A “Heartland Strategy” to Revive the Heart of the Nation
In 1968, Republicans stoked white racial fears of rising black political power to turn the solidly Democratic South into the permanent refuge of white retro-Republicans. In 2020, might Democrats galvanize a broad, enduring partnership of multiracial youth, boomer elders, educated urban and suburban voters, and residents of Middle America to launch a shared project of Heartland renewal?
In 1969, political analyst Kevin Phillips, author of the seminal book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” revealed the divide-and-conquer strategy Richard Nixon had used to win the 1968 election. Succeeding Republican presidents have employed this same cynical playbook to keep winning national elections for half a century since. Phillips came to rue his historic role and renounce his own strategy in the 1990’s after watching it turn the Republican Party into a refuge of white supremacy. The Southern strategy united much of the Deep South and the Great Plains in a Heartland red-state fortress of fear and racial animus. When I interviewed Phillips in the early 2000’s he sounded chastened by the horror of what he had helped create. But by then he had become a man without a constituency, anathema to his fellow Republicans but not fully trusted by long-time progressives. I found myself admiring that he could admit so great a mistake when most political operatives would have simply silenced whatever doubts they might have harbored and ridden their early success to further fame and fortune.
In 2020 we encounter a moment many observers have compared to 1968, another season of epochal protests and demands for fundamental change. But this time the dynamics revolve around a very different and potentially more positive transformation. Four years of a president who plays racial politics like segregationist George Wallace in his most incendiary phase has given full voice to hate and fear. And yet to the surprise of many, after four years of sickened revulsion and viral despair, Trump’s venom has produced an antibody, a healthy response that has ignited a broad-based, wholehearted reassertion of what we share as a people in place of what divides us.
Building a Broad-Based Coalition for Transformational Change
Here at last is a potentially transformational moment recognized as such both by Democrats who see a tsunami of support for their candidates this fall and Republicans who dread that their fortress of fear is finally crumbling. Yet while revulsion is a powerful motivator it will only take you so far. In the absence of a more positive vision, plan and strategy to reverse course and renew confidence in our collective capacity to claim a more promising future, ungrounded hope curdles into cynicism and despair, as it did to Sixties social movements in the aftermath of Nixon’s Southern strategy victory in 1968. This time, instead of basing our approach on fear and division, we must build it on reconnection and affirmation. Instead of gauzy appeals to peace and reconciliation, we need practical, actionable plans based on widely shared values. And insofar as we will gain greater traction by grounding it in a specific part of the country that will best serve to reunite our painfully polarized society, no region is better suited to the task than Middle America, that central swath of open terrain from the Great Lakes through the Great Plains fondly known to many locals as the Heartland.
Overlooked and undervalued, the Heartland is the breadbasket, the backbone and the brawn that more than any other region does the hard labor of making America work. Heartlanders seldom mistake their neighborhood for the center of the universe, though it’s the geographical center of the country. For half a century following World War II they produced the sturdy, dependable quality goods that earned postwar Americans our mid-twentieth century prosperity. But then the region endured the abandonment of its industrial base and surrounding communities by coast-based corporations seeking fatter profit margins by offshoring manufacturing to low-wage Asia.
The losses that ensued with the hollowing out of the Heartland economy over the past four decades go well beyond jobs. Economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case document “deaths of despair” in the region from opioid overdoses, alcoholism, chronic unemployment and other forms of slow suicide reflecting a loss of faith in the future. Deindustrialization cut the heart out of much of the Heartland, especially in those regions where fossil fuels and polluting industries had already poisoned creeks, rivers, air, soil and human lungs for generations. Some Heartland cities and college towns have revived by investing in high tech, r&d, medical complexes, and higher education, but most are still blighted with neighborhoods and regions of endemic poverty strongly correlated with race and systematic deprivation of opportunity.
It was this history of industrial abandonment, economic and cultural decline that made the Heartland a ripe target for the Trumpian politics of grievance and resentment. “Burn the whole place down!” many locals in burned-out neighborhoods and regions declared in anger and frustration. The phrase seemed to capture the gut feeling of dead-endedness, a sense that things couldn’t get any worse. Unable to raise a positive response from their Democratic representatives and suffering from a weakened labor movement, in 2016 many in the swing states of the upper Midwest decided to send an unambiguous message by voting for a manifestly unqualified candidate of the opposing party. In some ways the Trump candidacy was like the rise of Mount Middle Finger, a volcanic “Fuck you!” to all the New Democrat politicians and “experts” whom they felt had promised better times through trade deals and instead had shipped their jobs abroad. “What have we got to lose?” many declared in disgust. “May as well try someone new.”
Well, we got someone new, all right, and he did indeed burn the whole place down. In fact he’s well on his way to burning the whole planet down. But he delivered on none of his promises to bring jobs back to the Heartland, nor to protect the country from a killer pandemic, and his polling numbers in Heartland states are starting to show it. The very states whose Electoral College votes narrowly won Trump the White House in 2016 are tending strongly Democratic this year not only for the presidency but in many cases in all-important Senate races. Democrats are thus presented with a singular but time-limited opportunity to reorient the region towards the more progressive policies for which some of the region’s and country’s most forward-thinking Heartland politicians were once known — from Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota. Not only have Trumpian policies at both federal and state level proven disastrous, but many of their Democratic successors are gaining credibility with their constituents through competent, pragmatic, non-ideological leadership (as with Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin) along with populist progressives like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
A Heartland Strategy to Supplant a Discredited Southern Strategy
But these will remain isolated instances of success unless and until a broader Heartland strategy is formulated and implemented that addresses the chronic challenges and untapped potential of the region as an engine for renewed national prosperity. Growing trade tensions with China and the rising financial, environmental and strategic costs of sourcing manufactured goods from halfway around the world are prompting even some Republicans to advocate rebuilding domestic manufacturing. Where better to do so than on the partially disused but still serviceable infrastructure of the 20th century industrial Midwest? Campaign-year promises will not suffice if not followed up by tangible plans with commitments from all levels of government to stay with projects long enough to see them through to completion. Hard experience and generations of conservative mantras have made many Heartlanders distrustful of “big government” while a deeply held ethic of self-reliance has made them wary of planners bearing big ideas. To succeed in overcoming such skepticism, planning and design processes must fully incorporate the input of those whose lives and livelihoods will be most affected. That’s no easy task given the fractiousness of today’s political debates and the astral distances between differing perspectives.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was never a natural marriage between like-minded factions. In many ways it was a marriage of opposites — Northern urban liberals and Southern retro-Democrats who but for their historic antipathy to a Lincoln-led Republican Party that had waged and won the Civil War against slavery would otherwise have felt more at home with many of its conservative values. Nixon’s Southern strategy realigned these allegiances, recomposing the parties along more purely ideological lines and making bipartisan compromise even harder to achieve. Today, under Trump’s iron discipline, the Republican Party is devolving into a fortress of white supremacy, a rump of its former self that combines the pecuniary interests of Wall Street with mostly rural and small town white voters fearful that their traditional Christian monoculture is being overwhelmed by demographic shifts towards a majority-minority country.
Yet in many respects these conservative Heartlanders haven’t benefited much from having thrown in their lot with the monetary elites who actually hold power in the party and set policies in direct contradiction to the economic interests of many working class whites in Middle America and the Deep South. By sounding conservative cultural themes from right to life to prayer in schools that resonate with many in their base, elite party leaders distract attention from issues of economic fairness, health care, education for their children and the like where more progressive policies would more directly address the challenges they face in their everyday lives. None of this could swing elections in favor of Republicans but for gerrymandering and a bias towards rural states baked into the U.S. Constitution. Urban voters, generally more liberal, are more numerous in modern America than mostly more conservative rural and small town residents, but the U.S. Senate allots the same number of seats to Wyoming, with a population of 578,000), as to California, with nearly 40 million residents.
Learning to Respect Rural And Small-Town America
But there are good reasons to believe that Middle American attitudes are changing and that if the other constituencies in today’s Democratic electorate themselves embrace a more respectful attitude towards Heartland residents, not just a coalition but a genuine, enduring partnership might be forged. Having been raised in what was then a mid-size city in the industrial Midwest (Columbus, Ohio) and having migrated to rural Northern California as a young adult, I’m something of a hybrid, capable of relating to both sides of the urban-rural divide. I’m a lifelong social change advocate and progressive, yet having lived most of my adult life not just in the country but in the deep woods I’ve developed great respect for the grounded, commonsense intelligence and integrity of many country people. Decades ago when my wife and I were building our homestead in the hills of Humboldt county in California’s coast range, we met Gordon Tosten, a genial local logger who had a small lumber mill on Gilham Butte. Unlike most any other source for the Douglas fir from which locals built their homes, Gordon milled full-dimension lumber — a true 2 inches by 4 inches rather than the conventional 1 5/8ths” by 3 5/8ths” measure of the industry standard. The heft of a true 2"’x4" feels three times bigger than the twigs that pass for the real thing these days. Gordon himself was just the same way, the real deal— a man of such innate decency and integrity that we hung out together for hours passing the time by his mill while he told stories of fighting crown fires atop his D-8 Caterpillar with flames roaring like strafing jet fighters through 200-foot firs propelled by forty-mile-an-hour winds.
I tell this story because in 1980 Gordon Tosten enthusiastically voted for Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, in my progressive activism I encountered political operatives with whom I shared allegiances but whose personal integrity I had good reason to question. I learned then that there are dimensions larger than political affiliation by which to take the measure of a human being. Heartlander virtues often come not in the form of political correctness but in old-fashioned qualities like character, decency, integrity and generosity of spirit.
On the other hand, some years ago on a flight from JFK in New York back to San Francisco, I sat beside a restless, hard-charging businessman from northern New Jersey. Passing over the agricultural Midwest, we gazed down at geometrically precise quadrants of corn. “Flyover country,” he remarked, shaking his head derisively. “Why would anyone live there?” It was a throwaway comment but it got me thinking. I had fled Ohio for parts east and ultimately west and never turned back. Back when I left home I told myself that if my choice was between dying of boredom and dying of adventure, I’d take the latter.
“Yeah,” I replied to my seatmate, familiar with this attitude from my college days when half the students were from Queens or Long Island and considered anything west of the Hudson hopelessly provincial. “Actually,” I told him, “I was born and raised in flyover country. Boring maybe, but also stable and reliable. What you see is what you get. They do what they say they’re going to do.” He glanced at me somewhat quizzically, fell silent, then leaned back in his seat, reopened his laptop and returned to his spreadsheet.
Meeting in the Middle
Heartlanders are used to being underestimated, but if we’re ever to heal the rifts between us as a nation they may hold a key. In their essential modesty and decency, their geographic and political location in the vast middle of the country, and their rootedness in a sense of place, they may serve as an anchor for the rest of us, a center of gravity when all else is flying apart. But their stabilizing influence on a country being driven crazy by a mad king can only gain strength if those of us on the culture-leading coasts refocus our attention on the steadying center of the continent and accord it the respect, attention and reinvestment it needs to renew our core strength, those qualities of self-reliance, resilience and open-heartedness that could help us regain trust in one another and relocate our common purpose as a nation.
A Heartland strategy for this fall’s election and still more importantly for the long term could become our most effective antidote to the deadly virus of division and antipathy injected into our national bloodstream half a century ago by Richard Nixon’s cynical Southern strategy. Urban-rural and coast-heartland polarities have been with humanity for centuries and have been skillfully manipulated by demagogues to divide us from one another. But we needn’t accept division as our perpetual destiny. And the change must begin with those of us in the dominant position who, regardless of our personal stations in life, appear to many Heartlanders to be “cultural elites” dismissing them as clueless rubes. In dissing them we not only display our own provincialism but miss what they contribute to our commonwealth and well-being. How much more could they give if invested with the resources and respect to revive their key roles in providing the quality manufactured goods and bountiful clean energy to renew our shared prosperity.
Let’s put our hearts back into the Heartland. Let’s make each other glad again to be Americans — all of us, black, brown, red, yellow, white and “green” — and be grateful to be humbly human, broken-hearted but mending, picking ourselves and each other up to try once more to fulfill the promises we’ve made to be here for one another come what may.
Mark Sommer is an award-winning syndicated columnist and radio host born and raised in the Heartland, now living on the Northcoast of California.