America’s vast differences

Pete Saunders writes on the idea of the American heartland, and touches on the fact that America used to think of itself in a much more diverse and creative way than it generally does today, wherein we have simply the coasts and the middle, the heartland:

The nation’s interior is the result of myriad patterns of settlement, vast differences in local climates and precipitation, the presence of local resources, and varying opinions on governance and business development. New Englanders settled much of the Great Lakes and built the manufacturing infrastructure. Appalachians and coastal Southerners settled much of the Mississippi Valley and established the natural resource-based industries. The settlers of the upper Midwest moved further west and founded the modern agribusiness model. Manufacturing still dominates in much of the Great Lakes; agribusiness and food processing remain strong in the Ohio Valley and northern Plains; energy still reigns supreme in the southern Plains and Mississippi Valley.

Why have we reduced our thinking about America’s vastness to the relatively bland options of “coasts” and “middle”? What is the American heartland if it’s not a united, cohesive sort of thing? Saunders explains:

The nation’s center has often been defined by what it lacks relative to the other parts of the nation – the elite universities, finance industry and political power of the northeast; the sun-drenched beauty of the beaches on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts; the stunning vistas of the Mountain West and Southwest; the mild climate (and climate of openness and innovation) on the Pacific Coast. I sense that this effort to unite very different parts of the middle of the nation are driven by those who want to compete with the vitality of the coasts but struggle with how to do it. …

Economic disparities at the regional level are large and growing. The economic convergence that characterized much of the twentieth century is a thing of the past, and regions are pulling away from each other. However, if there’s any lesson to be learned from the coasts and Sun Belt, it’s that each region must build on its unique strengths to recapture its economic vitality. The coasts and Sun Belt did not get to where they are today by linking their fortunes to other areas; they got there by touting their specific advantages and developing the leadership structure to promote it.

That said, there’s a path to prosperity for all of the Heartland states, without linking them together. The Great Lakes have a manufacturing infrastructure that will continue to be a foundation for its revival. That region has also a legacy of human capital investment (large land-grant universities and health care and biomedical institutions, for example) that will lead the transition toward the region’s next phase. Energy will continue to play a prominent role in states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, and the stifling lack of affordability on the coasts will increasingly force people to consider affordable options elsewhere in the nation. There is a path.

The American Heartland works better as a state of mind than as a geographic region. Ironically, its elusiveness is its strength. It can be anywhere in America. But the strengths and weaknesses of the places that make up our nation’s middle aren’t always found anywhere, and would benefit from the kind of fine-tuned understanding that led to the revival of other parts of the nation.

I think this falls apart in the last paragraph, insofar as a return to health for any of America’s middle cities in any of its regions won’t be found in a generic identification with a “heartland” ethos so much as an underscoring of the particularities of the place—the Detroitness of Detroit, the Milwaukean sensibilities of Milwaukee, etc. America’s differences are vast; we shouldn’t necessarily downplay those differences if we believe that one of the strengths of this nation lies in its diversity, and if our principles are truly binding on the consciousness of our people.

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