A Global Phenomenon

 A few days ago, a reader of this blog asked me to address the global growth of populism. 

It’s a question I’ve had as well; as regular readers know, one of my sons lives in Amsterdam, and in the recent election in the Netherlands, he and I were both appalled when a far-Right figure won the majority of votes cast. (That “majority” was 24%, and it looks like he’ll be unable to form a government without substantially modifying his agenda–there are virtues to parliamentary systems. But still…) 

An article about the Netherland’s election attributed the rise of populism there to the country’s growing urban/rural divide, and when I did some research, I found a number of scholarly papers supporting that thesis.

One paper advancing the argument that the urban/rural divide is what is powering populism was titled “Europe’s widening rural–urban divide may make space for far right.” That researcher argued that the divide between rural and urban areas has threatened the political trust and social cohesion necessary to stable governance, and that far-right political movements are “taking advantage of rural discontent to win seats in parliaments.”

Over the past decade, incomes have been consistently higher in urban areas than in rural areas. In fact, between 2012 and 2021, the rural–urban gap in incomes increased by almost 20%. This is not surprising when we consider that employment rates have also been consistently higher in urban areas than in rural areas (this is another widening gap, albeit not as dramatic)….

This growing rural–urban divide is not likely to reverse anytime soon, in part because the rural population is falling behind in the attainment of education and skills. Tertiary educational attainment is higher in cities, and the gap with rural areas has widened over the past decade. Residents of cities are also more likely to have digital skills than their rural counterparts. Because levels of education and skills are higher in cities, urban areas are better equipped to reap the advantages of globalisation and technological change.

Another academic paper examining populism in Europe reported that in a number of Western European elections, support for far-right populist parties has been significantly higher in non-urban areas than in urban areas. The paper examined whether the urban/rural divide could be explained by differences in education, income and other individual characteristics of voters, or by variations in immigration. Researchers also examined whether variations in public service supply might explain at least some of the difference between urban and rural areas’ support for far-right populism.

The results in this paper suggest that voter characteristics and immigration explain a substantial part of the urban–rural divide. However, the propensity to vote for a far-right populist party is still higher in regions with lower population growth even when controlling for individual characteristics and immigration…. The propensity to vote for a far-right party decreases with higher public service supply and higher share of immigrants. The findings in this paper thereby support the hypothesis that individuals in shrinking areas with lower access to public services are likely to respond to the deterioration of their location by casting a vote on the far-right (i.e., protest voting).

A very similar phenomenon can be seen in the United States. Pew researchers have examined the urban/rural divide, noting that it has gotten steadily worse. For most of American history (actually, as recently as the early 1990s) both major political parties included both rural and urban constituencies. Since then, America has become deeply divided geographically, with rural areas increasingly Republican and urban places increasingly Democratic.

Needless to say, the growth of the rural-urban divide has fostered polarization and what researchers call “democratic vulnerability.”

The Brookings Institution has also studied the phenomenon, and cautions against a media framing that has all of urban America diverse, educated, and economically productive and all of rural America White, dependent on dying industries, and characterized by stagnation, decline, and despair.

It is–as always–much more complicated than that, and Brookings points out that “dividing the nation into such a binary has immediate, lived consequences for people living in all corners of America.” The extreme binary  narrative can be harmful in four ways: by  prioritizing the political concerns of an imagined, White rural monolith (and erasing the needs of rural people of color); by furthering misconceptions which devalue the role of rural places in American; by propagating “a myth of place-based poverty that erases people living in a range of high-poverty geographies, justifying oversimplified antipoverty policies;” and by obscuring effective policy solutions for rural economic development. 

Brookings’ caution has merit, especially as policymakers move to address–and ameliorate– the urban/rural divide. But the fact remains that–worldwide–that divide is a primary reason for the electoral victories of some very frightening political forces. 


  1. Once again it comes down to economics. The rural/urban divide on income driving populism. Imagine that.

    It’s really difficult to manage complex societies with religion, politics and the other abstraction: money all competing for the minds – still thinking as they did 200,000 years ago – that want control for their tribes.

    It’s what we’re stuck with, I guess. Sadly, there will be only one end-game. I’m glad I’m old.

  2. To me, “populism” is a slippery word that can easily mean different things to different people.

    Maybe that is just me, I don’t know. So, I looked it up with the help of AI.

    “Populism is a political movement that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group with “the elite”. Populism is often associated with anti-establishment and anti-political sentiment.”

    “Populism is a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps. Populists may think of wealthy people or well-educated people as belonging to the class of elites.”

    “Populist politicians and governments may view the formal institutions of liberal democracy as corrupt creations. Populism constitutes a fundamental challenge to the main institutions and values of liberal democracy, most notably, minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of powers.”

    “Some examples of populist proposals include:”

    “Electoral reforms to squeeze corruption out of the system”

    “A progressive income tax to make the wealthy shoulder more of the tax burden”

    “Public control and regulation of banking, railroads, and other key industries”

    “Populism has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since the 19th century.”

    In other words, antiestablishmentarianism (used to be the longest word in the English Language) is an anti-establishment view or belief that stands in opposition to the conventional social, political, and economic principles of a society.

    Here’s the problem.

    Evolution and natural selection favor those who adapt to changing environments. Human big brains and bipedalism created a species that could readily relocate when hunting and gathering got tough where any group lived. So bands of misfits left the Garden of Eden, Africa, Adam and Eve’s place, and spread out.

    As the population grew, it got more complicated to do, so big brains invented the concept of ownership (of land, of slaves (including sex slaves for pleasure and procreation to assure continuing comfort as aging inevitably took its physical toll), of means of production, of countries (which require organization we employ in governments, corporations, militaries, educational institutions, areas of knowledge (specialization gone wild, etc.) while, at the same time, those who settled in different regions differentiated because pigmentation must reflect local climate and other locations developed cultures including religion which identified locals as we, the people.

    That all worked splendidly until we ran out of room on earth, technology connected everyone with everyone else instantly (or nearly so), and demand for harnessed energy exploded and F. U. the climate of every place. What a mess. A huge mess.

    Now what? Chaos or progress? Organization to compete or to collaborate? Knowledge or ignorance? Peace or war?

    How good are our big brains? Up to the task or not?

  3. Vernon hit it; “Once again it comes down to economics. The rural/urban divide on income driving populism.” But you cannot ignore the rural/urban divide regarding racism; always racism due to the economic divide between whites and “others”. That divide is identified by economics within the urban areas of all cities, towns and villages globally.

    Look at the moral makeup of Trump’s MAGA officials sitting in Congress who go into recess rather than face and resolve the divisive disaster that is currently the majority and the voters who keep them in office. The “good guys” of both parties have ceded their powers of governing to the minority factor of Trump’s MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus who have turned the divide into an abyss. Is the Global Phenomenon following the current chaotic governing in the U.S. or are we following the broadening global divide? We need to look at how Putin came to the level of power he wields beyond Russia’s borders and how Trump wields the same level of power over the lower classes in this nation, state by state by state.

  4. To quote Obama/Biden, “let me be clear”.

    As a follower of Sheila, and her merry band here, I think human big brains using the tools handed us by the past including liberal democracy per our Constitution and regulated Capitalism and some form of public/private ownership and a more effective world government complementing national, regional and local government can work as effectively as multi-national corporations do in organizing the resources at hand to solve our impending challenges.

  5. Having grown up on a farm, then going to a small college and returning to a rural area to live in and teach, I’m aware of how this develops and works.
    But, I had several years where I socialized quite a bit in Indianapolis developing friendships, going to church there, and learning to live in a different way.
    So, first off, I can say the rural/urban milieu is one driven mostly by the cost of living (economics), to start with. People in the small towns may work ‘either/or’ but they will spend less money on the cost of living ‘small’.
    Then, as a result, they do not see, hear, or live like urban people do (social), and thus a divide in habits & thinking develops. This is not something that I criticize in itself, but rural folks do have tendency to become a bit more judemental about the differences in life style.
    And, rural folks naturally are more independent – because they CAN BE!
    As for the urban folks? They become used to having things close at hand – things like dining, entertainment, social services (hospitals for one thing!) and most convenicnces, as well as having people of different backgrounds, which they sometimes like and other times dislike!)
    These are natural developments in a society where people can & do live in segmented groups – whether rural OR urban.
    So, what is driving the divisions between rural and urban?
    In my opinion, it’s something comletely different than this division itself. It’s the fact that something has been missing for the last 50 years that brings people together. . . and that ‘thing’ is compulsory military or govenment service.
    This is hard for me to say because I’m a birthright Quaker and was raised as kind of a pacifist, but now, after a lifetime of ‘living & learning’, I see the value of constructing a society which promotes a commonality of ‘the people’.
    And – Most of the NATO countries in Europe have ended it, too.
    The cry still resounds throughout most societies – “Bring us together!” But, what will do that is not liked nor used any more.
    And the ‘popullism’ in developed societies grows apace.

  6. This exercise mentions only US and Netherlands specifically. “World wide” is used towards the end. Too Eurocentric it seems to me.

  7. Well, I guess if ya’ll city folk didn’t have ta have such cheap food maybe us rubes would be healthier and happier.

  8. But Pete; national and multi-national corporations want to work by their own rules, the problems created by Trump’s deregulation is the basis of many problems today. “…the tools handed us by the past including liberal democracy per our Constitution” were to limit government intrusion to prevent the Dictatorship Trump will enact if elected or appointed to the presidency. The government regulating itself as we have known it is quickly disappearing from this nation. Our primary fears today are of our own government where we have always sought protection in past centuries. Multi-national corporations operate by organized ruling of themselves, with their public/private ownership free of public protection regulations. The never perfect democracy, Rule of Law and upholding the Constitution of the United States of American was a working operation until 2017.

    “It’s really difficult to manage complex societies with religion, politics and the other abstraction: money all competing for the minds…” Believing government could – and should – be run as a business has failed miserably since 2017 and continues to fail as Trump continues to seek control of the business of America as his private corporation.

  9. It isn’t that simple, IMHO. Two key factors are cultural, the slow death of real community (read “Bowling Alone” and “iGen”) and the saturation of amusement via screens (read “Amusing Ourselves to Death”). Given these, there is no time/need for standards, democracy, religion, governing – other than the rich, we are all too busy wrapped up in ourselves/our tribes – no matter where we live.

  10. The last paragraph warns against oversimplification and the first comment is “it’s all economic”. I suspect the share of people living in poverty in the cities might be larger than those in Rural settings. The number of people in cites living large is most likely higher.

    Stephen Smith paints a more nuanced picture and I can see many of his points. JoAnn points out a few other factors as well.

  11. It occurs to me that Gregg’s Gini Index simply reflects the disparity in wealth between the urban and rural situations.
    I also believe that both the NAFTA program and the rise off the massive, industrial farm have played quite a role in scouring out the midwest, often referred to as the “Rust Belt.”
    It does seem to come down to economics.
    Related to this, let us not forget that racism has a lot to do with economics in the U.S. Ghetto poverty within urban areas, and elsewhere, has been the child of racism. “The 1921 mob attack on Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as ‘Black Wall Street’, devastated the nation’s Black cultural and economic mecca.” (History.com)
    Note that the quote refers to “the nation,” not just Tulsa Oklahoma.

  12. Perhaps it is not economics nor location that dictates the draw of populism. From experience I notice that those most vocal against the rapid social changes we all have seen these past twenty years or so are those who believe there are “absolutes”.
    This way of thinking arises from fundamental religions. The world is seen as black and white… good and bad. There is little nuance and no give to newly discovered facts. Boys are boys, and girls are girls. The way it was is the way it should stay. If people who look like me did bad things in the past; well, just don’t talk about it.
    This way of thinking is most often challenged by higher education at non-religious institutions and/or moving to a densely populated areas where exposure to other ways of thinking creates questioning. Questioning is good, but not to the absolute thinkers.
    What liberal minded folk so often get wrong and drive the absolutes crazy is the too often rush with a new discovery of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  13. Joann, corporations manage privately owned means of production while governments manage publically owned means. That’s key.

    The point I was trying to make (and failed to) is that all organization is hierarchical with immense scope, picture, broadly experienced people at the apex, and more narrow interests at the base.

    The pyramid on some currency with an eye on the top.

    The eye on a corporate organization is on only part of the world compared to the eye of a government of, by, and for all we, the people. The most diverse of all.

    World government is exemplified by the United Nations (as compared to the United States).

    The base of the world government pyramid includes 100% of human diversity and managing us is like herding cats.

  14. I agree with Stephen. Not that we need the draft, but that we need a national service requirement, preferably after high school. The best way to get to know people is to work together towards a common goal.

  15. When I think of populism, I think of right and left populism. Both are driven by forces outside the two political parties in the USA, along with fringe parties in the Eurocenters. Within those forces, there are lots of variables. Racism and income would be the two major causes, but populists also see the political parties as the problem.

    Furthermore, look at resource division and how outside oligarchies work with our Sec. of State and CIA to control those country’s media (the message).

    Therefore, external and internal politics play a major role. See foreign influence.

    An interesting new case study in populism would be the Argentina government and their new Friedmanite, billionaire-supported leader, Milieu. He’s already canceled their BRICS membership and wants to replace their country’s currency. Talk about far-reaching ramifications that will lead to further populism…not sure what the Argentina people were thinking.

  16. “Milei, a 53-year-old economist, rose to fame on television with profanity-laden tirades against what he called the political caste. He parlayed his popularity into a congressional seat and then, just as swiftly, into a presidential run. The overwhelming victory of the self-declared “anarcho-capitalist” in the August primaries sent shock waves through the political landscape and upended the race.”


  17. Yes, Theresa, you really have a point there, the problem with wanting no change, as someone recently (?) commented, is that for there to be no change things would have to change.
    It may be the fear of change that drives the anxiety known to live within conservative hearts.

  18. I grew up on a farm, which doesn’t make me an expert, but rural communities are heavily dependent on agriculture, small business, and often, factory jobs within relatively easy driving distance. This was at least the case in Indiana. As Walmart displaced so many smaller merchants and factory jobs were outsourced, most Hoosier communities suffered, but smaller counties had less margin to absorb and recover from those job losses.

    My father was very progressive politically and felt federal farm supports were absolutely critical to protect farmers and our food supply from the ravages of weather and from the financial roller coaster of crop and livestock disease as well as the boom and bust of economics that forced many off the farms. Farmers also profit so little from food prices compared to all the processors, packagers, and distributors between farm and table.

    Farmers are a fiercely independent lot who don’t want to depend on government, but Dad worried that without government supports of family farmers, corporate farming would one day gain control of our food supply and literally have us by the throat. We’d all be paying MUCH more for our food with no way back to family farms who could never outbid the corporations.

    In Indiana, state government seems destined to speed not only corporate purchase of farm land but transfer of water supply from smaller communities to satisfy larger corporate and developer interests. (Yes, I know there’s a state study of how to protect farm land; meanwhile developers are speeding ahead, buying farm property and lobbying state government for water transfers.)

    An acquaintance contends corporate farms increase farm efficiencies and are keeping food prices under control. John D. Rockefeller did that for gas prices until he gained control of market share.

    As you can tell, Dad’s warnings about corporate control of our food supply have never left me.

  19. Let me toss in something else – our love affair with “capitalism”. The corporations will solve all problems because they are the best — and other myths.

    The government had to step in to bring electricity to rural America, but we are still looking to corporations (or looking to bribe corporations) to bring The Internet to rural America. Sometimes, the government needs to take control. Remember The Internet was created here because the government paid for it. Nobody owns it, like the European telecoms wanted to do. (Of course, now we have allowed large corporations to control access, again by relying on “the invisible hand” – invisible because it does not exist).

    Nancy adds a good perspective. We must find a way to aid, but not take the self-reliant dignity from, small farmers while not supporting the growth of corporate farming. We have to look into water, food processing and distribution and see how we can “untilt” our policies of favoring the rich and powerful.

  20. Does grievance at loss of privilege have anything to do with the divide? The privileges may be economic, religious, political, racial, cultural and ethnic. When there is privilege that rests on any of them, loss, or even the possibility of loss, frightens those who feel entitled to that privilege , especially if they have done nothing to earn it.

    Change is scary, rapid change is not only scary but frustrating and infuriating. When faced with rapid change where adapting quickly enough to keep up is constrained by lack of knowledge and experience, anger and resentment come next.

    Then you have a malignant narcissist with extreme wealth and no morals who recognizes that anger and resentment using it to feed the beast and acquire more wealth and the power it purchases.

    I, too, am glad I am old but sad for my children and theirs.

    Public service requirements helped keep my dad alive on more than one occasion during his young life. Broadening worldviews is not a bad thing, especially at a time when overpopulation means more likely exposure to others not like us.

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