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From "Rust Belt" to "Trust Belt": Why the Language We Use Matters

Global Insight by John Austin and Jürgen Hein
Heartland renewal

In promoting economic renewal in industrial heartland regions, leaders must avoid language that condemns these regions and their citizens to passivity.

Given the link between the economic conditions of industrial heartland regions and support for polarizing, sometimes anti-democratic populist movements (the “Geography of Discontent” in this EU analysis), there has been growing interest and efforts to identify and share strategies on how to attack the root cause of this discontent: the real and perceived economic decline of once-proud industrial regions.

While doing so, it is essential to choose carefully our words, because the language we use—as policymakers, leaders, and others working with these communities—reveals our views. Words also shape the way we and others who hear our words think about the subject we are talking about. As we have heard repeatedly in our discussions with local leaders and residents, if I call a region a “rust belt,” it betrays my condescension and at the same time adds to it, compounding the alienation and widening the gulf between heartland region residents and well-intentioned “elites” seeking to help.

This is the dynamic we are looking to help correct in the Transforming Industrial Heartlands Initiative: that this feeling of disregard and being left behind undermines the confidence and belief in democracy. Any way out will have to start by getting in the habit of using respectful and constructive language.

Right now, too often we don’t. The term “Rust Belt” is just one example that illustrates the damage language can inflict. It claims that a region is in decay, that it had a past but no future. The term “post-industrial” also sends a message that a place’s story is over. The glory of the past will never come back. Instead, each “post” should be countered by a “pre”: pre-research, technology, and innovation center, or a pre-lifestyle and amenity-driven community.

Policymakers and commentators use other terms which seem to condemn regions and their citizens to passivity, like “left behind, “or “underserved.” If, as is the case today in the UK, a complete policy strategy is described as “levelling up” regions, it sends a clear message of who is active and who is passive. And while the term “structural change”—used commonly in Europe and Germany—is better, the regions targeted for structural change are also classified as “structurally weak” —which stresses the need to be “helped.”

To add one last category of unhelpful terms, there are some that not only claim a certain region is at risk, but that it poses a risk for others, like “region of discontent” or “stagnant region.” “Discontent” stresses a negative feeling that can easily turn into a destructive one, like political radicalization. And “stagnant” has connotations of unclean water or even contagious disease.

Obviously, careful use of language alone cannot result in a positive development. But it can help to change perspectives. Look forward instead of backwards. Talk about the future instead of the past. Replace nostalgia with ambition. And let the region and its citizens make the decisions, speak to them at eye level instead of about them, don’t work for them but with them.

In many cases this won’t happen by itself. Someone—preferably from the region itself—has to organize a platform involving as many citizens as possible. Asking questions such as: why do they still like to live in the area and would they recommend others to move there, too? What do they think their region has to contribute to the national economy? What could their unique selling point be? Why should investors bring their money? Where do the citizens want to go in the future—in the fields of culture, research, mobility, education, sustainability, recreation, quality of life, social cohesion? What do they think is needed to get there? And is there reason to believe that chances are higher to get there jointly, as a region, rather than the cities and municipalities splitting up and doing it on their own?

Such concepts could be drawn by a few experts in an office meeting room someplace. But this would be a wasted opportunity: first, the people concerned, if included, always come up with ideas that no experts would have. Second, change is always about a change of minds, and working on a turnaround plan opens the minds of all involved for future opportunities.

The projects that are being developed in such a process are investments which must be for the benefit not only of the city and region, but of the whole state and country in line with the claim “if it’s good for us it’s good for you.” It is crucial to define “us” and “you” in an inclusive manner. The overall aim has to be benefits for all citizens in the transforming region, including those who have lost their jobs and perspectives when economic change began.

The message must be: yes, there are shortcomings that will have to be taken care of, but let’s at the same time get a process started that will help to prevent such shortcomings from emerging in the first place. Let us use the power of our minds to see what our region can be 30 years from now. We (the residents) are experts in change. Transformation is our specialization. We are pre-prospering, embarking on a journey to success; we are a vivid region of confidence, an asset for ourselves and the state. Instead of your “Rust Belt,” we are your “Trust Belt.”

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
Jürgen Hein
Managing Director, Research Alliance Ruhr
Jurgen Hein
Jürgen Hein is managing director of the Research Alliance Ruhr, a cross-university cooperative based in Germany's traditional industrial heartland.
Jurgen Hein