It has been a bad run for our part of the country. Indiana tried to enshrine intolerance in law under the guise of religious freedom just as the nation started to pay attention to it during the Final Four hosted by the NCAA in Indianapolis. Maybe they’ll outlaw the teaching of evolution in time for the Indy 500 later this month.
Iowa passed a bill making English its official language, a jab at the immigrants it needs to run its agricultural economy.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker continues to be a right-wing tornado as he pursues the Republican presidential nomination, spouting the most reactionary opinions possible on a host of issues, from public education cuts to reproductive rights to same-sex marriage. Our state treasurer was able to ban some state employees under his control from so much as discussing the most serious threat the planet faces: global climate change.
And if you want to extend the definition of the Midwest down to Kansas — and please don’t because it will only make things worse — you could include a bill there that would prohibit University of Kansas professors from including their job titles on opinion pieces they write on political issues. Apparently, the Kansas legislature sees a threat to its state by being associated with informed opinions.
If the Midwest were trying to market itself as a modern economy, this is not the way to do it. Outside of Minnesota, which has been pursuing liberal policies the last few years, and which has the vibrant economy to show for it, our region looks like a backwater of reactionary foolishness.
It’s hard enough to get coastal investors to even acknowledge “fly-over country,” much less drop some dough here. None of this is helping, yet oddly most of it comes from the party that portrays itself as the champion of jobs and business.
A book worth reading about all this is Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard Longworth. That book is several years old, but Longworth’s analysis and his gloomy outlook are even more relevant today. His basic premise is that we live in a global economy where major metropolitan areas are the engines, and yet the Midwest finds itself with legislatures dominated by rural and suburban legislators who actually despise cities and all they represent. As a result, our region is becoming more reactionary and insular in an era when we should be opening up and becoming more cosmopolitan and global in our perspective.
Ironically, I first read Caught in the Middle on my way home from a trip to Europe, where we had visited one of Madison’s sister cities. I was filled with ideas about how we could use the Sister Cities program to build stronger international ties. That didn’t happen. Efforts to revamp and reenergize the program beyond cultural exchange to business partnerships and more policy idea sharing never got very far.
But it still seems to me that that’s the answer. Local leaders in the Midwest are not going to get helpful policy out of their state governments any time soon. In Wisconsin, the Republicans will control at least the state Assembly for the foreseeable future, although at some point a Democratic governor and maybe a Democratic state Senate could use their leverage to make some limited progress. Still, the short-term answer is to bypass state government altogether.
This calls for stronger ties not just between Madison and Milwaukee, but between Wisconsin cities and Chicago and the Twin Cities and Des Moines and Detroit and on and on. What would be interesting would be a Midwest urban agenda and network that would seek to find common policies that would help us build links to the world.
And, of course, that doesn’t have to be exclusive of small towns and rural areas. After all, a big part of what might be proposed is an emphasis on Midwest agricultural products with value added in cities. Hey, hops are grown in the country and get mixed with good fresh water and brewed in cities. Beer is just one beautiful and tasty example of urban-rural harmony.
I’m not sure that there’s much that can be done with our state government any time soon. It’s not just a roadblock to a modern, vibrant economy; it’s actually pulling us down and rapidly. Let’s find ways to make it irrelevant.
Dave Cieslewicz, who blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com, is a former mayor of Madison.