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We're All Americans Now--Even Midwesterners

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Illinois Senator Barack Obama's election to the presidency is a historic triumph, a vindication of fundamental American values of decency, fairness, and inclusion over our oldest and darkest prejudice.

I'm referring, of course, to the deep-seated, unspoken, irrational hostility that most Americans have against Midwesterners.

There's something about people who are calm, safe, and centrally located that pill-popping, diet crazy, politically divided Middle Americans obsessed with sex and celebrities just can't stand.  But since elections in the U.S. are at the state level, presidential elections are our only political chance to see this horrible prejudice in operation.  Before Obama, the last five major-party Midwestern candidates for president--Bob Dole in 1996, Walter Mondale in 1984, Gerald Ford in 1976, George McGovern in 1972, and Hubert Humphrey in 1968--all lost.  Yes, Humphrey and Ford came close, but in the end, they just couldn't overcome the vicious opposition of the Heartland Haters.

Just think if Northeasterners had a record like that.  Every pundit in the country would blather endlessly about how Americans consider Northeasterners effete and too liberal and won't vote for them.  Oh wait--the pundits do that anyway.  Who needs evidence?

Not counting Ford, who was never elected, you could argue that the last Midwestern president was Eisenhower.  But if Americans liked Ike, it's because they were confused about whether he was really Midwestern.  Kansas claimed him, but so did Texas.  He lived in New York state when he first ran for president.  Having never before held office, he wasn't tied to the politics of any state like most politicians.  Besides which, any disadvantage he might have had was cancelled out and then some, because his opponent in both the 1952 and 1956 elections, Adlai Stevenson, was a far more flagrant Midwesterner.  Indeed, he was the governor of Illinois, giving him about as much chance of winning as a Bill Ayers/Jeremiah Wright ticket with Tony Rezko as campaign finance chair.

What about before Eisenhower?  Some might think Truman was Midwestern, but he would have told you Missouri is Southern; that made him all right.  Alf Landon of Kansas and Franklin Knox of Illinois made an all-Midwestern GOP ticket in 1936; not surprisingly, they won only two states.  To get to a real elected Midwestern president, you have to rewind to Ohioan Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1920.  But then, his Democratic opponent, James Cox, was also from Ohio.  I guess the Democrats just didn't want to win that year.

Before that, you get William Howard Taft of Ohio, who in 1908 managed to sneak into the Oval Office against hapless Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, then on his third unsuccessful run.  Once Taft got to 1912 and found himself up against two candidates from New Jersey and New York, Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, he finished in a dismal third place.  William McKinley, another Ohio president, also got in (in 1896 and 1900) only because he was running against Bryan.

No, to find a Midwesterner who actually beat a non-Midwesterner, you'd have to go all the way back to 1888, when Benjamin Harrison of Indiana managed to eke out a win over then-president and former New York governor Grover Cleveland.  It wasn't exactly an impressive victory.  Harrison lost the popular vote, and in the rematch four years later, he lost everything, badly, but oh well.  When you're a Midwesterner, you can't ask for much.

But what about Abraham Lincoln, you'll say?  Oh sure, Abe was a Midwesterner--General Grant too, for that matter.  Sentiment was very different in those days--so different that Midwesterners beat Northeasterners in five straight presidential elections from 1864-1880.  But those times are long gone.

It's not clear exactly when America developed its anti-Heartland bigotry.  Perhaps Ben Harrison's unpopularity as president sealed the deal around 1890.  More likely, people just figured out that when you're trapped between Ontario and Dixie, your potential is pretty limited.

Whatever the reason, Obama supporters never felt safe during the 2008 campaign, no matter how far he was ahead in the polls.  The suspicion was that people were only telling pollsters they supported him because they didn't want to admit they'd never vote for a Midwesterner--the so-called "Cincinnadley effect."  Dark rumors circulated that Obama was sure to lose, no matter what the polls said.

But all the fuss and worry turned out to be for naught.  For as we now know, Americans aren't really prejudiced against Midwesterners after all.

It's just white Midwesterners that we hate.

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Michael Lubin served on the first democratically elected governing board in the history of KPFA, the nation's oldest listener-sponsored radio station. There, he was a founding member of the pro-democracy listeners' (more...)

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