If Hillary Clinton had read this volume she would never have ignored the Midwest. The Democrats took the Midwest for granted in 2016 because, for more than twenty years, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin had leaned Democratic in presidential elections. But the chapters in this volume show that that famous blue wall was never so sturdy. The history of conservative resurgence in the Midwest has largely been ignored, despite a burgeoning scholarship about conservatism in the West, South, and Northeast. Ronald Reagan, after all, hailed from Dixon, Illinois, and spent the formative years of his life in the Midwest, developing a vision of America that he spent the rest of his life trying to get America to embrace.
The idea to explore conservatism in the heartland—including more Republican states beyond the blue wall—is a good one, but this book is wildly uneven, lacking both an organizing framework and clear conclusions. The book consists of contributions from historians who focus on specific episodes, events, or local sites, and from political scientists who offer abstract macro-overviews. The best of the chapters are gems: Catherine McNicol Stock’s astonishing story, “Reading the Ralph,” tells the entire history of the passing of one era to another through the building of a hockey arena in North Dakota. For this essay alone, scholars of conservatism or the Midwest—or scholars of higher education, college sports, racism, philanthropy, or the 1980s, for that matter—should hightail it to the library to get this book. Daniel Rowe’s contribution about resistance to the Reagan revolution is also interesting, although it contradicts the book’s stated goal of explaining the Midwestern conservative resurgence.
Too many of the other chapters are of surprisingly low quality. The book does a disservice to their authors in publishing them. More importantly, the editors miss an opportunity to learn from the interdisciplinary background of the authors; they never take stock of what the essays combine to tell us. Is Midwestern conservatism identical to conservatism elsewhere? The volume presents the familiar themes of law and order, racism, activism on college campuses, and culture wars. Ann Marie Wambeke traces the Republican Party’s increasingly conservative position on abortion, and Camden Burd the rise of anti-environmentalism, in Michigan. William Russell Coil tells of James Rhode, who embodied white working-class populism as the governor of Ohio and who was one of the politicians who brought a carnivalesque style of politics, now seen at the highest levels, into the business-club staidness of the Republican Party: “The Democrats used to say I wasn’t fit to sleep with the hogs.…The Republicans defended me and said I was” (202). Ian Toller-Clark’s chapter on “carceral populism” in Milwaukee extends our understanding of the consequences of the great migration.
But the authors and editors say nothing about the extent to which Midwestern conservatism was simply a regional facet of a nationwide phenomenon or the extent to which it differed from, anticipated, or followed national events. This silence becomes particularly problematical when considering what the chapters cover and what they do not: For example, it is not clear why the volume provides only a glancing mention of anti-communism—whether because anti-communism was not a central feature of Midwestern conservatism or because no author happened to be interested in exploring it. The overarching impression created by the book is that Midwestern conservatism is much like conservatism elsewhere, which leads to the question of why we ought to pay particular attention to it or conceptualize it as distinct rather than simply treating it as generic conservatism. Clinton might have benefited from reading The Conservative Heartland, but without her experience in 2016, the book would not have much claim to more than local relevance.
This book calls attention to the possibilities of exploring an underexamined facet of recent American history. In the absence of any effort to pull the chapters together into a statement about conservatism in the Midwest, however, it represents only the beginnings of a scholarly agenda that someone else will have to bring to fruition.