1960s, is something of a red herring. The fact that the same fast-food places and TV shows now exist in Burlington, Vermont and Bartlesville, Oklahoma does not mean the places are remotely similar in their cultural “feel.” As anyone who has paid attention to politics during the last 30 years is aware, the country’s regions are becoming less similar. Rather than growing more homogeneous with the South, coastal America would slot comfortably into a similar civic culture in Norway or New Zealand, whereas the Deep South is more akin to, say, the hacienda culture that formed Argentina or Mexico, with shared cultural traditions that enforce social inequality, the belief of local elites that farming and other forms of manual labor were ignoble, and a weak sense of participatory democracy. (Though the Deep South has capital punishment, greasier food, and no tango.)
If there is anything about the Midwest that suggests cultural homogenization, it is not the assimilation of the values of alleged cultural hegemons like New York or Los Angeles. It is what I call the NASCAR-ization of the region, which hits me with considerable force when I revisit the area. Outside the metropolitan centers, the Midwest has absorbed Dixie culture to a striking extent: country music, good-old-boy attitudes, and most important, Southern-oriented fundamentalist religion. It’s worth noting that the highest concentration of Ku Klux Klan membership in history was not south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but in Indiana in the 1920s, when for a time the Klan controlled the state legislature. This has impacted Midwestern politics, and not for the better; Trump won by racking up huge margins in rural and exurban areas, even as Clinton made gains in suburbs.
Lauck goes to some length to defend the Midwest’s historically anti-statist, anti-interventionist stance from the critiques of Eastern Seaboard cosmopolites, although he admits that McCarthy’s brand of politics is difficult to endorse. But this retrograde strain was always there: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, and Colonel Robert McCormick were nationally infamous long before the Cold War, and they all operated out of the Midwest.
Postwar prosperity, fueled by the automobile and allied industries, muted this regional tendency. And the heavy unionization of those industries produced a working class with notions of solidarity and progress. But the long slide of post-1970s deindustrialization, exacerbated by the political culture of religious fundamentalism, has brought it back with a vengeance.
Recently we have seen governors like Mike Pence of Indiana, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Ayatollah Sam Brownback of Kansas literally dismantle the public infrastructure of their states. State-supported research universities—the legacy of the Morrell Act of 1862 that established land grant colleges—have long been the cultural gems of the Midwest, but they are all suffering under the ministrations of the new reactionary politics that now prevail there.
In 2015, the same year Walker’s budget slashed $250 million from the University of Wisconsin, one of the nation’s premier state universities, he handed the identical sum of public money to two hedge fund managers who own the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team in order to build them a new arena. Walker rationalized the scandalous deal by saying that keeping the team in Milwaukee would garner $6.5 million in state tax revenues per year, meaning it will require almost 40 years for the state to recoup Wisconsin taxpayers’ initial outlay. Corrupt and imbecile stunts like Walker’s are apparently the “common sense solutions” to public issues that Midwestern governors have been braying about.
Statehouses all over the Midwest have been taken over by legislators so stultified by the dominant atmosphere of social regression that they are incapable of thinking of any aspect of public policy aside from abortion restrictions. The Missouri legislature seems to have nothing better to do than dream up dozens of ever-weirder abortion laws. This from the state that sired Harry Truman, Thomas Hart Benton, and T.S. Eliot.
What has happened to the Midwest has been replicated in the regions of other developed countries with declining industries. The fading ore and steel-producing regions of northeastern France opted for the National Front in recent elections. The old industrial north of England, weakening since the shipbuilding and textile crash of the 1920s, chose UKIP and Brexit. The worn-out industrial and coal-mining region of Silesia in Poland hopes for improvement from the proto-fascist Law and Justice Party.
And that is the principal flaw of Lauck’s thesis. The topics that Lauck writes about—the cultural and intellectual trends of a region—must at some basic level be influenced by the industrial or commercial changes in the society that gave rise to those trends. That perspective is absent in Lauck’s book. A book about the decline of the Midwest in the 20th century should have given more reference to the epic industrial collapse and political transformation that has taken place. Along with these misfortunes, massive changes in the federal regulatory structure over the last several decades have severely handicapped the region’s competitiveness with the coastal centers. All these adverse trends have resulted in the almost surreal physical aspect of post-industrial Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, and other cities. They resemble the bombed-out wastelands of defeated Germany in 1945.
I did not leave Ohio because it had been derided by H.L. Mencken and a bunch of Eastern snobs. I left because jobs were scarce and unremunerative. Summit County, once a beacon of prosperity, now ranks 519th among American counties by median household income, well below the national average.
The post-industrial squalor that blights much of the Midwest is now reaching a tipping point of near-societal collapse. The opioid epidemic is such that parts of Ohio are running out of morgue space for the dead, and Middletown, Ohio has had to adopt a “three strikes and you’re dead” policy: if a resident has a third opioid overdose, the city will no longer send its overstretched emergency service to revive the person. It was the Midwest that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College, but it has received far too little national attention that the areas with the highest opioid abuse also tended to support Trump by wide margins.
Unlike some observers, I believe that manufacturing should be preserved and expanded as a matter of prudent national policy. That said, manufacturing won’t ever resume its circa 1950s role as a mass employer of unskilled labor. So, what does the Midwest have to offer?
The Sun Belt has thrived in the postwar era because of cheap energy, air conditioning, and federally-funded water projects. But with climate change a sure bet, and increasing instances of drought a near certainty, its long-term future becomes more and more tenuous.
With a prospect of a warmer climate, the Midwest’s reputation as the Frost Belt becomes less of a handicap. As the most fertile farming region in the world, once agricultural subsidies and the toleration of externalities like soil depletion are globally curtailed through sheer financial necessity, the Midwest’s status as the national breadbasket on which the country’s survival depends will return to the American consciousness. And at some point, proximity to the greatest reserves of fresh water on earth will render the Midwest an arbiter of civilization, with a resource far more precious than oil. That, of course, lies in the long term, and the region may not have the luxury of so much time.
In any case, achieving a nearer-term revival of the economy is certainly possible. For decades, Germany has exploded the myth that high-wage, high-benefit countries cannot be leaders in manufacturing—provided, of course, that they invest heavily in skills upgrading and concentrate on high-end manufactured products rather than try to compete head-to-head with low-wage export economies.
The return of better economic prospects would bring a revival of civic culture as well: Midwesterners with improving expectations would be less prone to the politics of cultural despair. All of that would require foresight, planning, and cooperation: qualities that have gradually gone out of favor in the Midwest ever since Herbert Clark Hoover of West Branch, Iowa, began extolling rugged individualism.
But should the Midwest finally catch a few breaks—not only national recognition of its advantages in climate and natural resources in a future of likely climate change and resource depletion, but also the growing acknowledgement by businesses that global supply chains are unwieldy and vulnerable to disruption—a revival of the region would not be the forlorn hope of the nostalgic, but a reasonable business proposition.