Pete Buttigieg’s Coded Use of American Heartland

The phrase’s political currency as a folksy label for Middle America can reinforce a poisonous “us versus them” mentality.

Since 1960, politicians from both parties have appealed to the “heartland” every campaign cycle, especially since the Iowa caucuses took over as the first contest of the primary season. (Scott Olson)

Yesterday afternoon, Pete Buttigieg found himself on the receiving end of a good old-fashioned ratioing—that quantifiable flood of Twitter rage when a bad take elicits far more (negative) replies than likes or retweets. The backlash likely took the Buttigieg campaign by surprise, given that the tweet in question might have seemed like anodyne boilerplate at first glance.

It was a populist message evidently directed at Democratic voters in Iowa heading to the caucuses on Monday, reminding them of Buttigieg’s midwestern cred as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But his rah-rah invocation of “the American Heartland” struck a sour note for many, including some prominent people of color.

“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet?” responded the filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too.” Likewise, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and immigration-rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas tweeted, “Dear @PeteButtigieg: Define ‘American Heartland.’ Thanks, salamat, An undocumented gay Filipino who lives in the American Heartland of Bay Area, California.”

Some responses were more blunt. “Heartland is code. And I’m over it,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It erases the legitimacy of the experiences and reality of Black mid-Westerners and cloaks white mid-Western communities in a gauzy innocence and authenticity.” In response to the journalist Michele Norris’s critique, Brent Staples, an editorial writer for The New York Times, tweeted: “I feel you. ‘Heartland’ ‘Midwest’ ‘Working class’—all terms of art in political analysis that serve as code for ‘white.’”

Coded or not, that word, heartland, has been linked to Buttigieg since he burst onto the scene as a small-town mayor with national ambitions. An interview with Buttigieg on the PBS series The Open Mind in April 2017 was titled “Dreams of the Heartland,” and in September 2018 he was one of three midwestern mayors featured on a panel at an AtlanticLIVE event in Des Moines, Iowa, called “The Heartland Summit.” When he joined the presidential race early last year, New York magazine dubbed him “the Democrats’ folksiest heartland hope.”

Buttigieg, for his part, has embraced the term. In the November debate, he made the case for selecting someone who “has a different kind of experience … and bringing that to Washington so that Washington can start looking a little more like our best-run communities in the heartland before the other way around starts to happen.” The policy section of his website includes a page titled “A Commitment to America’s Heartland: Unleashing the Potential of Rural America.”

Buttigieg’s fellow midwesterner Amy Klobuchar has been working the “heartland” angle just as hard this primary season. As Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote in The Atlantic last April, the Minnesota senator has emphasized the ill-defined notion of “heartland economics.” Campaigning in Iowa, Klobuchar has said, “I think it’s important to have someone from the heartland on the ticket.”

Given how strenuously Buttigieg and Klobuchar have been making their “heartland” pitches, you might think the word is embedded deep in midwesterners’ DNA. But the word’s political currency as a folksy label for Middle America extends back only to World War II.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary traces heartland back to 1634 as a poetic term for “a place where love resides,” the term didn’t gain purchase in geopolitics until the 20th century. The British geographer Halford Mackinder used “The Heartland” to refer to the interior of the interlocking continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, a landmass he called “the World-Island.” Eastern Europe held the key to control of the “Heartland” and in turn the “World-Island,” Mackinder argued in his 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality.

As the European powers clashed in World War II, American commentators seized on Mackinder’s model, looking inward to find the equivalent North American “Heartland.” The first mentions of an American “heartland” in newspaper databases appeared in 1943—the same year a more outward-looking geopolitical expression, globalism, also took hold. Indeed, the early appeals to the nation’s “heartland” can be thought of as a cozy, reassuring domestic reaction to the “globalist” anxieties of the day.

In the June 1943 issue of Harper’s magazine, Bernard De Voto wrote in his column “The Easy Chair” about how Middle America was largely indifferent to the wartime preoccupations of the coastal elites. De Voto rejected the label provincialism, writing, “It is not that the Middle West is provincial but, first, that it is the American heartland, and second that it has developed an organic local life. The heart of the continental nation, it is so deep in distance and feels so secure that an instinctive disbelief is central in its consciousness.”

While De Voto fretted about the heartland’s lack of engagement with international issues, he praised the region’s potential for “comfort, kindliness, fellowship, human sympathy, [and] hope.” Those would come to be recognized as “heartland” values—especially after the war, when a straight-talking Missourian, Harry S. Truman, was in the White House, and General Eisenhower returned from his European victories to his hometown of Abilene, Kansas. As The Washington Post reported in June 1945, “The heartland of America gave Dwight D. Eisenhower an uproarious homecoming today as he came back to his native Middlewest.”

The “heartland” would become an important touchstone for presidential candidates campaigning across the country, though the scope of the term has been rather nebulous. John F. Kennedy used it in the final days of the 1960 race at a stop in Wichita Falls, Texas. “We are going to travel in the next four or five days in 13 states,” Kennedy told the crowd, “and we are going to carry the message that here in the heartland of the United States, here where the tall cotton grows … the people of Texas are going Democratic.”

Since then, politicians from both parties have appealed to the “heartland” every campaign cycle, especially since the Iowa caucuses took over as the first contest of the primary season. But the sunny rhetoric belies harsher realities, as the negative reactions to Buttigieg’s tweet illustrate. Talk of the “heartland” can reinforce a poisonous “us” versus “them” mentality, as the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley writes in How Fascism Works: “As the fear of ‘them’ grows, ‘we’ come to represent everything virtuous. ‘We’ live in the rural heartland, where the pure values and traditions of the nation still miraculously exist despite the threat of cosmopolitanism” from coastal cities and their racially and ethnically diverse populations.

It’s a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one, portraying an imagined homogeneous “heartland” as somehow more authentically American than the rest of the country. We’d be better off returning to the original meaning of heartland as “a place where love resides”—which can, of course, be anywhere you find it.