The Return of the Rust Belt and the Populist Moment

Application Deadline

This conference considers the “Rust Belt” through various thematic, methodological and disciplinary angles. The Rust Belt is a rather loose name for the deindustrialized region around the Great Lakes, encompassing all or parts of the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania as well as several northwestern counties of New York state.

Because of its mining and industrial past, this region used to be a solid Democratic stronghold, clearly out of the reach of Republicans, at least at the level of presidential elections. Its demographic decline after World War 2 led to a lesser weight in the electoral college and it seemed to have lost any decisive role in nationwide ballots. However, the working class has increasingly drifted away from the Rooseveltian coalition and poor people have seemingly been voting against their economic interest. Moreover, the sense of dispossession and abandonment has contributed to boost populism, as the Trump vote as well as the Brexit vote have illustrated.

In the United States, the 2016 presidential election has unquestionably put the Rust Belt back on the electoral map and has reawakened long-gone media interest in it. Indeed, small majorities in a few Rust Belt states enabled Donald Trump to carry those states and their electors and gave him a majority in the Electoral college, despite trailing Mrs Clinton in the popular vote.
Stanley Greenberg, who identified the “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, interviewed the “Trump Democrats” in 2016 - those voters who used to cast ballots for Democratic candidates but chose to support Trump this time. Other investigations have shown that voters in such Midwestern states as Indiana as well as in the Rust Belt could vote for a local Democrat as well as Donald Trump for President on the very same day.

More recently, in March 2018, the victory of “blue dog” Democrat Conor Lamb in a Pennsylvania district that Trump had carried easily in 2016 reignited the debate around the Democrats’ ability to reconquer what had come to be known as “Trump country.”

If populism is not to be found exclusively in deindustrialized areas such as the Rust Belt, it remains clear that “Rust Belts” are fertile soil for populist movements on the left as much as on the right of the political spectrum.

It is in this context of rising populism in the United States and in Europe that the Rust Belt becomes (again) an invaluable object of interest in the political and cultural landscape in the United States. Yet it is also a region that has been undergoing tremendous (urban) renewal, whose economy has adjusted to the new Millennium, far from the Manichean stereotypes of decay and a region that had been long been ignored by journalists and politicians as opposed to the Sun Belt, from California and Texas to Florida and Virginia.
This conference, to be held in June 2019, aims to reexamine the Rust Belt between the midterm elections of November 2018 and the presidential and congressional elections of 2020, where the role of the Rust Belt may again be decisive.

Proposals should try to fit one or several of the following categories:

  • The rebirth of cities and its electoral impact (urban renewal, gentrification, transportation, technological and industrial innovation). Electoral impact is understood at the federal level (Presidency, Congress) and at the local level (state assemblies, especially in cases of split voting, e.g., Trump Democrats).
  • The transformations in the various rings of suburbs and exurbs (demographic, social and political diversification).
  • Economic and health challenges (“deaths of despair,” decreasing life expectancy, opioid crisis) affecting rural communities and small towns.
  • The impact of two years of “Trumponomics” on the US-Canada border in the context of NAFTA and its renegotiation, the transborder connections and fluxes between the US and Canadian metros and provinces.
  • Local political changes, in particular in the context of anti-labor, “right-to-work” laws.
  • The battles around gerrymandering and the partisan distortion of local representation, in the context of Court decision invalidating exaggeratedly partisan maps (Pennsylvania, North Carolina).
  • Energy (coal – clean or not – and shale oil) and environmental issues, as well as their impact on jobs and elections.
  • The perceptions and representations of the Rust Belt in films and TV series since 2000.
  • We also invite comparisons with neighboring regions (the more rural Midwest, Appalachia) as well as with other Rust Belts in Europe (mining regions in Britain, North and Eastern France, the Ruhr in Germany).

Proposals, about 300 words, should be sent to fdechantal@univ-paris-diderot.fr, lauric.henneton@uvsq.fr, guillaume.poiret@u-pec.fr by Oct. 15, 2018, along with a brief bio / bibliographic introduction.

Organizing committee : Guillaume Poiret (UPEC), François Vergniolle de Chantal (Université Paris Diderot), Lauric Henneton (UVSQ)