America’s Industrial Heartland has played a disproportionate role in America’s economic history and our politics. The twelve-state region stretching from Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri in the west along the Great Lakes and Ohio valleys to Pennsylvania and New York in the east has been the birthplace of great industries like steel, petroleum, automobiles and aviation that propelled the American century. Also home to the hotly contested political “swing states” that helped give Donald Trump the White House in 2016, the region continues to be in the national spotlight in our political discourse.

Today, that part of the country, often unfairly referred to as the “Rustbelt,” is, in reality, two Midwesterns. One of the old manufacturing communities that have made the transition to a new, more diverse economy in a changing world, alongside many industrial cities that have lost their anchor employers, are still struggling.

In Europe and the United Kingdom, there are industrial core regions of similar historical significance which, like the United States, are in an unevenly shared economic transition. The struggling communities in the former regions of industrial power provide fertile ground for leaders who play with attitudes of nativism, nationalism and nostalgia – and often fuel anti-democratic behavior and sentiments. But as we wrote for the Brookings Institution, where former “Rust Belt” communities are finding new economic foundations, the appeal of resentful populism wanes as residents have more hope for it. the future.

Differences in economic opportunity by geography remain a root cause of our polarized politics. How to fill these gaps? How can our leaders at national and local levels best support effective economic transition efforts both at home and among our democratic allies?

These are the questions we raised with 125 leaders from eight Western democracies at a transatlantic summit held earlier this year. Our recently released report shares insights and conclusions as leaders explored: the causes and challenges posed to democracies by populist movements; the links between economic conditions and populist sentiment; and effective policies and practices for economic transformation in struggling industrial regions.

There is an urgent need for our leaders to implement policies, practices and strategies that facilitate economic development and create new opportunities for residents of former industrial regions, if we are to tackle a root cause of the attractiveness of the world. populism that polarizes our politics.

As Briton Rachel Wolf, founding partner of Public First, told us:

The reason we care so much. . . these regions is basically because we are very concerned about politics. We fear that across the developed world there are seismic changes taking place in the types of politicians we vote for, the types of parties we vote for, and what that means for everything from transatlantic trade policy to tariffs. customs, the principles of globalization and free markets, up to the national immigration policy [. . .] and the extent to which we are able to take action on climate change, as well as general economic policy.

As we have observed in recent years, such polarized politics at home threatens the health of transatlantic cooperation and of our democracies themselves. The most important conditions for sustaining undemocratic populism are economic and emerge from within our own borders. It is the inability to reduce geographic economic disparities and opportunity gaps, especially disparities between prosperous global urban regions and industrial hub communities, where many residents feel ignored, despised and protected by politicians. national.

Residents’ economic concerns, fears of losing their place in a changing world, and perceptions of community decline can increase the appeal of populist messages of nativism, nationalism, isolationism and economic nostalgia.

Those on the left and the right are able to fan the flames of these populist movements and the polarization that accompanies them. But as we learned at the event, it is the right-wing variant that encourages undemocratic behavior and mistrust of institutions and the press, leading to a breakdown in support for the civil rights of others and fueling a fierce political polarization that undermines democracies. .

But while many of the root causes of these populist movements are economic, the solutions are inherently political.

Leaders who wish to tackle these root causes must win elections and then empower industrial communities to chart their own path to a better economic future while providing the resources and support needed to make it happen.

The good news is that there is a middle way that can bring people together and win elections. It’s a program about local pride, place, jobs, opportunities, and even making the planet a better place to inherit their children.

But the challenge is how to get started – how to communicate and connect effectively with residents of struggling economic regions and how to help them reinvigorate local and regional economies.

To effectively help struggling communities, leaders must first see things like residents: sadness and anger at the exhaustion of communities; the flight of young people; the loss of local schools and sports leagues; main streets and high degraded; and lost cultural facilities, union halls, local newspapers, family shops, taverns and restaurants. The loss of opportunities and the decline of the institutions that build and strengthen civic pride lead to a loss of sense of identity.

In cities and towns that still struggle economically, leadership that focuses on people and pays attention to their tangible and immediate needs can create “permission” to be heard on more important things. Bringing in the necessary external resources and investments to implement solutions to short-term signs of community distress and degradation can build trust between communities and national leaders – a trust that will build support and acceptance of the community. ” additional investments that can advance their economies more substantially, such as with larger-scale investments in people, infrastructure, skills and innovation.

We have also learned that an effective plan for community economic revitalization and renewal must come from within. It should be owned and operated by residents and community leaders.

Change cannot be ‘made to’ one community or seen to come from others, even if the change is supported by good intentions. From West Germany entering the former East to rebuild its economy, to the European Union telling Central European communities they must go green, to American coastal progressives offering “solutions” to the people and places of the Heartland – such efforts, while well-intentioned, can have the unintended consequence of triggering negativity and resentment and reminding residents of the industrial community of their loss of control.

And instead of treating old industrial communities as ‘in need of change’, a hopeful new future can be built by embracing and building on a community’s historical identity, projecting it into the world. future. Harnessing the pride of the residents of these hearted industrial communities and their heritage of doing things and contributing to the economic and political success of their country.

Perhaps the most important lesson for the leaders is that in order to reinforce the new success of these industrial regions and to nourish optimism among the residents of the community, one must refrain from speaking to them, condescending them or looking at them. with pity. Residents don’t like being called ‘left behind’ (in the US) or needing to ‘take it to the next level’ (in the UK). They don’t see themselves as “post-industrial”, living in “Rust Belts” or in need of “restructuring”.

What residents need to hear from their leaders is: “We see you. We understand why you are unhappy with the conditions in your community. You and your community and your future success is a national priority. We are here to support you and provide you with resources to build your own future. “

There is a real urgency to this work. Anti-democratic populist movements continue to pose a threat to our democracies. The report from that summit provides a starting guide for the messages our leaders need to send, and work leaders at all levels need to do to catalyze real opportunity and optimism in these critical areas of our countries.

The future of industrial centers and their inhabitants must be at the center of the agenda of our leaders in the United States and with our allies in Europe.

The stakes are high. Unless local and federal leaders in Western countries focus on and accelerate the economic success of people and places where residents are alienated and feel ignored or despised, these citizens will continue to pursue polarizing populist politics that undermines both our democracies and our western alliance.

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a non-resident principal investigator at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution.

Jeff Anderson is a professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

Brian Hanson is vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Juergen Hein is director Ruhr-Conference, State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Andy Westwood is Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester, UK.

Image: Reuters.