Why should the Great Plains be synonymous with the midwest? Where are the skyscrapers and nonwhite people? Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“You know what the midwest is?” Kanye West asked in 2004’s “Jesus Walks.”

Last month, Vox answered: “South Dakota and Kansas.”

Claiming his bona fides as a native of the warmer Dakota, Todd VanDerWerff argued that the entire Great Plains region—the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska included—ought to be understood as prototypically midwestern. With the obvious caveat that there’s no objectively correct answer to the question, I’m going to say that VanDerWerff is completely wrong—and in ways that go to the very core not only of how we understand ourselves as midwesterners, but how Americans understand their country as a whole. 

The Great Plains, VanDerWerff acknowledges, might constitute a “subregion” of the midwest. But “while there are some interesting geographical differences,” it concludes, “the cultural differences are relatively minor. A small town in South Dakota and a small town in Iowa are virtually the same place.”

This may in fact be true. I have no idea, since I’ve never been to a small town in Iowa and haven’t set foot in South Dakota since Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls. I’ve spent over two decades living in the midwest, in two different states, and have family in two more—and yet somehow managed to have zero experience with the cultural touchstones that supposedly define my region.

Fortunately, Vox is here to explain: “The midwest is . . . the states where agriculture was, historically, the major industry. . . . They’re states where the dominant religion is some branch of Protestant—often Lutheran or Methodist. And they’re states where Scandinavians and other northern Europeans settled in droves.”

Unless you’ve never left Andersonville, this is an odd description to try to apply to Chicago, which VanDerWerff acknowledges as the midwest’s capital. Agriculture is historically important here—in the form of industrial meatpacking and LaSalle Street futures trading—but so are steel, railroads, and corporate headquarters. Only about one in ten people in the Chicago metro area identify as some kind of mainline Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center; about a third are Catholic, and another third belong to evangelical Christian denominations, black Christian denominations, or non-Christian religions. And for the last hundred years at least, the cultural fabric of most of the city has been dominated by people of eastern European descent, African-Americans from the south, and, over the last few generations in particular, Latin American immigrants and their children and grandchildren.

And it’s not just Chicago. It’s hard to recognize Detroit, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Cleveland, or any number of other midwestern cities in VanDerWerff’s portrait. His description of the midwest doesn’t reflect most of the midwest’s major population centers.

Which means he isn’t really describing the midwest at all. It sounds more like “the heartland,” which is a sort of fictionalized version of the midwest without cities, and especially without black people or immigrants. (Or maybe I should say a certain kind of immigrant, since obviously Swedes are no more native to central North America than Poles or Mexicans.) The heartland is a quasi-mythical home of Protestant virtues. It’s an alternate origin story that takes away first claim on American-ness from the more urban coastal colonies (or, God forbid, Native Americans). It’s more an idea than a real regional identity, and one that exists at least as much for the benefit of other Americans as for midwesterners.

The U.S. Census Bureau's definition of the midwest includes states with large cities and populations of African-Americans and immigrants that don't fit the traditional notion of the American heartland.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the midwest includes states with large cities and populations of African-Americans and immigrants that don’t fit the traditional notion of the American heartland.Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

Of course, the midwest is home to plenty of heartland-type communities as Vox describes them. But you might argue that what is really distinctively midwestern is the friction between them and our industrial cities. Unlike the east coast, our urban centers sit in a vast ocean of land; unlike the western half of the country, that land is relatively well populated with farmers and small towns. The south, for its part, has the vast yet populated rural areas, but had no analogue to the midwest’s cities until well after World War II.

As a result, it was in midwestern states that the tension was most acute between the people who imagined their home to be in the heartland and the people who were were seen as grubby, ethnically problematic residents of urban areas. That tension has played out both over long distances, in the political polarization between metropolis and hinterland, as well as over shorter distances, as urbanization and suburbanization brought the heartland from the countryside to the subdivision. It’s not a coincidence that Milwaukee could be a capital of American socialism while the rest of Wisconsin elected red-baiting Joseph McCarthy. It’s not a coincidence that midwestern cities experienced particularly severe white flight, or urban renewal that left city centers unrecognizable. It’s not a coincidence that this region’s cities are the most segregated in the country.

But replacing the midwest with the heartland papers over all of this history. The appeal of that move for conservatives both in and out of the midwest is obvious, since the truth makes it harder to use nostalgia as a political rallying cry. (When Donald Trump says he’ll make America great again, how many of his supporters imagine the heartland?) But the heartland can appeal to coastal liberals, too, as a kind of foil to their self-identity as exceptionally cosmopolitan and urban.

Whatever the reason, the heartland ends up positioning rural whiteness as not just the midwestern but the American default. Which, to get back to Vox, is the problem with making the Great Plains states the template for what “midwest” means. Of course, it’s not as if the Great Plains begin and end with white farmers either—that would require pretending that Native Americans, in particular, don’t exist—but it’s still much easier to apply the shorthand “agricultural, Protestant, northern European” to, say, Nebraska, than to Michigan.

Because in a way, the midwest is a kind of genuine American heartland, with its history of colonial frontiers, boomtowns, immigration, racism, and cultural pluralism. If that’s not what the rest of the country sees when it looks at us, that says more about them than it does about the midwest.