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The Midwest Will Rise Again

books and culture

The Midwest Will Rise Again

In fact, the region may well decide our next president. March 21, 2014

The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, by Jon Lauck (University of Iowa Press, 166 pp., $35.00)

The Midwest hasn’t held center stage in American political life since the early 1950s, when Ohio’s conservative senator Robert Taft challenged Dwight Eisenhower for the GOP presidential nomination. During those years, notes South Dakota native John Lauck, “Eastern liberals saw the rural Midwest as the home of McCarthyism, ‘ignorant biblical literalists, rednecks, and crypto anti-Semites,’ fascist and authoritarian undercurrents, and the generally darker aspects of democratic life.”

In his short, richly footnoted book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwest History, Lauck—a widely published historian, lawyer, and adviser to Republican senator John Thune— notes that the Midwest has been little discussed in recent years. Yet elite dismissals of the region’s provincialism overlook the fact that, as Lauck argues, the Midwest, not the more stratified Northeast or the slaveholding South, was the standard-bearer for democracy and egalitarianism in nineteenth-century America. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this in 1840 when he proclaimed, “Europe extends to the Alleghenies, while America lies beyond.” The fundamental spirit of America, Emerson implied, was forged on the frontier, where landowning was widespread and self-government was the social ideal. Adopting Emerson’s argument, Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner saw the experience of taming the frontier as central to the American identity. The Midwest was foundational in forging it.

But what had been deemed admirable in the nineteenth century became the object of mockery in the twentieth. Seminal writers of American liberalism, such as Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken, notes Lauck, depicted the Midwest’s small towns as stultifying hellholes, filled with the conformist “booboisie.” Lewis’s bestselling novel, Babbitt, featured a smooth-talking salesman selling the supposed virtues of his small city. In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis bizarrely depicted local chapters of the Rotary Club, a service organization common across the region, as the building blocks of an American fascist movement.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the premier academic journal of American history, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, devoted considerable attention to the Great Lakes and prairie regions. But in the mid-1960s, it changed its name to the Journal of American History, and by 1970 it published little on the Midwest except articles decrying the conquest of the Indians. It filled its pages primarily with examinations of race, class, and gender. Regionalism, explains Lauck, was replaced by cultural Marxism, in which non-whites were depicted as victims of Puritanism, capitalism, racism, and frontier expansion. Iowa-born intellectual historian Christopher Lasch proved an exception to this trend. Lasch started out in the 1960s as a cultural Marxist but by the 1980s had become a defender of Midwestern democracy.

Lauck concludes his short book by explaining how the political history of Midwestern democracy can again be placed, Lasch-like, on the intellectual map. And be prepared to hear a great deal about the Midwest when the 2016 presidential campaign begins in earnest. Some blue states, such as Minnesota and Illinois, are shoe-ins for the Democrats. Deep-red Indiana is a cinch for the GOP. But others—such as “purple” Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—will be closely contested. The GOP is considering holding a “Midwestern primary” or perhaps a “Great Lakes Primary” shortly after the initial primary contests. The region will likely be a prime battleground, and it may well decide the next president.

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