In the wake of the 2016 presidential election there was widespread shock that the Midwest, the Democrats’ so-called blue wall, had been so effectively breached by Donald Trump. But the blue wall, as The Conservative Heartland makes clear, was never quite as secure as so many observers assumed. A deep look at the Midwest’s history of conservative politics, this timely volume reveals how conservative victories in state houses, legislatures, and national elections in the early twenty-first century, far from coming out of nowhere, in fact had extensive roots across decades of political organization in the region.
Focusing on nine states, from Iowa and the Dakotas to Indiana and Ohio, the essays in this collection detail the rise of midwestern conservatism after World War II—a trend that coincided with the transformation of the prewar Republican Party into the New Right. This transformation, the authors contend, involved the Midwest and the Sunbelt states. Through the lenses of race, class, gender, and sexuality, their essays explore the development of midwestern conservative politics in light of deindustrialization, environmentalism, second wave feminism, mass incarceration, privatization, and debates over same-sex marriage and abortion, among other issues. Together these essays map the region’s complex patchwork of viable rural and urban areas, variously subject to a wide array of conflicting interests and concerns; the perspective they provide, at once broad and in-depth, offers unique historical insight into the Midwest’s political complexity—and its status as the last real competitive battleground in presidential elections.
1. What is your elevator pitch for The Conservative Heartland? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?
Stock: The 2016 election reminded political observers everywhere of the importance of conservative politics in the Midwest. But what many did not realize is that Midwestern conservatism is nothing new. In our book, contributors examine conservative political tradition in eleven states over the course of a transformative period, 1945 to the present, when “new conservatism” came to change American politics forever.
Lauck: Since the election of the Midwesterner Ronald Reagan in 1980, the dominant political orientation of the United States has been conservative, especially in the interior sections of the country. Unfortunately, we know very little about modern conservatism in the American Midwest, which is often seen as the heartland of the nation. This book is a major step toward addressing that historical oversight.
2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the political history of the postwar American Midwest?
Stock: Personally, I have been inspired to do political history by the grass-roots political work–stuffing envelopes and going door to door–that I did as a young girl in Minneapolis. My father was active in the Independent Republican Party and supported moderate IR candidates like Arne Carlson through the 1960s. Increasingly in the 1970s, however, IR politics began to change, with more far right candidates appearing in elections as hyper-local as those for the Minneapolis Park Board. Since becoming a historian and moving to New England, I have continued to be fascinated with the region as a whole–even the question of how it became seen as a region in the first place. Most of my research and writing has examined the interactions between the federal government and the rural people. I can still remember the arguments between my maternal grandparents, originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, over the question of whether FDR had “ruined the country.”
Lauck: It is a bit annoying to hear coastal commentators opine about what is “really” going on in the interior of the country. I think it’s far past time for a deep and serious dive into the actual history of the Midwest and to get past stereotypes and anecdotes.
3. What was the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing the book?
Stock: We had far more terrific proposals than we had room for! Also, we were looking for chronological, geographic, and thematic breadth so that was hard too!
Lauck: There is not much historiography to build on. We are starting from scratch in many cases.
4. How has the political influence of the American Midwest evolved over the past 100 years?
Stock: In one of our chapters, we show how the Midwest had been the most-frequently visited region of the country by presidential candidates throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain states like Ohio retained the reputation of being “bellwether” states even to this day. But other Midwestern states, with fewer Electoral College votes, quickly became “fly-over states” in modern presidential campaigns. And yet this too may be changing. It is quite striking to see how the Trump administration has returned time and again to small rural states with large percentages of his supporters, like North and South Dakota, to remind those voters that rural people are no less important to his coalition than urban voters. Of course, the creation of the Iowa caucuses put rural, largely white, America front and center, but after the debacle of the 2020 primary I doubt it will continue to have that place of privilege, at least for the Democrats.
Lauck: Since the explosive growth of the Republican Party in 1850s as a Midwestern regional party to the Midwest GOP’s 50-year reign of dominance after the Civil War to the more recent rise of Reaganism the Midwest has been central to American politics. It is now the last swing region which will determine who captures the presidency this fall and in subsequent cycles.
5. How have single-issue voters influenced political trends in the Midwest?
Stock: I think that the rise of new conservatism cannot be boiled down to single issues–but there are some single issues that certainly made a huge impact in the region’s growing support for new conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s. Support for the military is an understudied part of the appeal of the New Right in the Midwest; anti-abortion politics is better understood and, of course, seen as a critical component in this shift. In our essay we also look at the impact of cultural issues like marriage equality, the increased numbers of evangelical Protestant congregations, and the appeal of often racially coded calls for “law and order.”
Lauck: Issues like farming, steel, and trade along with conservative social issues and defenses of American traditions have been major issues in the Midwest in recent decades and will likely remain so.
6. National attention turned to the Midwest after the surprising results from the 2016 Presidential election. Do you sense the region is being monitored more closely by political parties prior to the 2020 election?
Stock: Nearly every day (or at least before COVID 19!) major media outlets have published or broadcast pieces on Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio and their extremely important roles in the upcoming elections. It is now a truism that Hillary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election by neglecting to travel to Wisconsin. No candidate will make that mistake this year! Similarly, there are new articles examining the question of the Democrat’s supposed “blue wall” in the Midwest. In our book we question whether there ever was a blue wall in the first place!
Lauck: Absolutely. The growing number of stories about Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, speak to that increased attention. The Democrats’ decision to have their convention in Milwaukee is no accident.
7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?
Stock: That conservative politics have always been an essential part of Midwestern politics and that the region itself may be the last true battleground region in the country!
Lauck: There is a dense civic culture underlying the politics of the Midwest and people need to understand that and focus less on the day-to-day stories of polls and the horse race. People also need to understand that regions and smaller micro-places still play a role in politics and so we need to understand particular places better than we do. To do that we have to break out of the information bubble created by producers and editors in New York and Washington DC.
8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
Stock: I would like to go back in time and have Hillary Clinton read it in 2015!
Lauck: Both Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Pete Buttigieg of Indiana. They could have teamed up, formed an all-Midwest ticket, and fought a good fight for the region. They dropped the ball and left the Democrats with an old Washington insider who hails from Delaware. They should have played the regional angle better and emphasized they were fresh voices from a new generation.
Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ‘72 Professor of History at Connecticut College.
Jon K. Lauck is the founding president of the Midwestern History Association, editor-in-chief of the Middle West Review, and adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.