on geopolitics

How the Plight of a Heartland Could Upset America's Balance

Rebecca Keller
Senior Science and Technology Analyst, Stratfor
11 MINS READMar 21, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
A snapshot of industrial decay is seen in this picture of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from Oct. 6, 2016.
(JEFF SWENSEN/Getty Images)

A snapshot of industrial decay is seen in this picture of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from Oct. 6, 2016. As the United States' economic core shifts from the heartland to the coasts, social unrest is not beyond the realm of possibility.

  • The historical core of the United States, the Mississippi River Basin, has declined in economic importance in the last several decades.
  • Diverse economic drivers create a more robust economic foundation but can also limit the political influence of a single sector or region.
  • With a core pursuing divided interests now shouldering the bulk of the U.S. economy, political polarization is only set to deepen, raising the risk of political volatility and greater uncertainty for businesses.

The death of the American middle class and, with it, large swaths of the American interior, is no secret. Globalization, technological change and other factors have decimated the heartland of the country at the same time as demographic, economic and other trends are beginning to concentrate the country's economic wealth and political influence along the coasts. With the traditional core of the United States no longer carrying the weight it once did, the country as a whole has lost a largely unified center in geographic, economic and social terms. Today, many of the country's growing economic hubs share a similar type of geographical location — a coast — yet they remain geographically, culturally and economically diverse. In this most basic sense, diversity breeds drivers that divide rather than unify, meaning that the continued shift in the U.S. economic core away from its geographic center, alongside other technological and demographic factors, will inflame the nation's social, political and generational divides for some time to come.

The Big Picture

Stratfor's geopolitical methodology rests on seven pillars that drive the actions of all nations: geography, economics, politics, history, technology, society and security. In examining these aspects of a nation's life, it is critical to identify a country's core — the focus of the country's population, economic might and natural resources. What happens, however, when technological shifts propel a shift in a country's core? How does that change the constraints and compulsions of a nation?

Defining the U.S. Core

Many often attribute the United States' modern success to its prize for winning the geographic lottery: the Mississippi River Basin. Stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian chain in the east, this vast region offers ample fertile land, navigable rivers, access to raw materials and, in more modern times, transport links to manufacturing centers. It's no surprise, then, that this heartland provided the United States with the economic prosperity that laid the foundation for the country to inevitably become an empire. 

For all its historical strength, the Mississippi River Basin is no longer the economic core, or "ecumene," of the United States. After all, technology has evolved and the U.S. economy has shifted; the basin's steel belt has become the rust belt, while containerized shipping, globalization and automation have increased the economic importance of the coastal urban centers. Agriculture, which remains concentrated in the Mississippi basin, still carries outsized political weight compared to its meager contribution of less than 1 percent of gross domestic product, yet even that is beginning to wane in the face of demographic shifts and advancing technology. Naturally, any such transition produces winners and losers; in the U.S. case, it has exacerbated a political divide that has only grown in intensity since the 2016 presidential elections.

A Ditch, a Dream and the Rising Mississippi

The Mississippi basin did not become the undisputed core of the United States until the second half of the 19th century. The U.S. government had been well aware of the land's promise in terms of resources when President Thomas Jefferson acquired much of the basin in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase, yet the area remained a sparsely populated wilderness for lack of transport links between the Atlantic coast and the interior. (At the dawn of the 19th century, in fact, many in the young republic even regarded western New York, which was part of the original colonial core, as wilderness.) With the Mississippi not yet navigable in the north and the sea route from New Orleans to the economic centers of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern colonies still arduous, transporting goods, particularly bulky ones, over land was more trouble than it was worth. Ultimately, it was technological innovation that increased the ease and reliability of water-based navigation that ultimately transformed the Mississippi basin into the new country's core.

A map showing the United States' expansion over time.

At the dawn of the 19th century, New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, were all competing for economic superiority in the fledgling nation. In 1825, however, New York gained a clear advantage over its rivals thanks to the Erie Canal, a waterway that transported grains, flour, salt, heavier ores, minerals and manufactured goods from the Great Lakes to the metropolis via the canal and the Hudson River. More than that, the canal was the single greatest factor in the emergence of the cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, New York, as well as the industries that would support them for the better part of a century. Thanks to the upstate canal, New York City's population and economy boomed, leading to a fourfold rise in exports in just the first five years of the canal's operation. But the economic might that emerged along the canal's route did not create a permanent core. Rail, technological improvements and a series of other canals and locks increasingly connecting the various tributaries of the Mississippi basin, while improving navigability eroded the advantages of the Erie Canal. And when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, it put the final nail in the coffin of the New York waterway, as the Great Lake states opted for the quicker northern route to the Atlantic.

It wasn't until after the American Civil War ended in 1865 that the Mississippi basin reached its full potential as its agricultural and industrial might helped foster the nation's recovery. In 1879, the federal government assumed responsibility for the river's navigation, facilitating coordination and improving efficiency. The steamboat era, followed by the advent of the river barge and extensive engineering projects during the second half of the 1800s, ultimately laid the foundation for New Orleans to become a booming, diversified export/import hub in the following century. From 1940 to 1984, waterborne trade in the Mississippi basin increased over 13 times, rising from 27 million metric tons (30 million short tons) of goods to roughly 363 million. But just as technological advancements effectively consigned the Erie Canal to history, technological changes in shipping and manufacturing and improvements to the road and rail network have had a similarly deleterious effect on the Mississippi basin.

Without a unifying culture, economy and geography knitting the core together, the new center — fiscally robust as it may be — will not help an already fraying populace mend itself.

The Winners and Losers of Efficiency

As technological advancement and globalization made trade more efficient, the great manufacturing hubs in the American Midwest have begun to close their doors. The economic decline has been well-documented: States that were once powerhouses in coal or steel are now losing population as their inhabitants are forced to seek employment elsewhere. Globalization hit all of America's middle class hard, but especially in the heavy industrial areas in the basin's steel belt, making the American dream — the vision that an individual can become prosperous simply through hard, blue-collar work — so much more difficult to achieve. 

And even if U.S. agriculture avoided the same downturn that manufacturing suffered, it has lost its political and economic heft of yesteryear. Demographic trends, evolving technologies, the effects of the U.S.-Chinese trade war and proposed cuts in agricultural subsidies all suggest that the sector's influence will continue to wane in the halls of power. Ultimately, contemporary agriculture requires ever-fewer farmers, yet the local industrial jobs that previously attracted surplus labor are growing equally rarer — political pledges to return to a bygone era notwithstanding. Today, the rural heartland faces difficult times ahead as people migrate to pursue economic opportunities in coastal states and other urban areas.

A map showing changes in U.S. gross domestic product by state over the decades.

Of course, the United States is not solely a heartland power; it has long operated a strong navy on both coasts, allowing it to project power around the world. Likewise, coastal urban centers like New York, Boston and San Francisco did not become economic hubs simply at the expense of the interior. Now, however, internal migration trends indicate that once-powerful states like Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania are losing people as western (Oregon and Washington) and southeastern states (Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina) gain them. It's a similar case in terms of economic growth, as western and southeastern regions witnessed growth above the national average while the Great Plains, New England and the Great Lakes regions all posted economic growth figures below the national average in 2016-2017.

But population movement and positive economic growth only tell part of the story. The new U.S. ecumene — which forms a rough "U" shape that traces down the Pacific coast, takes in some Rocky Mountain states, proceeds through Texas and much of the Gulf of Mexico before turning slightly north in the southeastern coastal states — possesses a diverse set of economic interests. No one or two economic factors drive this disparate ecumene; instead, there are tech hubs on the West Coast, energy resources in Texas and real estate and industrial concerns in the Southeast, along with a variety of other economic interests. The lack of a unified economic heartland, coupled with increasing urbanization and generational shifts, sheds light on the roots of an important trend that could deeply affect the near-term future of the United States: the disappearance of the political moderate. 

A map showing changes in House representation over time.

Hollowing Out the Political Middle

Societal, economic or cultural change is not always immediately reflected in the halls of Washington, D.C. Some of the change at the political level can be delayed due to the fundamentals of the U.S. political system. Changes in population due to the rise and fall of local state economies will only result in changes in representation every decade and even then, they will be gradual. After each census, the House of Representatives recalculates the number of seats allocated to each state proportionally, meaning that the population declines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, West Virginia and Michigan that have occurred over the past decade will have a delayed effect on overall political power within the House. In the meantime, traditionally powerful states that see waning power and influence ahead will seek to hold onto influence in other ways and in other branches of the government. See the 2016 presidential elections, when many states that have been facing long-term economic decline gravitated to the candidate who promised a return to former glory. However, the growth of urban areas as economic hubs could slowly change the social and political profiles of the states that host them. Ultimately, the lag between demographic and economic changes and its formal reflection at the level of political representation leaves the U.S. political system in a state of limbo.

A graph depicting the growing polarization in American society in the last 25 years.

Against this backdrop, the United States is witnessing the growth of ideological divides stemming from generational shifts, urbanization, internal migration and economic inequalities. Without a unifying culture, economy and geography knitting the core together, the new ecumene — fiscally robust as it may be — will not help an already fraying populace mend itself. After all, many of the cultural concerns and economic priorities of Los Angeles still have little in common with those in Raleigh. Instead, we are more likely to witness states push more heavily for their own regional, rather than national, interests as a result of the lag of national representation behind economic realities. In fact, this is a trend that is already in evidence on hot-button issues such as climate change and net neutrality. States will continue to exert local power to drive policy toward their own regional interests. But for emerging technologies like automated vehicles, this drive threatens hopes of standardizing the industry, which could eventually temper advances. Alternatively, big states will have an opportunity to exert an outsized political power if they act early to enshrine regulations on emerging technologies, forcing others to follow. Even still, the United States is staring at an uncertain road ahead in terms of policy direction and political volatility as the off-kilter equilibrium, set adrift by a shifting core, will take years to recalibrate.

The disenfranchisement of the blue-collar middle class that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 is not the only thing pushing the partisan divide wide. Numerous other issues are fomenting greater political division — all of which is a manifestation of the country itself metaphorically hollowing out its core. Though the Mississippi basin will remain an agricultural resource base, the effective core, where economic might, population centers and connections with the rest of the world are consolidated, will be centered on the U.S. coasts in the decades to come. With the country's modern-day ecumene located on both sides of the country and the former center seeking to cling to its previous influence, the next several election cycles have the potential to swing widely between poles as the political divide continues to grow. And just as China rises as a global competitor (even amid its own internal geographic divisions), the United States will be forced to grapple with the reality of an urban, coastal core and a potentially restive rural interior that will chafe — potentially to the point of social or civil unrest — at its limited economic opportunities. 

Editor's Note: Amanda Mendoza and Mark Blackwell provided additional analytical and creative contributions to this article.

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