March 17, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

Rebel Minnesota Wants to Secede

1862 Johnson Map of Minnesota and Dakota
Word has reached the Midwest that Minnesota wants to secede from the region and adopt a new name and identity. Such as The North.  

It’s not exactly a groundswell of rebellion. Minnesotans don’t do groundswells or rebellions. But there’s a feeling that “Midwest” doesn’t really define Minnesota, which needs a new image.

This began around last Thanksgiving, when The New York Times, with its usual insight into anything west of the Hudson River, reported that Minnesota’s most popular holiday dish was “grape salad.”

The Times writer said he got the recipe from “a Minnesota-born heiress.” Nobody else in the state seems to have heard of it. But Minnesotans have decided that, if the state’s image is a grape salad, it needs a new image.
Well, not all Minnesotans have decided this. So far the movement to rebrand the state as “The North” has been driven by some University of Minnesota academics and by a local businessman named Eric Dayton who owns a real estate development firm called, no doubt coincidentally, North Corp. Dayton is the son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and the scion of Dayton’s, the giant department store company now known as Target, so getting attention for his idea hasn’t been a problem.

The proposal marinated over the winter which, in Minnesota, is a great time to stay indoors, drink a lot, and debate improbable proposals. Whether it will survive spring’s arrival remains to be seen. But it has at least reopened a perennial argument over the Midwest, what it is, and where it begins and ends.

Dayton himself has defined the Midwest as “what’s left over after all the other regions are identified.” This sounds cruel, but it’s a fact that the region, unlike New England or the South, lacks real boundaries. As a result, the Midwest over the years has been said to embrace everything from the Adirondacks to the Rockies, including the Great Plains, Kentucky and the border states, even Oklahoma.

The official government designation, embodied by the Midwest Governors Association, includes 12 states – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and the four Plains states.  

Readers of this blog know I’m more exclusive. I define the Midwest mostly economically, as the region that has always lived by heavy industry and intensive farming. This limits it to western Pennsylvania on the east, from Ohio through Iowa and Michigan to Minnesota – about eight states altogether.

This geography does put Minnesota out there on the frozen fringe, just this side of The Empty Quarter. Dayton argues that Minnesota really is different from Chicago and Auto Alley and the rest of the traditional Midwest. Rather, he says it’s the center of a region in its own right, an urban mecca, a magnet for Millennials and the creative classes, intellectually vibrant, a hotbed of Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial start-ups.

Uh, hold on a moment there. Is this Minnesota you’re talking about? No, actually, it’s Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Big Apples of the Minnesota orchard. Dayton and other supporters of The North, most of whom live in the Twin Cities, tend to confuse the state with its dominant metro, which is a problem.

The seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul region has two-thirds of Minnesota’s population and economic output. It looks south down the Mississippi River and east into Wisconsin, not north or west into the Dakotas. Economically and politically, it looks more like the industrial Midwest than the Lake Wobegon image of Garrison Keillor’s Minnesota.

The Twin Cities thus have little in common with the rest of Minnesota, especially its northern reaches, which makes a common branding a problem. But it’s a problem shared by the Midwest itself. Various thinkers and politicians have proposed renaming the region as The North Coast, say, or The Heartland, or The Great Lakes States. “Midwest” itself is a misleading  tag left over from the 18th century, when the region became the Northwest Territory and, at the time, was about as far west as the country went.

(The proposal to rebrand Minnesota has received some serious analysis, especially from Aaron Renn, who has his doubts, and a Minnesotan named Alex Schieferdecker, with a long and boosterish article on it.)

Dayton thinks “The North” is a good name for his region because “the United States doesn‘t have a north,” which is true if one ignores Canada. He also wants his region to embrace Michigan, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, a vast area united only by its bracing winters.

As a brand, “The North” is a constant reminder of those winters. Minnesotans are proud of their brutal climate, believing it builds sturdy character. “You’ve got to own the cold,” the state’s economic development commissioner, Katie Clark Sieben, was quoted as saying, implying that it’s for sale.

In the meantime, Minnesotans spent the winter dreaming up other potential brands for their orphaned region. North Central, is a possibility. So is Deep North, Wobegonia, Northern Upper Midwest, Central America and (my favorite) Baja Canada.

One suspects not all these suggestions were serious. But neither is the idea of secession. It’s not possible to secede from a place as hazily defined as the Midwest. But talking about it is a great way to pass the winter until the walleye season opens. 


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.


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