In North America and Europe, the erosion of the economies of the industrial heartlands has given rise to a new populism that, in its extremes, has posed a challenge to fundamental democratic principles. Since 2021, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a collaborative group of partners —Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies, the Michigan Economic Center, Policy@Manchester at the University of Manchester, and the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Chicago— convened more than 100 federal, state, and local leaders; policymakers; and economy-building practitioners from Europe and North America to discuss these issues, and explore effective policies and practices for economic transition in struggling industrial regions. I attended the workshop of these researchers and practitioners on November 11, 2022, in Ann Arbor, MI, to discuss their findings and spoke on a panel about how regions are adapting to this transformation.
This effort, Transforming Industrial Regions of North America and Europe: Opportunity and Imperative, has built on research conducted by an international team of scholars who have conducted research on the links between deindustrialization, widespread disaffection, and the rise of authoritarian states. Two recent books capture the arc of this global threat to democratic institutions. In There is nothing for you here: Finding opportunity in the 21st Century, historian Fiona Hill, yes that Fiona Hill, draws on her youth in a deindustrialized region of England, her study of deindustrialization and the rise of Putin in Russia, and the similarities to the patterns in the United States. The Disregarded: A study on the importance of regional perspectives for the great transformation by Florian Ranft, Paulina Fröhlich, and Johanna Siebert conducted interviews in four structurally weak regions of Germany to understand how people view the future for themselves, their region, and their country. Their primary concerns are social challenges and the fairness of socio-economic transformations. These concerns are more important than but also exacerbated by climate change and the efforts to adapt to it, which may further structural weaknesses and erode social conditions.
Deindustrialization disconnects a region from the national and global economies. As the process becomes a chronic state, disaffection is widespread. Without a new economic logic or connection to opportunity, these regions and their residents are more driven by what will support their needs, but if those needs remain ignored, then issues are replaced by identity as the driving force in politics. It is both interesting and frightening how similarly these scenarios play out in different parts of the world. The timing and severity of the effects of deindustrialization and disaffection can be moderated by strong institutions and social supports but as we have seen in the United States, continued disaffection can erode trust in basic democratic function like elections.
Without a new economic logic or connection to opportunity, these regions and their residents are more driven by what will support their needs, but if those needs remain ignored, then issues are replaced by identity as the driving force in politics.
In my own experience as an academic and practitioner, living, working, and researching the transformation of the Pittsburgh region from an industrial powerhouse to an emerging technology hub, this research has been enlightening. Pittsburgh is often cited as a success story, but what success has been achieved was forty years in the making. Our success has also been uneven with many people and communities left behind on terms dictated by race, class, education, and geography. The goal of an inclusive and equitable economy is not a riddle to be solved, but a work that is always in progress.
Fourth Economy’s vision is a world where people are empowered to be co-creators of a sustainable economy that works for everyone. One of the challenges of deindustrialization is ensuring all people and communities are able to participate in an inclusive and equitable economy. If you are interested in exploring a path to transformation in your community, reach out to us today! In the meantime, explore our projects, here.