What is 'Midwest'?

A perennial source of discussion in certain corners of the internet concerns what parts of the U.S. are part of the Midwest. As a permanent resident of those online corners, and a current or past resident of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota, I can tell you all the major fault-lines — whether Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Louisville are Midwestern, whether the core of the “Midwest” is east or west of the Mississippi, whether southern Missouri or western South Dakota count.

But one reason why this issue sparks such perpetual debate is that no one really agrees on what the underlying term, “Midwest,” actually means. Some people deny it even exists, at least in any meaningful sense. Others use the same term to refer to drastically different things.

For example, is “the Midwest” a political concept? Whenever people talk about which states are in the Midwest, they are intentionally or not talking about it in political terms, of human-drawn lines on a map. If entire states are either Midwestern or not, most people would agree that Pennsylvania — an original colony with water access (via Delaware) to the Atlantic Ocean — is not Midwestern. But if Midwestern-ness is cultural and/or geographical, then a city like Pittsburgh — west of the Appalachians, settled far later and by different populations than Philadelphia was, and connected by water to the entire Mississippi watershed, might be Midwestern.

If the Midwest is primarily a geographical concept, then you might look to things like rivers and mountain ranges to define its boundaries. If it’s primarily a cultural concept, then things like accents, settlement history, the prevalence of agriculture, or what people call soft drinks might all matter.

Another vital question is to establish what Midwestern-ness is being compared with. A state might be Midwestern if the choices are Midwest, Northeast, South and West, but not Midwestern if the choices are New England, Mid-Atlantic, Deep South, Gulf Coast, Great Lakes, Midwest, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southwest and Pacific Coast. Asking for definitions of the Midwest without clarifying the level of detail is just asking for people to talk past each other! If I say Illinois is “Midwestern” and someone else says “No, it’s a Great Lakes state,” that doesn’t actually mean anything if my image of the Midwest includes the states around the Great Lakes. Whether concepts like “the Rust Belt,” “the Great Lakes” and “the Great Plains” exist — and whether they are mutually exclusive with “the Midwest” — will mean a great deal!

Finally, in casual speak people, and especially politicians, often use “the Midwest” as a sort of synonym for “the Heartland,” an amorphous concept that encompasses some degree of ruralness and an implication of moral superiority. “The Heartland” is a concept that could include Alabama and exclude Chicago, so using the term “Midwest” when you really mean “Heartland” is a recipe for confusion when talking with people who are using a different definition.

As an inveterate participate in debates over Midwestern-ness, here is my advice for how to ask (or answer) the question if you hope to get people on the same page: