Natasha Loder, The Economist’s Midwest correspondent, makes a point during her March 22 presentation, which she titled “Dispatches from the Elusive Midwest.”
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The Midwest has an identity crisis, a correspondent for international newsmagazine The Economist told a Monmouth College class last week.
Natasha Loder, who serves as the London-based weekly’s Midwest correspondent, was invited to campus by political science lecturer Robin Johnson to speak to his “Politics and Government in the Midwest” class. She also spoke to a class taught by Johnson’s department colleague, Professor Ira Smolensky.
In addition to covering stories about Midwestern politics, Loder also writes about U.S. education, agriculture and, at times, infrastructure. Before joining the paper, she worked at the journal Nature as a news reporter. In 2004, she was given an award for Outstanding Journalism for a piece about aquaculture, and in 2009 the United Nation’s Correspondent’s Association awarded her a medal for her reports on forests and climate change.
Loder illustrated her talk with several slides demonstrating the disjointed nature of the Midwest’s identity. One showed that only one of the 10 states that typically constitute the region – Iowa – is affiliated only with the Midwest when it comes to multi-state associations. North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, for example, are also affiliated with the Western Governors’ Association, and even very traditional Midwest states such as Illinois and Indiana have other affiliations.
Another graphic showed that the Midwest lacks a unity of purpose that would benefit the region. It was a photo of a billboard near the Illinois-Indiana border, encouraging people who were “Illinoyed” by higher taxes to flock to Indiana instead. She said there are similar “turf wars” elsewhere, including on the Kansas-Missouri border near Kansas City.
“It makes sense for the Midwest to market itself as a region,” Loder said. “But it needs to brand itself as something more than just ‘We’re really nice.’”
In fact, she said, when trying to think of a slogan for the Midwest, the best she could come up with was “Can I give you a ride home?”
The key to the Midwest’s success, she said, is to keep its “brain power” in the region. A city that grasps that concept is Carmel, Ind., which has redesigned itself with “a new urbanism.” Carmel’s leaders didn’t focus on bringing more jobs or factories to town, she said, but rather on making “a livable city.” Without the luxury of a lakefront or beaches, Carmel was able to do that successfully, regularly ranking high among the most livable cities in the U.S.
As a whole, she said, the Midwest “needs to build places for people to live. There’s not enough reason for people to stay here. One of the metrics that really matters is the percentage of college graduates in a city. You need to get people who are smart. ... Cheap housing, great people and family living are nice, but I need more than that.”
Loder said she began talking to Johnson to try to answer the question, “Does the Midwest really exist?”
“Based on my experience, no, it doesn’t exist as a distinct region,” she answered. When she was originally assigned as the Midwest correspondent, she added, “I felt I’d been sent to Athens as the Atlantis correspondent.
“It’s an idea, though, and ideas are powerful. It’s not pixie dust and fairies.”