Canvassers, candidates and (I suppose) certain pockets of religious enthusiasts hear things the rest of us don’t. They knock on doors. They talk to strangers. They listen to the background hum of humanity closely enough to make out instrumentation and lyrics. They know when something’s out of tune.
When you knock doors around here, you get lots of retired folks. And all of them sing a similar song; one about kids or grandkids who fled their home state for the excitement of Los Angeles, New York, the Pacific Northwest or even farther off.
You might get the impression that many young, bright, talented people with the means to leave are doing just that. And you’d be right. An Indiana University report from last year projects that Indiana’s population growth rate in this decade will be less than half of what it was in the 1990s. In fact, the overall working-age population is projected to decline.
Why is this happening?
I asked the social media universe about why they left, and I got a lot of answers like these: “Indiana has nothing to offer anyone.” “No offense but the Midwest is too conservative and too Jesus for me.” “The Midwest is just behind the times.” “All the smart people left.”
My first reaction is visceral. I love the Midwest. How could anyone want to leave it? And yet, confronted with all this naysaying about our world of little pink houses and amber waves of grain, the dissonant buzz of my own experience as a lifelong Hoosier swells until it cannot be ignored. Of course they want to leave.
Many other places do things better than we do. But it’s more than that. The Midwest has top universities. Our kids go to them, walk in a ceremony, throw their hats in the air and then promptly flee to the coasts. We have good-paying jobs for professionals, even in rural areas, but the upwardly mobile don’t want ‘em because — gross. Indiana? Kentucky? Ohio? Come on. We have good real estate at low prices and safe schools; fresh bait for young families. They’re not biting. Why not?
The ugly truth is that there’s a stigma attached to this region. This stigma lies beyond the realm of purely economic concerns. The art, the culture and the people, all are of a lesser variety, or so the unspoken criticism goes. We even believe it ourselves. We don’t represent, in the collective American psyche, the pinnacle of human achievement that we all so desperately want to be a part of. We are compelled to be at that apex even for a year or two, at least until we move someplace cheaper, somewhere we’re not breathing smoke all the time, somewhere where we can have dogs and yards and cars. Northern California? Colorado? Upstate New York? Connecticut? But god, not the Midwest.
I asked people who stuck around what keeps them here. About half the answers were not too encouraging (the other half I’ll get to in a later column). “My healthcare tied to my employment coupled with economic depression inhibiting my ability to move as single parent.” “Lack of funds/credit to move anywhere else.” “Inertia and a mortgage?”
There are pragmatic reasons to care about our brain drain, even for those who will never love the people of this region and who will never be nostalgic for tractors or bourbon or tenderloin sandwiches. The migration of talented, compassionate, forward-thinking people from the Midwest is everyone’s problem. Remember the election of 2016 without pain, if you can. If you cannot, consider the Senate and think ahead to 2020. Indiana’s two senators have just as much power as any senator from any Blue State your children will flee to because they just can’t stand the oh-so-backwards Midwest. And who’s that guy from Kentucky? The single most powerful man in American politics? Oh, right. Who gave him that mantle? The better question is: Who was here to stop him from taking it?
So here we are — the politically powerless have to stay, reactionary megalomaniacs want to stay, everyone else leaves and we all suffer for it.
Can the Midwexit be stopped? If so, how?
This question creates such a cacophonous racket that it’s going to take more than one column to sort out. Stay with me, and send me your thoughts in the meantime.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.