At Michigan’s crossroads, people rejoice as their voices are finally heard

Michigan’s geography is unique among US states. Situated entirely on two peninsulas, it borders all but one of the Great Lakes. But its unique geography leads to a much more easily defined division within the state — those who live on the Lower Peninsula, about 97 percent of the population, and “Yoopers” on the Upper Peninsula.

The only thing connecting the two peninsulas directly is the Mackinac Bridge, which runs from the tiny communities of St. Ignace in the north and Mackinaw City in the south. Combined with nearby Mackinac Island, the population of the area is just under 4,000 people. But despite the relatively low number of residents, the area is extremely important economically to the state as a whole.

Mackinac Island as seen from Fort Mackinac

Tourism is the name of the game here. On the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet, and only a few hours from Lake Superior to the north, it is the most visited site in Michigan. Dotting the area are historic lighthouses, forts, and numerous ships — as well as the Mackinac Bridge itself — the longest suspension bridge in the United States. Outdoor recreation is also a major draw — aquatic sports, nearby state and national parks, campsites, and hiking trails are easy to come by here.

During the summer the population balloons, filling not only with tourists but also with summer workers manning the numerous shops and restaurants catering to them. Fireworks light up the sky and the lake every Friday during the Summer, and the atmosphere is generally very relaxed and fun-loving.

Fireworks as seen from St. Ignace

But Northern Michiganders, and especially Yoopers, have grown weary over the decades of the political domination of southern Michigan — centered primarily on Detroit. While southern Michigan’s economy has been centered primarily on manufacturing and industry, the Upper Peninsula has always been rich in natural resources. But Yoopers have always felt overlooked and even exploited by southern Michiganders, even going so far as to have an occasional secession movement.

Nowadays, with Detroit serving primarily as a cautionary tale of what a failed city looks like rather than the beacon of success it had been during its heyday, rural Michigan has seized their opportunity to make their voices heard. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won the state, and during the general election Michigan was one of the biggest shocks as it flipped from a blue wall state to a red state by the narrowest of margins — less than half a percent.

But in the three counties surrounding the Mackinac Strait, it was never even close. Trump dominated by 2-1 margins across the board, and during the primaries both he and Sanders saw similar numbers. The message was clear: rural Michigan was fed up with politics as usual, and with Detroit’s collapse as well as other political crises, like the Flint water fiasco, Michigan had been on the receiving end of chicanery and incompetence more than most states.

Yoopers felt especially vindicated by Trump’s victory. Long the reddest part of Michigan, they had grown accustomed to their votes essentially being flushed by the more populous and more liberal southern part of the state. But a shrinking population, low voter turnout, and voters flipping down there finally had them joining with their northern brethren to oust what they see as the political establishment which has left them voiceless and powerless for so long.

Mackinaw City hotel district

Whether this becomes a long-term trend or was just a one-time truce will largely depend on the perception of how President Trump does to help the troubled state. For those in the Mackinac area, this means a return to normalcy when it comes to tourism and respect for their contribution to the state’s general economic situation. But make no mistake, there is a strong nativist sentiment here as well.

Michigan as a whole is in the top five for number of Muslims by percentage, and Dearborn is second only to New York as having the largest number of adherents. This has led to a strong backlash among many in more traditionalist areas, leading to a large nativist movement within the state.

This nativism is primarily centered in rural areas, like those of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, but oddly it doesn’t seem to have much footing in the Mackinac area. Perhaps it is due to the constant influx of tourists of all backgrounds, or perhaps the area’s status as a crossroads by both land and sea has led it to be more open to outside perspectives. Or maybe they are simply better at hiding xenophobia and islamophobia than other areas. Either way, the primary reasons cited as to why most people in this area voted for Trump are almost exclusively economic.

Fort Mackinac as seen from the lake

Michigan as a whole appears poised to flip back to blue as Democrats in the state are especially motivated right now. But the right has not lost the fire that gave them the historic victories they saw in 2016, and they are hoping to turn that into momentum. Which way Michigan goes in the future is largely dependant on how the southern part of the Lower Peninsula goes, but for a brief moment, Yoopers felt that their voices were heard for a change.

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