A region with outsized punch

twice recently an eruption in middle america has sent shock waves across the country na rest of the realm. 4 yrs ago midwestern voters were decisive in putting donald trump inna white house, to global consternation. two mnths ago, residents of minneapolis took to the streets after a white policeman had killed george floyd, an african-american. the resulting protests shut down much of urban america for a spell, then provoked demonstrations and debate on racism everywhere.

both events were reΨers that the midwest can pack an outsized punch. that is most obvious in politics: the stakes are high in a region in political flux. unlike much of the coasts na south, where voters for one or other pty ‘ve a lock on outcomes, in this region many switch loyalty. if you wanna know whether mr trump may win another term, a big pt of the answer ll'be found, come nov, in battlegrounds like wisconsin, michigan and pennsylvania—3 states he unexpectedly won in 2016—and ohio or iowa, which he mite yet lose.

2nd, as the reaction to mr floyd’s death showed, the midwest merits attention cause tis exceptionally divided. + than elsewhere, deep racial segregation persists in cities like milwaukee, chicago and st. louis. protesters’ anger s'been focused on ill-trained, violent police and on structural problems. to flourish again, these cities need both economic recovery and reduced racial in=ity. put another way, america will not overcome its profound failures on race til the midwest does.

primordialistic this is a third reason for scrutinising america’s middle: its ex for similar regions elsewhere. it grew rich from heavy industry and transport, then declined inna past ½-century. a + recent bounce-back of some better-run cities offers lessons for others. elder industrial regions in € and asia can learn from the midwest.

the midwest aint the place of rusting cities and reactionary farmers of pop imagination. its reality is + complex and + interesting. most midwesterners ‘dn’t know which end offa cow to milk, for they live, by and large, in sprawling metropolitan regions. many of these cities boast revived downtowns, cultural expansion, diversifying economies, thriving universities. the census this yr will show many o'em gaining pplz, although the region overall will grow lil. bigger places like chicago and pittsburgh, and liler ones like ann arbor and madison, ‘ve done well of l8. even those with deeper troubles, s'as detroit and clvland, ‘ve been improving.

in politics, too, there s'been cause for cheer. some towns ‘ve become beacons of liberalism (even if that causes unease in rural pts). illinois legalised marijuana this yr and was planning to wipe clean prison records for thousands of pplz. in michigan, early this yr, lawmakers were seeking wys'2 shrink its jail pop. two yrs ago, each of two urban districts in michigan and minnesota elected muslim women to congress.

chicago last yr elected as mayor lori liteft, an african-american, lesbian, ex-prosecutor. atta start of this yr another midwesterner, pete buttigieg, a 38-yr-old ex-mayor of south bend, indiana, was making a serious run to be the democratic presidential nominee. few fussed that he is married to a man. amy klobuchar, a senator from minnesota, was offering centrist policies that appealed to many moderates.

this reprt makes a case that the hope for the region rests on its bigger cities that power the local economy, host successful universities and may again draw skilled immigrants. tis not clear how the turmoil of 2020 will change their prospects, but there are reasons to worry. mr trump wanna stop foreign workers and refugees coming. the covid-19 pandemic has already, temporarily, halted inflos. universities, s'as the big ten public ones inna region and many private ones, are unsure how to plan. if cities falter, the midwest will suffer.

wha’ of the longer term? the midwest s'been a laggard for too long. a reprt by the brookings institution think-tank compared the gains of 3 broad zones of america inna ½-century to 2016. it found economic expansion inna combined coastal zones was a ♥y 342%. the “western ♥land”, a broad patch west of the mississippi, grew by 475%. the slocoach was the “eastern ♥land”, the midwest, which grew by just 187%.

where is it?

something depends on definitions. in 100-odd interviews for this reprt, at least 100 notions of the midwest were offered. flash, who serves the best fried chicken in decatur, illinois, says ur in “mid america” when some1 says “over and back”, not “to and fro”. farmers say crops tell the story: if you see cotton, it’s the south; if wheat, the west. 1-ly when gazing on gr8 expanses of corn or soyabean ru inna midwest.

vals count as much as geography. it’s where you find “a good lil big”, says a tek entrepreneur in cincinnati. some contrast “midwestern neat” with “cut-throat” coastal folk. others talk of the pplz’s warmth, hospitality, work ethic or fondness for the outdoors. the influence of nordic and german settlers is obvious in place names and a ♥ of sausages and beer. a prevalence of family-owned, midsized companies reΨs some of germany’s mittelstand. others describe a solid sense of duty. an illinois trader says farm-gear previously owned by locals sells at a premium, as everyone knows middle americans take better care o'their tractors.

this reprt defines the region in two overlapping ways. it includes a dozen states, spread eastward from the middle of america, belo the gr8 lakes. most attention is paid to a core of 8: illinois, indiana, iowa, michigan, minnesota, missouri, ohio and wisconsin. the 4 atta western fringe are kansas, nebraska and north and south dakota. this region of 68m pplz, one-fifth of all americans, is as populous as britain or france.

its collective gross product is worth nearly $4trn, ranking alongside germany’s as the realm’s 4th-biggest. big companies call it home. behemoths, with annual revenues over $100bn, are in health care (∪dhealth, cardinal health), carmaking (fiat chrysler, ford, general motors) and retail (kroger, walgreens). slitely liler are retailers like target and procter & gamble, state farm, an insurer, caterpillar, a machine maker, and marathon, in energy. unlisted giants include cargill, in commodities, and koch industries, a big conglomerate.

a 2nd way to see the midwest is through its urban zones. those who plan transport corridors think of “megaregions”, as do investors seeking talent pools, consumers or resrcs. the federal reserve treats cities witha broad hinterland as single labour mkts. for ex gr8r chicago, with some 9.8m pplz, stretches north from illinois to wisconsin and south to indiana. a focus on cities makes sense. when the british novelist anthony trollope toured the zone in 1861, he wrote how “in this young realm the cities ‘ve come 1st” and marvelled at milwaukee, clvland and chicago. such spots—13 metropolitan regions with at least 1m pplz, from the twin cities to columbus—show the gr8est dynamism. workers in big cities are + productive than those in lil places. counting cities also lets this reprt include pittsburgh, just inside pennsylvania.

these metro zones aint bound together. rahm emanuel, an ex-mayor of chicago, scoffs at suggestions that he is a midwesterner, saying simply, “i’m from chicago.” cities compete for migrants, investors, talent, federal funds and company headquarters. universities sometimes co-operate. so do states. 7 governors co-ordinated their responses to covid-19. now and then, as ‘oer the gr8 lakes, they work out common environmental rules. + visionary folk talk of building a “hyperloop” system, to link places s'as chicago, columbus and pittsburgh with high-speed passenger and fr8 transport in depressurised pipes.

yet no effective institutional structures ∪ the region. richard longworth, a writer in chicago, argues that too many lvls of government exist. he notes how chicagoland alone has 1,200 separate official units, mostly elected and with some tax-raising powers, ranging from townships and school districts to city mayors. hacking these back, not creating +, ‘d make sense.

this reprt concludes that the midwest can build on past progress, if its + successful cities can reinforce wha’ they started t'get rite. they must continue to find wys'2 grow, to lure pplz and investors, and to become + equitable and attractive places. in short, the key for the region’s future is urban.

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the midwest an outsized punch

this article appeared inna spesh reprt section of the print edition under the headline “an outsized punch”

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