Richard D. Brown
Jun 10 · 6 min read
Photo: Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

(This piece was co-authored with Ron Formisano.)

“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.

As the New York Times Book Review noted, historian Kristin L. Hoganson recently wrote a scholarly account of the “heartland” idea. Last year, Heartland was the title of Midwesterner Sarah Smarsh’s memoir.

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.

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 college-educated liberal elites and the “liberal media” scorn them — a view reinforced by candidate Donald Trump.

No wonder Connecticut’s rural Windham County gave majorities to President Trump in 12 of its 15 towns.

The insults rural people feel are matched by metropolitans’ resentment at 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 often possess wealth, high property values and falling crime rates, not 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.

This is no less true for the Naugatuck and Quinebaug valleys of “rust belt” Connecticut than for Midwestern states. While most cities have grown safer in the past decade, in many rural areas, violent crime is up. Economic recovery bypassed small towns, whose shrinking tax bases and populations have cut resources for schools, emergency services, and law enforcement.

In my (Richard D. Brown’s) northeastern Connecticut town, population is declining, and we struggle to keep our school open. The sole remaining dairy farm and the picturesque open space it preserves survives in a market where, for four years running, the cost of milk production has been greater than its wholesale price.

Similarly, rural death rates from opioid overdoses exceed rates in cities. In some rural areas, methamphetamine production and abuse flourishes, since it is 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 the scarcity of health services, counseling and contraception. Few towns are untouched by suicide, and children return from school to homes where single mothers struggle here in Connecticut just as they do elsewhere.

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 Connecticut or Colorado. The 60 million occupants of rural America, fully 19 percent of the U.S. population, are experiencing greater rates of mortality and morbidity. Lacking preventive health care, mothers face higher death rates, and deaths from cancer and other diseases are elevated as well in rural areas.

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.

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 hearts, must reawaken their generous impulses.

The 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.

Versions of this piece appeared via the Hartford Courant and the Lexington Herald Leader (see below).

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

His previous books include Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865; The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870; and the co-authored microhistories The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America and Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic. Twitter: @RichardDBrownCT. Medium: Richard D. Brown

His previous Medium publications include the following:

Ron Formisano is Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Kentucky, and held the William T. Bryan Chair of American History. He is the author of books including American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class.

Richard D. Brown

Written by

Historian @UConn @UConnHistory. 2017 book "Self-Evident Truths" @YalePress. @SelfEvidentBook

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