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Associated Press
GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan campaigns in Adel, Iowa, this week. Pundits are sweeping across the heartland as often as the candidates in an effort to divine the meaning of the 2012 election.

A big dose of heartland hope

Presidential campaigns, so wordy and stupefying, have a way of crowding out normal life. But as they career from one contested state to another, they do offer glimpses of parts seldom seen. Parts we might like to visit, if we had the time, and if only the candidates would quit blocking the scenery.

Paul Ryan’s not wholly happy stop in Iowa had me pining for state fairs. Why not more pictures of supersized swine and cows sculpted from butter?

As a child in the Midwest, I can remember a distinct sense of absence during the week in which our top 4-H members headed to the fair. They took their sheep and their pies and their sewing projects with them.

When they snagged purple ribbons, we basked in reflected glory.

This year, national media have been tripping over such youthful striving as they follow the candidates. Instead of zeroing in on feats of canning though, they report astonishment at how many ways you can perch fried food on a stick. They seem even more astonished at what the locals are thinking.

In the heartland, where practically everyone has been interviewed, it seems that person after person opposes help from the government. Yet often, these very same people are receiving it – Medicare or earned-income tax credits or unemployment checks.

The New York Times looked at this disconnect back in February, when it highlighted the people of Chisago County, Minn. So many spoke of self-reliance. It’s just that the economy was not exactly cooperating.

Seeking an explanation, the Times turned to a study by Dartmouth political science professor Dean P. Lacy. Since 1980, Lacy found, support for Republicans has been greatest in states where the federal government spends the most. Among the 100 counties with highest government dependence in 2008, two-thirds voted for John McCain.

Meanwhile, the safety net has been expanding to buoy the middle class.

Census Bureau figures show that in 2010, almost half of us lived in households receiving government benefits. In 1998, it was closer to a third.

A mix of guilt, frustration, resentment and pride goes into heartlanders’ view that we are becoming a nation of spongers.

Yet we are talking about families of five trying to get by on around $45,000 a year; families of five cushioned by the earned-income tax credit and free school breakfasts who believe they should get neither.

For political theorists, the gap between reality and our ideals is well-trod ground. Thomas Frank, for instance, in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” decided that Kansans could be relied on to ignore their own economic interests if you just waved the red cape of the culture wars in front of them.

But that was almost a decade ago, before the financial crisis invited some rethinking.

If these critics of the safety net lead self-contradictory lives, they are right about one thing: The country is living beyond its means.

The challenge is to distinguish sensible solutions from phony ones. Unfortunately, the presidential campaigns arrive at this hour of pressing needs trailing clouds of misinformation.

The pride pulsing in the heartland is one of our greatest national resources. Yet it is ripe for exploitation by the moneyed class, which has outsized control of Wall Street and Washington.

CEO pay, to take one example, remains the scandal that has ceased to scandalize. In 2010, the median pay among the top 100 CEOs had climbed to more than $14 million a year, while the average American earned about $45,000. But so far, companies have successfully quashed even a requirement that they disclose the ratio of CEO pay to median employee earnings.

Under the Romney-Ryan plan, top earners are on their way to even bigger breaks than they already get. Support from the anti-government crowd is their fondest hope.

Voters will have to ask themselves:

Are they casting a ballot for self-reliance or to preserve business as usual?

M.J. Andersen is a member of The Providence (R.I.) Journal’s editorial board.