To counter extreme politics, revive global democracies’ Rust Belts – Brookings Institution

As the Biden administration attempts to reforge global alliances and reanimate U.S. leadership of the international community, one place to begin that work is, surprisingly, right here in the American Rust Belt.

This work involves helping our leaders identify and animate policies, practices, and strategies that accelerate economic success for the Midwest’s older industrial regions. These are the geopolitically significant places where many residents feel alienated and left behind—conditions that create fertile ground for the nativism, nationalism, isolationism, and economic nostalgia that empower populist leaders and nurture the fierce political polarization that is undermining Western democracies. These forces won’t be overcome until their root conditions are treated.

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that when older industrial communities continue in decline, residents are receptive to the polarizing messages of populists and nativists. Conversely, we are beginning to see examples that show when former Rust Belt communities do secure new economic footing, the lure of populism wanes.

This has been the case recently in the American Midwest swing states, where residents of former Rust Belt regions that have made the transition to a new economy exhibit different attitudes and voting patterns than communities that still struggle. In regions anchored by resurgent industrial communities such as Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Mich.—as well as a number of smaller Midwest former industrial communities that have turned an economic corner—we observe powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia and toward moderate centrism. This was true in both the 2018 U.S.

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