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Industrial Heartland Renewal Can Diminish "Strong Men"

Global Insight by John Austin
Florian Wächter
Industrial works silhouetted with a Ferris Wheel in Ruhr, Essen, Germany.

Geographically targeted economic development strategies can serve as an antidote to political extremism in formerly industrial regions.

Vladimir Putin’s war of fire and sword (and disinformation smoke) make it almost impossible to focus on some of the root conditions that enable and empower such authoritarians, allowing them to ultimately threaten democracies with political havoc. 

Regions in a difficult phase of economic restructuring are a crucible of today’s politically polarizing populist movements. Former industrial heartland regions, from the US Midwest to the German Ruhr Valley and even to the Donbas in Ukraine’s East, represent fertile ground for authoritarian strongmen to nurture nativism, nationalism, and nostalgia for an economy and society of yesteryear. This makes the work to provide place-based economic development strategies to counteract these forces more important than ever.  

These former industrial heartland regions—billed by economic geographer Andres Rodriguez-Pose as "the places that don’t matter"—end up mattering very much by voicing disdain for out-of-touch elites through votes for populists who promise to upend the status quo.  

In the United States, communities that still resemble the old “Rust Belt” in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania narrowly tipped the election to Donald Trump in 2016. In 2017, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, scored wins in the first round of the presidential election in France’s industrial northeast. In Germany, the 2017 parliamentary elections saw a surge for the populist far-right Alternative for Germany in the heavily industrial former East Germany. And the Donbas region’s long-term industrial decline helped foment unrest and support for pro-Russian separatist elements, with disastrous consequences for both Ukraine and Europe.  

We also see what can happen when once-struggling heartland economies turn the economic corner. Their reversals of fortune have been accompanied by a measurable decline in the electoral appeal of populism and nationalism, weakening the resentment-driven, nostalgic politics peddled by anti-democratic demagogues. For this reason, place-focused economic development in the United States and Europe takes on a new, political urgency. 

A commitment to place-based economic policies to help hold economies together have a long history in Europe. For decades, the European Union (EU) cohesion policies, aimed at economically struggling regions in member countries, have invested and continue to invest billions to spread economic opportunity more equitably, acting as a glue to bind societies together.  

Within the EU, Germany’s constitution-enshrined commitment to equal economic opportunity has supported regional economic adjustment, first in the Western Ruhr Valley coal and steel region, and more recently to unify both the polity and the economy of the former East Germany to the West. 

The United States has less of a history in region-focused federal investment efforts—apart from big plays for the most economically backward regions, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and Appalachian Regional Commission—and rarely have these efforts had a national political or social cohesion dimension. 

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s geographic-focused investment has been rather shallow and episodic. The recent push by the Johnson Government to “level-up” still struggling communities in the North has begun to take shape, even with the crisis in Ukraine pulling attention elsewhere. 

Finally, the recent French presidential election saw candidates in a battle to outbid each other to bring new investment to the industrial northeast, whose disenchanted residents have been responsive to the right-wing nationalism and nativism espoused by candidates like Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. 

Today we finally see a transatlantic convergence of effort to shape effective place-based heartland revitalization strategies. Growing attention to the yawning geographic economic divides—and in particular their impact on both domestic politics and, indirectly, international alliances—is being paid on both sides of the Atlantic.  

One can observe the tangible impact of place-focused economic development efforts. Once struggling cities in the United States have crafted home-grown strategies for economic development and thrive anew. The most recent European Commission cohesion report demonstrates that the policy works. Germany’s success at aiding economic structural change can inspire, offering much to other countries in terms of ideas, models, and lessons learned. And a new, robust transatlantic partnership and learning exchange offers lessons for leaders and models for replication of successful economic transformation.  

The EU’s cohesion policies and Just Transition efforts, the UK’s “leveling up” agenda, and the focus on heartland economic renewal in the United States all work to attend a root cause of our polarized politics. Moreover, the success of accelerating economic change in industrial heartland regions has huge implications for the health of our democracies and our transatlantic alliance—and has the potential to nip the rise of the next autocratic “strongman” in the bud. 

About the Authors
John Austin
Former Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Midwest
Council expert John Austin
John Austin served as a nonresident senior fellow of Global Midwest at the Council, with expertise in global cities and North America. He spent 16 years in elected service on the Michigan State Board of Education, serving as president for six years. Currently, he directs the Michigan Economic Center, a center for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation.
Council expert John Austin