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.