General Motors employees gather outside the plant for a protest, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Lordstown, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Growing gaps in economic opportunity between successful urban regions and less successful industrial and rural hinterlands is a well-known problem. Such inequality fuels the fires of the polarizing populism and anti-democratic politics in the U.S. and Europe. The underlying cause of heartland voters’ alienation, unease, and resentment, as we’ve demonstrated elsewhere, is the real and perceived loss of opportunity and status and the decline of once-thriving communities within industrial heartland regions and the rural reaches of North America, the U.K., France, Germany, and other European nations.  

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that when older industrial and smaller communities continue to decline, residents are increasingly receptive to the polarizing messages of populists and nativists. Conversely, we are beginning to see that when former Rust Belt and rural communities do secure new economic footing, the lure of populism wanes. 

We have seen this phenomenon in the American Midwest, where residents of communities that have transitioned to a new economy exhibit different attitudes and voting patterns than communities that are still struggling. In regions anchored by resurgent industrial communities, such as Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan—as well as smaller midwestern communities that have turned an economic corner—we observe powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia and toward moderate centrism. This was true in both the 2018 U.S. midterm elections and the November 2020 presidential election.

Interestingly, a similar phenomenon is affecting the politics of our European allies. The struggling mill, manufacturing, and shipbuilding communities in England’s north fueled the majority vote for Brexit and the movement of these once Labour-loyal communities into the Conservative camp. In Germany, the struggling manufacturing and older industrial communities in the former East Germany are home to the most robust support for the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). In France, the far-right populist challenges to President Emmanuel Macron find their strongest support among residents of ailing industrial and more rural communities. 

As a consequence, the American and European democracies’ industrial heartland regions still in decline are fertile ground for the nationalism, nativism, isolationism, and economic nostalgia that empower populist leaders. Voters’ latent anxieties, anger, and resentment are amplified by politicians who succeed by feeding resentments about immigrants, people of color, and urban elites.   

As we wrote recently, economic opportunity gaps by geography are the root cause of increasingly polarized politics in the U.S. and other Western democracies instead of other oft-cited factors such as age, race, immigrant populations, and so on. The fires of populist anger won’t be overcome until their root conditions are treated. 

But here and abroad, populist anger is enhanced when national leaders don’t appear to care

In the 2021 off-year election results in the U.S., rural and small-town voters in states like Virginia went even harder to the right. The thinking of some national Democratic leaders is not to reach out to heartland voters and to focus instead on increasing turnout among more reliable constituencies, such as African Americans and single women. Reflecting on this dynamic, retiring Illinois Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos, whose downstate district of farm towns and manufacturing communities is in the heart of “Trump country,” called it “political malpractice.” “It’s disrespectful to think it’s okay to run up the score in big cities and just neglect the smaller towns,” she said. President Joe Biden offered his own interpretation of how to respond to the Democrats’ poor showing in the 2021 elections, saying, “They just want us to deliver.”

But messaging may be even more critical than tangible policy results. Voters have to feel seen, respected, and understood, and need to know that they are the target of attention and benefit from national efforts that touch their lives.

Honing the right message for heartland voters is a challenge both here and abroad. In the U.K., the now politically embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson was working furiously to lay out a plan to “level-up” the economies of the many struggling northern industrial communities that put him in office. But he faced strong skepticism that the government could deliver meaningful results, even before his hold on 10 Downing Street was threatened by news of his hosting parties that ignored the COVID-19 lockdowns forced on the rest of the nation.

In France, National Assemblyman Roland Lescure, a close ally of the centrist Macron, confessed at a recent international forum on populism and place, “We were convinced we were doing the right thing. We were going to deliver on what we promised … change education, the university system … tackle climate change. Though it was a minority, those who already felt they were being ignored, when we proposed the ‘eco-tax,’ they just blew up. You saw the pictures [of] the Yellow Vest movement.”  

In Germany, the arguably successful effort to rebuild the former East Germany after reunification in the 1990s led to a populist backlash and resentments, as those who once bristled under Communist tyranny felt that they were being “done to” and not listened to. Once again, they felt like they were not in control of their own lives. This helped lead to a spike in voting for the AfD.

The British scholar Andrés Rodriguez-Pose famously labeled this phenomenon “the revenge of the places that don’t matter.” In the U.S., the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points to a sense of humiliation and the quest for dignity as powerful drivers of resentment among heartland voters.

How do we do better? 

As we learned at our recent transatlantic summit on economic development in industrial regions,  a starting point to connect with heartland voters comes when leaders understand the issues that factory workers and small-town residents face—sharing their concern over degraded downtowns, the loss of schools, sports leagues, bars, bowling alleys, union halls, local newspapers, family-owned shops. These citizens’ identity is lost when they lose the community fabric that fostered civic pride when their economies were strong.

To successfully engage heartland residents, it is crucial for policy makers to avoid condescension. People don’t like being called “left behind” (in the United States), or in need of “leveling up” (in the United Kingdom). They do not consider themselves “post-industrial,” living in “Rust Belts,” or in need of “restructuring.” As Rachel Wolf of Public First, a leading U.K. political consultancy, put it, “Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups—people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’; they think they’re ignored.” To paraphrase the political consultant James Carville’s famous phrase, “It’s the respect (and good policies), stupid.”

But there are examples of successful messages and affirmative engagement of leaders with heartland voters.

In a recent Washington Monthly article, Robin Johnson, a professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, told the stories of American state and local elected Democrats continuing to win in deep-red heartland districts by listening, being available, and engaging with their constituents. Never giving up on campaigning in these communities might not lead to a surge of Democratic office holders, but it would lay the groundwork for some to win, and it would drive up Democratic turnout in statewide races.

Wolf points to the success of local leaders she has worked with, like Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who share and rebroadcast their constituents’ lived experiences before proposing big solutions about what to do about them.

In the German state of North Rhine–Westphalia, home to the fabled coal and steel Ruhr region, political leaders long ago communicated and supported a successful economic transition, even as the once-mighty smokestack industries withered and ultimately disappeared. Regional and federal leaders made clear that they saw the problems. They acted. They invested. They promised that no one would fall into poverty. And it worked.  

This magazine, which has led the pack in its reporting about anti-monopolism, has offered several important articles about taking on regional inequality. Here are just a few:

In 2019, Daniel Block gave Democrats a road map for turning Clevelands into Denvers—in other words, helping cities that have fallen behind catch up to those surging ahead. A critical move in what he called “a plan to revive heartland cities” is antitrust and banking regulation that stops coastal banks from gobbling up smaller financial institutions in the heartland. Block noted that in the 1960s, the Supreme Court, vigorously supporting antitrust laws, prevented a major shoe merger with an eye toward regional inequality. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the Court had to respect “Congress’ desire to promote competition through the protection of viable, small, locally owned business.” 

Phillip Longman, senior editor at the Monthly and policy director at the Open Markets Institute, has also written extensively about regional inequality. In “Bloom and Bust,” one of his many articles for this magazine, he noted that regional incomes had moved toward convergence throughout much of the country’s history. According to the work of the Harvard economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, Longman wrote, “approximately 30 percent of the increase in hourly-wage equality that occurred in the United States between 1940 and 1980 was the result of the convergence in wage income among the different states.” In recent months, Garphil Julien, also of OMI, has noted in the Monthly that the fragility of global supply chains has come about mainly because of consolidation in the semiconductor industry that could have been prevented through regulation and antitrust enforcement. 

In other words, we should not see regional inequality as inevitable or something that we’re powerless to control. Policy makers can offer more than balms to wounded communities; they can offer policies that will ease, prevent, and even reverse that inequality. 

Silicon Valley Representative Ro Khanna understands this—which is intriguing, since his district has companies with $11 trillion in market capitalization. The title of the Democrat’s new book Dignity in a Digital Age, lays out a road map for supporting the building of a heartland tech economy, creating good-paying jobs. He rightly underscores that communities must own and operate their change strategies: “Any effort has to be led by communities and can’t be done to communities.”

President Biden, in his recent State of the Union address, spoke to the pride of communities in Ohio and Michigan in their rich manufacturing heritage, heralding the investments of GM and Intel in locating new high-tech battery and semiconductor facilities in the heartland, calling out the words of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to “bury the term ‘Rust Belt’ once and for all.”

If you can reach people, respect them, and connect with them on little things, ultimately you can get “permission” to do bigger things. “There is an agenda that the vast majority of voters can rally around,” the consultant Wolf says. “It’s about pride, place, jobs, opportunity, and even making the planet a better place for their children and grandchildren to inherit.”

But first, voters need to feel seen. What heartland working-class and small-town voters want to hear from their leaders is: We see and hear you. We understand why you are upset with the conditions of your community. You and your community and future success are a national priority. We are here to support you and your ideas. 

The stakes could not be higher. Unless local and federal leaders in the U.S. and other Western  democracies focus on and accelerate economic success for people and places where residents feel alienated and left behind, these citizens will continue to drive a polarizing populist politics that undermines our democratic systems.

John Austin

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

Andy Westwood is a professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.