By Mark Athitakis
When I moved to Phoenix three years ago I expected to feel disconnected from my Midwestern roots. But it turned out a lot of Chicago had made its way here. The World Champion Chicago Cubs–how odd to write those words–maintain Spring Training facilities in nearby Mesa, and Chicago restaurants have chased the snowbirds and transplants: I have plenty of options when it comes to a decent Italian beef sandwich or Chicago-style pizza. I recommend Salerno’s, a longtime pizzeria from my old hometown of Berwyn, Illinois, that has since expanded to Gilbert, Arizona. Look for the parking lot full of Bears bumper stickers.
Nostalgic cultural-touchstone stuff like this has prompted Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to enthusiastically and repeatedly call Arizona “Chicago’s favorite suburb,” a line he used during his campaign in part to appeal to the state’s not-insignificant mass of white Midwestern expats. (Who else is flattered by being called a suburbanite?) But the quip also has an edge to it. One of Ducey’s stated campaign ambitions was to encourage Illinois businesses to skip town and head west, where they would be unshackled from taxes, regulations, and union rules.
“Illinois is so bad that we’re practically already Chicago’s favorite suburb!” he wrote in one piece of campaign literature. “I can help persuade employers they should be expanding and creating jobs here instead of enduring the headaches of high-tax states.”
It’s not just beloved pizza joints that are migrating from the state.He’s doing it; it’s not just beloved pizza joints that are migrating from the state. Since Ducey took office, the financial services company Northern Trust has moved workers from Chicago to Tempe, and Caterpillar’s expansion of its mining operations in Tucson is siphoning off about 600 jobs from multiple Midwestern headquarters. Arizona isn’t alone, of course; individual states do a lot of this sort of hustling for business, promoting workforce demographics (college grads with tech degrees!) and quality of life (so much hiking!) to encourage companies to set up shop or relocate.Tax incentives play a big role too: In 2014, multiple states competed to attract Tesla’s planned battery plant, and Nevada ultimately prevailed thanks to an estimated $1.3 billion in tax breaks. As the Verge reported, the deal means Tesla “will spend 20 years free from sales tax, and 10 years free from property tax, while it receives millions of dollars more in tax credits.”
In the best-case scenario, states that participate in all this maneuvering attract manufacturing businesses that create a diverse subeconomy of landscape workers, maintenance crews, retail, housing, and other skilled and semiskilled labor. Better that than a startup that arrives with office rent, a passel of server racks, and a staff of Whole Foods shoppers. But manufacturing has lagged since the Great Recession, and the Midwest is struggling to keep up: As governor of Indiana, Vice President-elect Mike Pence showed up at photo ops this year to promote the arrival of a Japanese steel company and the expansion of a Honda plant. But mostly his grip-and-grins involve companies like Salesforce, Octiv, and Determine, which have little need for people bearing only a high-school diploma. The Midwest has the highest percentage of Americans with that diploma, but it’s only slightly better than the South when it comes to bachelor’s degrees. College graduates still tend to live on the coasts.
Thinking about this and looking at the most recent electoral map, I’ve been trying not to reflexively conclude that the Midwest I grew up in–the one where my immigrant father worked for three decades at a locomotive manufacturing plant that has since moved most of its operations to Canada–is consumed with resentment. Yes, I know that not all Trump voters were low-educated, lower-class, middle-aged white men. But the flow of voters in the non-urban Midwest toward Trump this election is remarkable, and I think those Midwestern Trump voters can be taken at their word that they say they feel the economy has left them behind. The decline of manufacturing and rise of more portable and gig-economy jobs means there are fewer reasons for companies to be based around the Great Lakes, with its interstate and railroad hubs and shipping lanes.
It’s not always easy or appealing to relocate from Decatur to Tucson. People have roots, even if businesses don’t.Trump’s pitch to fix this is little more than magic beans and tax breaks. But his message resonated in the Rust Belt, I think, because in addition to the facts on the ground, plenty of Midwestern voters spent the Obama years being swayed on the idea that a) taxation was a confiscatory menace and that b) Midwestern manufacturing could be somehow miraculously revived to postwar levels. People who’ve been fed a line about government oppression have elected leaders in Illinois, Kansas, and Wisconsin who’ve taken on cut-your-way-to-growth approaches–and once those schemes fail to produce the promised Laffer Curve-ish prosperity, resentment abides. States like the one I now live in step in ready to exploit these anxieties, forcing states that want to keep their businesses to provide more giveaways for fewer decent-paying jobs. Jobs leave anyway, and not everybody can follow them. It’s not always easy or appealing to relocate from Decatur to Tucson. People have roots, even if businesses don’t.
President-elect Donald Trump visited my new home state six times during the campaign. He had no more reason to fear the state turning blue than Hillary Clinton needed to fear California turning red. He just liked the culture; his America lives here. I have little doubt that there were plenty of those Midwestern expats at his rallies who were persuaded by his message. Now, we all know for sure that the people in the region they left behind were listening too. But the businesses they’re hoping for are moving on. Chicago’s favorite suburb is everywhere.
Belt asked editors and authors of our books for their views on the media and the election based on their local perspectives. For other pieces in this ongoing series, see Eric Boyd’s view from Pittsburgh, Anna Clark’s argument for supporting journalism, Ted McClelland on the Rust Belt as political and economic bellwether, and more to come.
Mark Athitakis has written on books for many publications. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Barnes and Noble Review, and many other outlets. His book The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt is forthcoming from Belt in early 2017.