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With an Unpredictable Electorate and a Hefty GPD, the US Midwest Has Outsized Influence

Hope for the region rests on its bigger cities that power the local economy, host thriving universities and draw skilled immigrants, says author Adam Roberts

Published on July 25, 2020

“The Midwest”, a new Special Report from The Economist, online and published in the July 25th print edition, examines the long-term trends of the US region of twelve states that almost single-handedly delivered the 2016 US election to Donald Trump.

Author of the report, Midwest correspondent for The Economist Adam Roberts, compares the region once dominated by agriculture, then by logistics and heavy manufacturing, to former industrial regions in Europe and Japan. The Midwest, with a population as large as Britain or France and a combined GDP the size of Germany, is undergoing a great transition and is attempting to reinvent itself economically.

The report states that the driving force of this change is from its cities. Minneapolis, Madison, Columbus (Ohio), Chicago, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids (Michigan) have risen again thanks to success in medical and healthcare, finance, tech and biotech, tourism, sport, and creative industries.

Mr Roberts cautions that not everywhere in the Midwest is doing well. Those that remain mired—like Gary, Indiana, Cairo, Illinois, parts of Detroit, Cleveland or Flint, Michigan—fail to overcome problems like racial segregation, low levels of education, population loss, and high crime. The protests of 2020 started as a result of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The report looks at how some Midwestern cities will cope given coronavirus, racial inequality, fiscal strain, and a wider economic slump. Mr Roberts argues that it will depend on leadership, including from philanthropists, to create the most open climate for growth, immigration and diverse populations. In some places he thinks it means a shift in values from reliance on one big old industry. Cooperation between states, and between cities, can help. Crucially it depends on the power of education and especially universities—the Midwest is home to some of the world’s most successful—for example in unleashing medical companies in Minneapolis and Madison.

Finally, Mr Roberts argues that infrastructure in the Midwest is vital. Those cities with big airports, plus good road and rail connections, have advantages. Some people are promoting a hyperloop, to stitch together the major cities of the Midwest. It will require a new way of seeing the great outdoors in a time of climate change. From farms to vineyards to tourist spots, the rural Midwest will only become resilient by learning to prosper from growth in the region’s cities. If it succeeds, it will offer lessons to much of the rest of the world.

The Midwest will once again have a big influence on the US presidential election this upcoming autumn. According to The Economist’s special report, the Midwest has a real opportunity to build on past progress, if its more successful cities can reinforce what they started to get right. They must continue to find ways to grow, to lure people, students and investors, and to become more equitable and attractive places. In short, the key for the region’s future is urban.

Executive Editor