The growing urban-rural divide in politics

Published on Sunday, 12 August 2018 20:50
Written by Ishaan Tharoor

The Washington Post

Tuesday was another Election Day in the United States, and the marquee showdown was a special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district. At the time of writing, the race was still too close to call . But the theme of the results was clear, no matter the winner.

The district, which covers a swath of suburbs and rural areas near the state capital, Columbus, has been solidly Republican for more than three decades. It went decisively for President Donald Trump in 2016. But this year, turnout surged in suburban areas and propelled Democratic challenger Danny O’Connor to a virtual tie with his GOP opponent, Troy Balderson.

That glaring gap in enthusiasm between the more urban parts of the district and its less-populated rural areas underscored the challenge facing Trump and his party. “Republicans will need to find a way to win back suburbanites or better galvanize rural voters,” wrote the New York Times. “If they do not, their House majority will slip away.”

Dave Wasserman tweeted “It’s hard to lose $$ betting on a widening urban/rural divide this year”

Geography, as the saying goes, is destiny - even more so in an era of deepening political polarization. And Trump’s America is hardly alone in this phenomenon.

When Trump went to Poland last year and delivered a speech in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square, the jubilant crowd cheering his blood-and-soil rhetoric was by and large not from the capital. The ruling Law and Justice Party had bused in thousands of supporters from outlying parts of the country, including towns and villages along Poland’s border with Slovakia. Warsaw residents are far more likely to protest the PiS, as the illiberal party is known, as they did last month during massive demonstrations against government moves to Poland’s judiciary.

In Turkey, a similar dynamic has long been at work. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan counts on pious conservative voters in the Anatolian hinterland to overwhelm his secular and left-leaning opponents, who live disproportionately in the country’s coastal cities. Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, at the helm of Europe’s nationalist vanguard, is far less popular in Budapest than elsewhere in his country. The push for Brexit and the electoral gains of the far right in France and Germany all required the mobilization of voters living outside major urban centers.

“The anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-Erdogan, anti-Orban city dwellers tend to be richer and better educated than their political opponents,” wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. “By contrast, the rallying cry that unites fans of Mr Trump, Brexit, Mr Erdogan or Mr Orban is some version of a promise to make their countries ‘great again.’ Urbanites are also more likely to have travelled or studied abroad, or to be recent immigrants. More than one-third of the populations of New York and London, for example, were born overseas.”

On one hand, there’s nothing particularly new about the urban-rural divide. Modern politics have been historically shaped by the tensions between the dynamism of cities and the relative stasis of the provinces, hidebound by feudalism and poverty. Town and country divisions - and the cultural enmities they foster - stretch back to antiquity.

But the inexorable urbanization of the world means that cities are, more than ever, the center of gravity in global politics, culture and the economy. In many democratic European societies that shift has bred marginalization and resentment.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Sunday, 12 August 2018 20:50. Updated: Sunday, 12 August 2018 20:52.