June 1, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

A Last Word from The Midwesterner

This is the last edition of The Midwesterner, a conversation started here nearly six years ago on the problems and challenges facing the American Midwest in the age of globalization. Over that time we’ve visited towns big (Chicago and Detroit) and small (Albion, Michigan, and Searsboro, Iowa). We’ve looked at the future of farming and the past of manufacturing, the hollowing-out of farm towns and old factory cities, the revival of the idea of regionalism and the parochial cussedness of so many Midwesterners who need to cooperate but just can’t bring themselves to do it. We’ve even reviewed some good books: that most of them emerge from Iowa gives me a nice chauvinistic buzz. But I’ve also had to concede that the Iowa Republican caucus is a silliness that is giving both Iowa and democracy a bad name.

Enough. I’m retiring from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and from the world of deadlines and punctual punditry. I’ll miss it, but the online world is awash with acute insights – Dan Hertz’ City Notes, Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile, Lou Glazer’s Michigan Future Inc., Bill Testa’s invaluable Midwest Economics, not to mention Belt Magazine, or Rustwire, or Burgh Diaspora. Authors such as Chad Broughton and Edward McClelland are probing the industrial ruins for signs of hope.

So strong voices will carry the conversation forward. This is a good time to look back, to see what’s changed over the past six years, and what lies ahead.

The Midwesterner spun off my book, Caught in the Middle, which looked at the impact of globalization on the Midwest and concluded that the region, which lived on heavy industry and farming, was mostly failing to come to terms with an economic tsunami that was turning both industry and agriculture on its head. Mostly, I found a region in deep denial, refusing to acknowledge that an economy that supported it so handsomely for a century had gone away and wasn’t coming back.

If nothing else has changed, that has. Denial is out. All across the Midwest, good people recognize that their way of life is under threat, and that their towns and cities won’t survive unless they reinvent themselves to meet this new era.

In Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Milwaukee, South Bend, and other cities, the earlier deafness to global trends has given way to a new realism. In many of these places, once-aloof universities like Wayne State and Notre Dame have become part of the conversation. Six years ago, Detroit and Cleveland appeared terminal, doomed to be hollow backwaters. Neither has turned the corner yet. But at least they’re asking the right questions, and may yet rise to be the new Pittsburghs – smaller, less powerful, but decent places to live and work.

Some of these places will survive and thrive. Some will continue to decline: there’s no guarantee that a town that was needed by the industrial age will find its niche in the global era. And some, especially old farm and mining towns, will just die out.

Local leadership is the key. Places with forward-looking leadership who can articulate change and win support for it have a chance. Alas, I’ve been in many smaller places where an old guard dominates, an aging generation who despises changes and only hopes their town will last longer than they will. These are the ghost towns of the future.

Balkanization seems bred in the Midwestern genes. But some regions are realizing that they are too small to compete in the vast global economy, and are joining hands across political boundaries. Western Michigan is doing this. So are Cleveland and its suburbs, and greater Des Moines. Along the Fox River valley in Wisconsin, towns from Oshkosh up to Green Bay are working together to encourage new industry. A new alliance is trying to turn the southern end of Lake Michigan, from Milwaukee into northern Indiana, into a single economic region.

But states remain the leading stumbling blocks to any Midwestern revival. All are more intent on stealing businesses from each other than in cooperating to leverage the region’s huge strengths – its universities, say, or its bioscientific riches – to really complete in the global economy. Instead, we get governors like Illinois’ rookie Bruce Rauner, who goes around threatening to “rip the economic guts out of Indiana.”

These are the same leaders, so-called, who are cutting state spending on education, especially higher education, effectively disarming their states for competition in the knowledge economy.

The Midwest’s problem remains today as it did six years ago – a regional problem, not a state problem. All the Midwest shares an economy that rose as one during the industrial era, declined as one during the Rust Belt days, and will revive in the age of globalization only as the unit it really is.

I remain convinced that the Midwest contains so many good people, asking the right questions and coming up with the right answers, that this rebirth, sooner or later, is bound to happen.


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


| By Richard C. Longworth

Global Cities Speak

Global cities exist. Like globalization itself, they’re new but real. And like globalization, they’re both enriching and impoverishing, good for those who know how to navigate these global waters, bad for those left in their wake.

| By Richard C. Longworth

On Global Cities

In my new book, On Global Cities, I take a fresh and focused look at global cities — what they are, why they are special, what makes them global, how they emerged, and where they are going.

| By Richard C. Longworth

Into The Madding Crowd

We’re told that we’re living in a world of lonely individuals. Maybe so. But my bet is that the future really lives, like the rest of us, in crowds.

| By Richard C. Longworth

The Future of Farming

I was talking recently with a farmer who farms a big spread in northern Illinois. There’s more to this these days, he said, than just going out and plowing the back 40. Where and how he plows depends largely on the data he gets daily from three satellites orbiting a thousand miles above his farm.  

| By Richard C. Longworth

New Life for Old Cities

Instead of larding the PACs of their favorite political candidates, wouldn’t it be nice if Chicago’s plutocrats put their money where it might actually do some real good? 

| By Richard C. Longworth

Chicago as Stockholm

Chicago is getting bad press, to put it mildly. It may be time for the city to think about a makeover – in both substance and image – if it is going to be taken seriously as a global city. 

| By Richard C. Longworth

Governors on the Warpath

Illinois and Indiana may be competitors, but it’s mostly over which governor can do the most damage to his state. Earlier this month, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence seemed ready to retire the gubernatorial dunce cap, with his signing and then backtracking on his state’s infamous “religious freedom” law. But now comes Bruce Rauner, Illinois’ rookie governor, with a virtual declaration of economic warfare on the Hoosiers next door.

| By Richard C. Longworth

The Midwest's Fresh Water Solution

The Midwest is sitting on the resource that will shape the future, and it’s just beginning to think what it can do with it. No, it’s not oil. Nor iron, steel or farmland, the resources that powered its industrial-era economy. It’s water. Or rather, fresh water, the useful low-salt variety that is in increasingly short supply around the country and around the world. 

| By Richard C. Longworth

What's Ailing Midwestern Legislatures?

The Indiana legislature recently passed a bill, signed by Gov. Mike Pence that, in effect, authorizes businesses in that state to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Pence and the Indiana legislature claim the bill is meant to protect religious freedom, not to discriminate against any group. Not surprisingly, nobody believes them, especially as their's isn't the only Midwestern state passing this type of legislation. 

| By Richard C. Longworth

It's Politics Time Again in Iowa

It’s early days yet in Iowa. The state girls’ basketball tournament is barely over. Farmers won’t start planting the first corn or soybeans for another month yet. The last vestiges of snow still fringe some fields. But it’s never too early for politics in the state that seems to have a lock on the quadrennial jockeying for pole position in the presidential sweepstakes.

| By Richard C. Longworth

Chicago Picks a Mayor

Chicagoans, or at least a few of them, will vote next month in a mayoral election notable both for its importance and for its meager turnout. Either Mayor Rahm Emanuel or his challenger, Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, will be the next mayor. In a sense, it’s a shame they both can’t win.