Populism and Identity Politics in the U.S. Heartland

Ann M. Oberhauser, Daniel Krier


The rise of populism on the political right in the U.S. and Europe in recent decades reflects a significant shift in political culture. This populism has been associated with the rejection of mainstream politics and increased hostility toward immigrants, racialized minorities, and other marginalized groups who are seen as threats to economic security and hegemonic social identities. In the U.S. Heartland, several key states flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016, sealing Trump’s win and leading to widespread debates about populist political attitudes in this region. This analysis draws from focus group discussions with community leaders in rural and micropolitan Iowa to understand how local discourses about economic and social change intersects with rising populist politics. Three characteristics of community life emerged as areas of concern among these groups; economic destabilization associated with neoliberalism, changes in social composition, and a profound sense of rurality. Our findings reveal how populism and identity movements on the political right are integrated with Heartland political culture, contributing to the recent electoral success of right-wing populist candidates. The discussion concludes with recommendations to promote a progressive and inclusive agenda for the Heartland and the U.S. as a whole.

Full Text:



Abramowitz, Alan I. 2018. The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump. Yale University Press.

Agnew, John and Michael Shin. 2020. Mapping Populism: Taking Politics to the People. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Alba, Richard and Nancy Foner. 2017. “Immigration and the Geography of Polarization.” City & Community 16 (3):239-243.

Amengay, Abdelkarim and Daniel Stockemer. 2018. “The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Meta-analysis of Structural Factors.” Political Studies Review 17(1):30-40.

Aurini, Janice D., Melanie Heath, and Stephanie Howells. 2016. The How to of Qualitative Research. London: SAGE.

Badger, Emily, Quoctrung Bui, and Adam Pearce. 2016. “The Election Highlighted a Growing Rural-Urban Split.” The New York Times. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/upshot/this-election-highlighted-a-growing-rural-urban-split.html ).

Ballotpedia. 2016. “Presidential Elections: The Road to the White House.” Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://ballotpedia.org/Presidential_election_in_Iowa,_2016).

Ballotpedia. 2020. “Presidential Election in Iowa, 2020.” retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://ballotpedia.org/Presidential_election_in_Iowa,_2020#Pivot_Counties_in_Iowa).

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. Guilford Publications.

Berlet, Chip and Spencer Sunshine. 2019. “Rural Rage: The Roots of Right-wing Populism in the United States.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 46(3):480-513.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2017. “Why Populism?” Theory and Society 46(5):357-385.

Caretta, Martina A. and Elena Vacchelli. 2015. “Re-thinking the Boundaries of the Focus Group: A Reflexive Analysis on the Use and Legitimacy of Group Methodologies in Qualitative Research.” Sociological Research Online 20(4):58-70.

Cohen, Patricia. 2017. “Immigrants Keep an Iowa Meatpacking Town Alive and Growing.” The New York Times. May 29. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/business/economy/storm-lake-iowa-immigrant-workers.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0 ).

Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Davey, Jacob and Julia Ebner. 2019. “‘The Great Replacement’: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 7. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/The-Great-Replacement-The-Violent-Consequences-of-Mainstreamed-Extremism-by-ISD.pdf).

Elazar, Daniel J. 1980. “Political Culture on the Plains.” Western Historical Quarterly 11(3): 261-283.

Embrick, David G., Scott Carter, Cameron Lippard, Bhoomi K. Thakore. 2020. “Capitalism, Racism, and Trumpism: Whitelash and the Politics of Oppression.” Fast Capitalism 17(1): 204-224.

Emont, Jon. 2017. “The Growing Urban-Rural Divide Around the World.” The Atlantic. January 4. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/01/electoral-college-trump-argentina-malaysia-japan-clinton/512153/ ).

Gabriel, Trip. 2019. “Before Trump, Steve King Set the Agenda for the Wall and Anti-Immigrant Politics.” The New York Times, January 10. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/us/politics/steve-king-trump-immigration-wall.html ).

Gimpel, James G. and J. Celeste Lay. 2008. “Political Socialization and Reactions to Immigration‐Related Diversity in Rural America.” Rural Sociology 73(2):180–204.

Giroux, Henry A. 2021. “The Plague of White Supremacy in the Age of Fascist Politics.” Fast Capitalism 18(1): 83-97

Goetz, Judith. 2021. “‘The Great Replacement’ - Reproduction and Population Policies of the Far Right, Taking the Identitarians as an Example.” DiGeSt Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies 8(1): 60-74.

Gökariksel, Banu and Sara Smith. 2016. ‘Making America Great Again’?: The Fascist Body Politics of Donald Trump. Political Geography 100(54):79-81.

Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. “From Brexit to Trump: Anthropology and the Rise of Nationalist Populism.” American Ethnologist 44(2):209-14.

Hainmueller, Jens and Daniel J. Hopkins. 2014. “Public Attitudes Toward Immigration.” Annual Review of Political Science 17: 225-49.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.

Hoganson, Kristin L. 2019. The Heartland: An American History. New York: Penguin Press.

Holloway, Sarah L. 2007. “Burning Issues: Whiteness, Rurality and the Politics of Difference.” Geoforum 38(1):7– 20.

Holstein, James A. and Jaber F. Gubrium. 2007. “Context: Working it Up, Down, and Across.” Pp. 267-281 in Qualitative Research Practice, edited by Clive Seale, Giampietro Gobo, Jaber F. Gubrium, and David Silverman. London: SAGE.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. 2019. Rural Iowa at a Glance – 2019 Edition. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://smalltowns.soc.iastate.edu/iowa-small-town-poll/).

Iyengar, Shanto and Masha Krupenkin. 2018. “The Strengthening of Partisan Affect.” Political Psychology 39:201-218.

Jacobs, Nicholas F. and B. Kal Munis. 2018. “Place-Based Imagery and Voter Evaluations: Experimental Evidence on the Politics of Place.” Political Research Quarterly 72(2):263-277.

Jardina, Ashley. 2019. White Identity Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jardina, Ashley. 2020. “In-Group Love and Out-Group hate: White Racial Attitudes in Contemporary U.S. Elections.” Political Behavior 43:1535-1559.

Jardina, Ashley and Robert Mickey. 2022. “White Racial Solidarity and Opposition to American Democracy.” ANNALS, AAPSS 699:79-89.

Johnson, Kenneth M., and Daniel T. Lichter. 2019. “Rural Depopulation: Growth and Decline Processes over the Past Century.” Rural Sociology 84(1):3-27.

Johnston, Ron, David Manley, and Kelvin Jones. 2016. “Spatial Polarization of Presidential Voting in the United States, 1992–2012: the “Big Sort” Revisited.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106(5):1047-1062.

Johnston, Ron, David Manley, Kelvin Jones, and Ryne Rohla. 2020. The Geographical Polarization of the American Electorate: A Country of Increasing Electoral Landslides? GeoJournal 85: 187-204.

Junod, Anne. 2014. Pro-and-anti Immigration Activities in Iowa’s 4th Congressional Districts: A Community Capitals Framework Perspective. MA thesis, Department of Sociology and Rural Studies, South Dakota State University. Brookings, SD.

Kelly, Paige and Linda Lobao. 2018. “The Social Bases of Rural-Urban Political Divides: Social Status, Work, and Sociocultural Beliefs.” Rural Sociology 8(4):669-705.

Kurtzleben, Danielle. 2016. “Rural Voters Played a Big Part in Helping Trump Defeat Clinton.” National Public Radio. Retrieved Septemeber 16, 2022 (https://www.npr.org/2016/11/14/501737150/rural-voters-played-a-big-part-in-helping-trump-defeat-clinton ).

Lamont, Michele. 2019. “From ‘Having’ to ‘Being’: Self-worth and the Current Crisis of American Society.” British Journal of Sociology 70(3):660-707.

Lay, J. Celeste. 2012. A Midwestern Mosaic: Immigration and Political Socialization in Rural America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Lay, J. Celeste. 2017. “Adjusting to Immigrants in Two Midwestern Communities: Same Outcome, Different Process.” Social Science Quarterly 98(5):1731-1748.

Lichter, Daniel T. and David L. Brown. 2011. “Rural America in an Urban Society: Changing Spatial and Social Boundaries.” Annual Review of Sociology 37 (1):565-92.

Lichter, Daniel T., Domenico Parisi, and Michael C. Taquino. 2018. “White Integration or Segregation? The Racial and Ethnic Transformation of Rural and Small Town America.” City & Community 17(3):702-719.

Macnaghten, Phil and Greg Myers. 2007. “Focus Groups.” Pp. 65-79 in Qualitative Research Practice, edited by Clive Seale, Giampietro Gobo, Jaber F. Gubrium, and David Silverman. London: SAGE.

McAdam, Doug and Karina Kloos. 2014. Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-war America. Oxford University Press.

Melcher, Cody R. 2021. “The Political Economy of ‘White Identity Politics’: Economic Self Interest and Perceptions of Immigration.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 44(2):293-313.

Metzl, Jonathan. 2019. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. New York: Basic Books.

MIT Election Data and Science Lab, 2018, “County Presidential Election Returns 2000-2016.” Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/VOQCHQ, Harvard Dataverse, V6, UNF:6:ZZe1xuZ5H2l4NUiSRcRf8Q== [fileUNF]).

Monnat, Shannon M. 2016. “Deaths of Despair and Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Elections.” The Pennsylvania State University Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education Research Brief – 12/04/16. Retrieved September 16, 2022 (https://aese.psu.edu/directory/smm67/Election16.pdf ).

Monnat, Shannon M. and David L. Brown. 2017. “More than a Rural Revolt: Landscapes of Despair and the 2016 Presidential Election.” Journal of Rural Studies 55:227– 36.

Morgan, Stephen L. and Jiwon Lee. 2018. “Trump Voters and the White Working Class.” Sociological Science 5:234-245.

Morrill, Richard, Larry Knopp, and Michael Brown. 2011. “Anomalies in Red and Blue II: Towards an understanding of the roles of setting, values, and demography in the 2004 and 2008 U.S. presidential elections.” Political Geography 30:153-168.

Mudde, Cas. 2007. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Mudde, Cas. 2019. “Riding the Fourth Wave.” IPPR Progressive Review 26(4):296-304.

Mudde, Cas and Christobal Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds.). 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, Lise, Laurie Trautman, and Peter B. Nelson. 2015. “Latino Immigrants and Rural Gentrification: Race, ‘Illegality,’ and Precarious Labor Regimes in the U.S.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105(4):841-58.

Oberhauser, Ann M., Daniel Krier, and Abdi M. Kusow. 2019. “Political Moderation and Polarization in the Heartland: Economics, Rurality, and Social Identity in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” The Sociological Quarterly 60(2):224-244.

Peters, David J., Peter A. Miller, and Andrew Hochstetler. 2019. “Understanding the Opioid Crisis in Iowa.” SOC 3088. ISU Extension Service.

Roediger, David R. 2005. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. New York: Basic.

Rooduijn, Matthijs. 2018. “What Unites the Voter Bases of Populist Parties? Comparing the Electorates of 15 Populist Parties.” European Political Science Review 10(3):351-368.

Scala, Dante J. and Kenneth M. Johnson. 2017. “Political Polarization along the Rural-Urban Continuum? The Geography of the Presidential Vote, 2000–2016.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 672(1):162-184.

Schaffner, Brian F., Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta. 2018. “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism.” Political Science Quarterly 133:9-34.

Scoones, Ian, Marc Edelman, Saturnino M. Borras, Ruth Hall, Wendy Wolford, and Ben White. 2018. “Emancipatory Rural Politics: Confronting Authoritarian Populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(1):1-20.

Seale, Clive, Giampietro Gobo, Jaber F. Gubrium, and David Silverman (eds.) 2007. Qualitative Research Practice London: SAGE.

Silva, Jennifer M. 2019. We’re still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, David N. and Eric Hanley. 2018. “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Critical Sociology 44 (2):195-212.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. Quickfacts, Iowa. 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/

DOI: https://doi.org/10.32855/fcapital.202201.003


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2022 Ann M. Oberhauser, Daniel Krier

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ISSN: 1930-014X