A road goes through a grassy area with trees in the background

Midwest History Conference seeks to unravel assumptions about region that holds national political prominence

While the last two presidential elections have put the Midwest in the spotlight, the region and its complexity still are often misunderstood.

The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies aims to generate a fuller understanding of the region through its annual Midwest History Conference. After a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, this year's virtual conference on May 26-27 focuses on the theme of "The Midwest at the Intersection of Past and Present."

"Through both the 2016 and 2020 elections, the Midwest played a crucial role," said Jakob Bigard, who is organizing the conference for the Hauenstein Center. "As the region continues to diversify socially, culturally, economically and politically, we must renew our assumptions about the Midwest."

The conference, which is being done in collaboration with Midwestern History Association, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, will feature scholars and cultural commentators who are immersed in studies of the Midwest.

Both days of the conference will include panel discussions, roundtables and breakout sessions on a wide range of topics, from foodways in the Midwest to the many different cultural experiences for those living in the region.

Covering the Midwest's diversity is a central component of the conference because scholars who study Midwestern history have identified that importance, said Sara Egge, president of the Midwestern History Association.

Sara Egge: "Agricultural and environmental historians of the region are also challenging notions that the area was one flat landscape cut by a few important waterways but one with many different environments and natural elements."

Trees on a hill bathed in sunlight
Landscape of sand with trees in the background
The entry to a forest

Exploring the region's diversity is also important in the quest to deconstruct one-dimensional assumptions many have about the Midwest, Egge added.

"The Midwest as a region is incredibly diverse today, but it also has a remarkably diverse past," Egge said. "The region was home to people with distinct and divergent religious, racial, ethnic, gender, class and other identities, and its history is far more complex than people realize."

As for the key role the Midwest has played in the last two presidential elections, historians who study the Midwest note that the region has always held significant political power, Egge said. 

In those elections specifically, Egge said, influences and factors included outspoken Midwestern politicians, early primaries in states like Iowa, and the mathematical importance in the Electoral College for states such as Michigan or Wisconsin.

"Midwestern politics has often been polarized, and elections in many decades were decided by razor-thin margins, which meant that politics were open for debate in spaces both public and private," Egge said. "Individual politicians from the Midwest also have played outsized roles in governing, whether in Congress or as president, and state politics have shifted national stances on political issues like Prohibition or educational policies."


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