Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil  Iowa caucus voters might like candidates who invoke the 'heartland,' but the term is toxic

The romaticized, whitewashed term alienates a rapidly diversifying country whose voters are increasingly concentrated in large urban centers and on the coasts.
Image: Supporters hold signs at a town hall event for Pete Buttigieg in Coralville, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 2020.
Supporters hold signs at a town hall event for Pete Buttigieg in Coralville, Iowa, on Sunday.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images
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By Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil, professor of U.S. and the world in Clemson University’s history department

The idea of an American “heartland” is a myth. Democratic presidential candidates who are appealing to its exclusionary ideal in a bid to win over Iowa caucusgoers Monday night — and other rural, white populations in upcoming contests — do so at their own peril. It might help contenders in early caucus states, but it could alienate those very candidates from their broader electorate.

While railing against Washington and lauding Middle America might seem as basic to political campaigns as shaking hands and kissing babies, in a rapidly diversifying country whose voters are increasingly concentrated in large urban centers and on the coasts, these traditional tropes are imagined and divisive.

It might help contenders in early caucus states, but it could alienate those very candidates from their broader electorate.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a perfect example of the impending risks. "It might not be a bad idea to send in somebody to Washington, rather than from Washington, maybe somebody who can actually walk from his house to the nearest cornfield," Buttigieg said in Pella, Iowa, slightly over a week ago.

He reiterated the sentiment in a tweet three days later, arguing that “in the face of unprecedented challenges, we need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect.”

The outcry over Buttigieg’s use of “heartland” was immediate. Writers condemned the implied rejection of urban areas, communities of color and coastal areas; former CNN correspondent Soledad O’Brien described the comments as “offensive and disgraceful.”

Top NAACP official Sherrilyn Ifill quickly responded on Twitter that “Heartland is code. And I'm over it. It erases the legitimacy of the experiences and reality of Black Midwesterners and cloaks white Midwestern communities in a gauzy innocence and authenticity.”

She is, of course, correct. The synonymity of America’s “heartland” with rural areas means that politicians who invoke it are literally whitewashing America. Rural America is easily the least diverse part of the country when broken down along urban/rural/suburban lines, with whites accounting for almost 80 percent of the population, as opposed to 58 percent of the urban population.

Using the term “heartland” also implies that rural America is the sole seat of American values, of the national essence — and by explicitly negating coastal cosmopolitanism as not being “heartland” — those who wield the term are arguing that the true America looks like Pella, Iowa.

But how did the “heartland” come to automatically mean a certain slice of the United States, rather than our nation as a whole? At least through John F. Kennedy’s presidency, “heartland” had a broader connotation alongside its rural definition. Kennedy even used the term to refer to Berlin — “the heartland of human freedom” — during the West’s struggle with the Soviet Union. He meant that it was the physical center of a moral core, an area that manifested the realization of shared values.

That dual use was missing a decade later when President Richard Nixon promised in his 1971 State of the Union “to encourage a balanced national growth — growth that will revitalize our rural heartland and enhance the quality of life in America.”

Reagan echoed this more limited definition in a ceremony marking the interment of an unknown soldier, asking, “As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city? Or did he work beside his father on a farm out in America’s heartland?”And it was firmly entrenched for Democrats, too, under Bill Clinton, with him repeatedly using the phrase to refer to the rural towns of inner America as he campaigned across the country.

While the current president might not agree with Clinton on much, their impression of what “heartland” entails seems similar. President Donald Trump proclaimed in 2017, “We will bring new opportunity to the heartland, new prosperity to our inner cities and new infrastructure all across our nation,” implying, Reagan-like, that the heartland existed as a counterpoint to the inner city.

Indeed, “heartland” now exists in American terminology as contrasting with somewhere else. Heartland, according to Buttigieg, exists in opposition to Washington. His quote connotes a federal skeptic if not completely anti-federal stance, pitting the rural against the urban, the technocratic against the genuine, the familiar against the cosmopolitan.

Moreover, is there a word for what isn’t the heartland? Not really. If heartland is the seat of values, then the opposite would be a place in which one’s values are poorly reflected, if at all.

Tellingly, the term heartland became popular concurrent with the decline of the rural areas that it glorifies. A quick Google n-gram analysis reveals that, with the exception of a brief period of limited popularity in the first two decades of the 19th century, American English use of the term “heartland” was statistically insignificant prior to World War II. Terms like homeland, fatherland, motherland and native land were all much more commonly used. Heartland, in fact, only jumped to popularity in the 1940s, and it wasn’t until the social upheaval of the late 20th century that the word really picked up speed.

Heartland, then, is a nostalgic term reflecting back sentimentally on something that was lost or is, at best, under threat of disappearance. It also can reflect erasure, or a way of essentializing the “true” America as something very different than what it is.

Take Pella, Iowa, where Buttigieg launched his rhetorical offensive on Washington. The 10,000-strong locale is 93 percent white. Iowa as a whole is also 90 percent white as of 2018, and both it and the next 2020 battleground state, New Hampshire, are among the least racially diverse states in the nation. In contrast, non-Hispanic whites make up approximately 60 percent of the population nationwide.

Heartland, then, is a nostalgic term reflecting back sentimentally on something that was lost or is, at best, under threat of disappearance.

Iowa and New Hampshire are also both among states with the highest percentage of their populations living in rural areas. And while these early states may like to hear paens to a rural America that vindicates their centrality, only approximately 15 percent of Americans nationally live in rural counties. Those counties are also overwhelmingly native-born, especially in comparison to the urban areas against which they are frequently juxtaposed. They are also significantly older.

As rural America becomes less and less similar to its suburban and urban neighbors, the more problematic those appeals become. The “heartland” invocations made by those such as Buttigieg may do more to turn off voters outside of America’s imagined heart and inside the areas where the Democratic nomination is actually won.