Episode 130: 'Heartland,' 'Middle America,' and US Media’s Vaguely Nostalgic, Racialized Code for White Grievance

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“We need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics,” declares presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. “AOC Kills Jobs Middle America Would Love to Have,” proclaims The Washington Examiner. Amy Klobuchar insists she’s a “voice from the heartland,” while The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tells us, “[Bernie Sanders] is not going to sell in Middle America. You have to WIN Middle America.”

Everywhere we turn in American political discourse, the terms “Heartland” and “Middle America” are thrown around as shorthand for “everyday” men and women somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean to the East, Pacific to the West--homespun people who are supposedly insufficiently represented in media and Beltway circles. Those evoking their status presumably are interjecting these true Americans otherwise overlooked needs into the conversation.

But terms like “Heartland” and “Middle America” are not benign or organic terms that emerged from the natural course of sociological explanation, they are deliberate political PR products of the 1960s, emerging in parallel with a shift from explicit racism into coded racism. Their primary function is to express a deference to and centering of whiteness as a post-civil rights political project.

On this episode, we explore the origins of the terms “Middle America” and “Heartland,” what they mask and reveal, why they’re still used today and how conversations about “whiteness” as a political ideology would benefit greatly from clarity, rather than relying on code words to vaguely allude to the subject of political “whiteness,” while still trying to obfuscate it.

Our guest is Professor Kristin Hoganson of the University of Illinois.

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