Keith Orejel

  • Fellowship year:2014-2015
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: Factories in the Fallows: The Political Economy of America's Rural Heartland
  • Keith Orejel's dissertation examines the political and economic transformation of America's rural heartland after World War II.  Focusing on rural and small-town communities in southern Iowa and northern Arkansas, Orejel shows how the massive loss of jobs to farm mechanization and mineral depletion led millions of people to flee the American countryside.  Starting in the 1940s, small-town business leaders led a grassroots campaign to end this "rural crisis" by producing factories for their home communities.  Through rural industrial development achieved little initial success, by the 1960s, corporations were relocating branch plants to the countryside en masse.  Rural America's industrial boom petered out by the late 1970s, but manufacturing growth produced a long-lasting political transformation.  In their pursuit of capital investment, local leaders constructed a unique brand of "small-town business politics" that defined categorization as either liberal or conservative.  Local boosters favored robust federal spending on infrastructural improvements in roads and utilities, while lampooning government expenditures that did not benefit private enterprise.  In the realm of labor relations, small town business leaders did not inherently oppose workers' rights, but argued that unionization and labor strife undermined their pursuit of capital investment and corporate relocation.  In other policy arenas, such as taxation and government administration, local boosters argued that business principles and corporate style managerial techniques would eliminate waste and maximize efficiency.  As many communities acquired industrial plants between 1955 and 1975, small-town business leaders convinced a majority of the rural electorate that their centrist, pro-business vision would produce continual prosperity and economic growth.  During the 1950s and 1960s, rural voters expressed their newfound political sensibilities by favoring "middle-of-the-road" Republican politicians, such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, while rejected candidates that strayed too far to the left or right.