Richard Longworth describing the "Midwestern" geography problem:
I understand that the Midwest Governors Association is about to launch a project on "rebranding the Midwest," presumably to give it a sharper image. A noble effort, to be sure, but perhaps a vain one, given the general confusion on just where the place even is.
Part of the Midwest's branding issues is the mega-region defies a common understanding. I think there is a common understanding of the geography. I like Erin Ladd's definition:
As this theory illustrates, the problem is that the Midwest as a region has become shorthand for “uninteresting.” When polled about the connotations of the word “Midwest,” people came up with such dour adjectives as flat, boring, and honest. The Midwest is really defined by what it isn’t, not by what it is.
Here’s what it’s not: the Northeast, the South, the West Coast, the Southwest. Here’s what it is: everything that doesn’t fit into those categories.
But, North Dakota doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with Missouri. Pittsburgh and Minneapolis don’t have any relation to each other whatsoever. And every state between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenys does not have a shared history. Even so, because we can’t be known as fiery Southerners or brusque New Englanders or wholly enlightened West Coast-ites, we get to be everything they’re not: flat, boring and honest.
The Midwest is everywhere that is nowhere. But that isn't a functional economic geography. Both Ladd and Longworth make the same erroneous presumption: The other regions are well-defined. Just so happens that people from the "South" think they know exactly where the Midwest is. Those from the "West Coast" share a similar certainty, but a different delineation. Regional geography is, after all, subjective.
I contend that the "Midwest" is a region that needs to be disaggregated and deconstructed. A paradigm of political economy should be the framework for your regional conception. I choose global cities, the dominant economic geography of our times.
The "South" has ceased to be relevant. A place's relationship with Atlanta is more telling. Is Florida a Southern state? Miami is not a Southern city. Divide Florida up between Atlanta and Miami. There's your regional border.
Now imagine a collection of geographic entities (e.g. towns and cities) with strong ties to Chicago. This Chicago Cartel could be a political force that gets around the constitutional bargain that privileges states over metros. Longworth has tried to use a Midwestern identity to get Rust Belt states ravaged by globalization to stop the zero-sum nonsense: Collaborate and prosper.
The confusion about where the Midwest is stems from an antiquated notion of how to define a region. I remember being frustrated teaching World Regional Geography at the University of Colorado. Talking about economic globalization within that framework (developed during the age of imperialist Britain) was difficult. It's an urban world dominated by a network of global cities. Karachi isn't just another South Asian instant city. It's Pakistan's global city. The migration to Karachi tells a story that defines a functional region. Every global city in "South Asia" tells a different migration story. "South Asia" is meaningless and therefore difficult to define.
I suggest dropping the pretense of "Midwest" and pointing out the impressive reach of Chicagoland. How far does it stretch? Answer that question and then set about retooling geographic education in our schools.