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. 


It’s Not Just Tennessee

In the wake of heightened attention to Tennessee, triggered by that state legislature’s expulsion of two young Black Democratic members, Politico ran an article examining the increasingly wide rural/urban divide in that state.

Nashville, Tennessee has been booming. It surpassed Austin, Texas, to take the top spot as the Wall Street Journal’s “hottest job market” of 2022. According to research from the Greater Nashville Technology Council, Middle Tennessee’s tech job growth grew by over 50 percent between 2015 and 2020. The “Silicon Valley of the South,” as Nashville has been called, accounts for some 40 percent of the GDP of the entire state. It’s a draw for talent and industry, a boon to the state’s coffers and a cultural gem of the American South.

So why does Tennessee seem so hostile to its own capital city — and greatest economic engine?

That same question could be asked about Indiana’s legislature, which has long been hostile to Indianapolis, despite the fact that the Circle City is very clearly the economic engine of the Hoosier state. For that matter, as the Politico article pointed out, this urban/rural divide is happening all over the country, at every level of government, “in which the preferences of voters often filter through representative bodies whose lopsided majorities don’t really represent the electorate of the state around them.”

Time for yours truly, the broken record: The legislative dominance of rural priorities is due to gerrymandering.

I have written before about the cultural differences that have exacerbated hostilities between rural and urban areas. Rural residents tend to hold more traditional values, to be more conservative and much more Republican, while in today’s America, every urban area over 500,000 is Blue on those ubiquitous political maps. The political divide  exacerbates the cultural divide, and both lead to an increase in hostility between rural and urban residents.

Economic factors also play a role. A large number of rural areas have experienced economic decline in recent years, with fewer job opportunities and shrinking populations.

The differing interests of rural and urban areas ought to lead to legislative compromises. That doesn’t happen, because– thanks to gerrymandering–rural voters exercise disproportionate electoral power. The result is a legislative super-majority that skews even further Right than its rural constituency–and disdains democratic norms and federalist divisions of authority.

As a CNN article reports,

From Florida and Mississippi to Georgia, Texas and Missouri, an array of red states are taking aggressive new steps to seize authority over local prosecutors, city policing policies, or both. These range from Georgia legislation that would establish a new statewide commission to discipline or remove local prosecutors, to a Texas bill allowing the state to take control of prosecuting election fraud cases, to moves by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey to dismiss from office elected county prosecutors who are Democrats, and a Mississippi bill that would allow a state takeover of policing in the capital city of Jackson.

These efforts by Red states to seize authority over law enforcement in their Blue cities is being fed by two recent, powerful trends.

One is the increased tendency of red states to override the decisions of those blue metros on a wide array of issues – on everything from minimum wage and family leave laws to environmental regulations, mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even recycling policies for plastic bags. The other is the intensifying political struggle over crime that has produced an intense pushback against the demands for criminal justice reform that emerged in the nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

That pushback against crime has a prominent racial component. Overwhelmingly White rural areas–and the Republicans they elect–want to empower police and reduce oversight that they believe impedes effective policing; prosecutors and other politicians in urban areas want to address racial bias in their criminal justice systems, and ensure that their systems are operating on a level playing field.

That particular divide motivated Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement immediately after the jury verdict that he intended to pardon Daniel Perry, who was convicted of intentionally murdering a Black Lives Matter protester. (The jury that convicted Perry hadn’t seen a document that the judge subsequently unsealed, sharing Perry’s references to Black protesters as “monkeys,” and musing about “hunting Muslims in Europe.”)

None of this intended to suggest that rural Americans are all racists, or that all urban dwellers are racially progressive. In fact, the Politico article points out that Republicans representing rural areas tend to be well to the right of their rural constituents on many issues, including guns.

The problem is the systemic distortion that operates to empower the most resentful cohorts of rural voters, who then elect extremists willing to kill their state’s urban “golden goose.”

Resentment isn’t logical.


Michael Gerson’s Jeremiad

Students of early American history will recognize the term jeremiad, a favored form of sermon delivered by Puritan pastors of the time. Wikipedia tells us that a jeremiad is “a long literary work lamenting the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective.” The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.

I wouldn’t apply the term “invective” to the recent, lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, but I would definitely  call it a jeremiad.

Gerson is best known as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and as a devout Evangelical Christian. Along with other intellectually-honest Republicans, he has been appalled by Donald Trump, and like other genuine Christians, disheartened by the embrace of Trump by those who claim the Evangelical label. He is especially distressed by the fact that “much of what considers itself Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism.”

Gerson’s essay is long, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. This post cannot do it justice. He begins by recognizing that many conservative religious people feel disrespected and defensive, and believe that their values are under assault by government, big business, media and academia.

Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics. This has included deadly mask and vaccine resistance, the discrediting of fair elections, baseless accusations of gay “grooming” in schools, the silencing of teaching about the United States’ history of racism, and (for some) a patently false belief that Godless conspiracies have taken hold of political institutions…

The political alignment with MAGA activists has given exposure and greater legitimacy to once-fringe ideas, including Confederate nostalgia, white nationalism, antisemitism, replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice by liberal politicians.

Gerson acknowledges the influence of population density and the rural/urban divide on patterns of belief– and the political reality that America’s electoral mechanisms skew in favor of geography over population. But his essay is mostly concerned with the damage MAGA Republicanism is doing to Christianity.

Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry…

Conservative Christians’ beliefs on the nature of politics, and the content of their cultural nightmares, are directly relevant to the future of our whole society, for a simple reason: The destinies of rural and urban America are inextricably connected. It matters greatly if evangelicals in the wide, scarlet spaces are desensitized to extremism, diminished in decency and badly distorting the meaning of Christianity itself — as I believe many are.

To grasp how, and why, it’s important to begin at the beginning.

Gerson follows that sentence with a lengthy history of Jesus’ background and teachings- his preaching against religious hypocrisy, his welcoming of “social outcasts,” and a “future age in which God’s sovereignty would be directly exercised on Earth.”

What brought me to consider these historical matters is a disturbing realization: In both public perception and evident reality, many White, conservative Christians find themselves on the wrong side of the most cutting indictments delivered by Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ’s revolt against the elites could hardly be more different from the one we see today. Conservative evangelicalism has, in many ways, become the kind of religious tradition against which followers of Jesus were initially called to rebel. And because of the pivotal role of conservative Christians in our politics, this irony is a matter of urgency.

He follows those paragraphs with an indictment of Christian Nationalism, concluding that

Evangelicals broadly confuse the Kingdom of God with a Christian America, preserved by thuggish politicians who promise to prefer their version of Christian rights and enforce Christian values. The political calculation of conservative Christians is simple, and simply wrong.

Gerson goes on to list numerous ways in which that calculation is wrong–and dangerous to democracy.

As I said at the outset of this post, this is a lengthy essay. It is also and obviously a product of considerable distress over the political grievances that have distorted and displaced authentic faith. As he concludes, “It is difficult for me to understand why so many believers have turned down a wedding feast to graze in political dumpsters.”

Gerson’s jeremiad puts him firmly within the camp of those of us who have been warning Americans about the dangers of Christian Nationalism–and reminding them that Christian Nationalism is very different from actual Christianity.

I admire Gerson’s attempt, but somehow I doubt the Christian Nationalists will listen.


Gerrymandering–One More Time

Can you stand one more diatribe about gerrymandering? I’m returning to the issue because states across the U.S. are busily engaged in the electoral “rigging” that Republicans claim to abhor…and because– unless the voting rights act passes– Congress will succeed in protecting the process into the future.

Talk about “voter fraud”–how about the process, beloved by the GOP, of defrauding literally millions of voters of meaningful participation in the selection of their representatives?

Here’s my last column for the Indiana Business Journal, where–for the umpteenth time–I tried to explain what is so very pernicious about the process, and why it is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.


With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.
Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced. (One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.


Urban Symbolism

There are a number of elements that tend to reinforce America’s increasing urban/rural divide–the sorts of differences that emerge among people who live in areas that are more or less densely populated. But we shouldn’t overlook the influence of symbolism–longtime images of dubious accuracy that have cemented our mental images of the country’s cities and countrysides.

Probably the strongest image that comes to mind when we hear the word “countryside” is bucolic–something between “Green Acres” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Mention “small town America” and we think “Mayberry.” Urban imagery is very different and much darker–as Paul Krugman pointed out in a column back in July, we tend to call up the various hellholes portrayed on television and in works of fiction.

But why do so many Americans still believe that our major cities are hellholes of crime and depravity? Why do so many politicians still believe that they can run on the supposed contrast between urban evil and small-town virtue when many social indicators look worse in the heartland than in the big coastal metropolitan areas?

To be sure, there was a national surge in homicides — although not in overall crime — during the pandemic, for reasons that remain unclear. But New York is still safer than it was a decade ago, vastly safer than it was 30 years ago, and, for what it’s worth, considerably safer than, say, Columbus, Ohio.

These stereotypes persist, despite the fact that, if anything, the roles have been reversed. While cities continue to have the challenges that occur when large numbers of people live together, emerging data locates more serious problems in the much-storied “heartland,” where–as Krugman noted– large numbers of men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and where “deaths of despair” have been steadily increasing.

If the waning accuracy of our urban/rural mythology was simply a product of imagery lagging reality, that would be one thing. But as Krugman and others have pointed out, the Republican insistence on the accuracy of that imagery is having destructive, even deadly effects on policy.

Some reporting suggests that one of the reasons the Trump administration downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic in its early stages was the belief that it was solely a large-city, blue-state problem; there were definitely many assertions that the risk was severe only in places with dense populations. And there were many pronouncements — some of them with an unmistakable tone of glee — to the effect that the pandemic would kill big cities and the states that contain them.

Of course, the harm done goes well beyond Trump’s fatally-flawed pandemic response. Support for the GOP is disproportionately rural, and the party responds to that reality by insisting to its rapidly radicalizing base that the inhabitants of rural America (overwhelmingly White and Christian) are the “real” Americans–and that their tax dollars are being siphoned off to support urban neer-do-wells.

Besides helping to cripple our pandemic response, the myth of rural virtue and urban vice means that many Republican voters seem unaware that they are among the major beneficiaries of the “big government” their party says it wants to eliminate. That is, they still imagine that the government spends money on urban welfare recipients, not on people like them.

For example, do red-state voters know that federal spending in their states — much of it taking the form of benefits from Social Security and Medicare — greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to Washington? In Kentucky, the most extreme example, the annual inflow of federal money per capita is $14,000 greater than the outflow.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in those urban hellholes of Republican imagination enjoy the benefits that only density can provide–not just the inviting coffee shops, restaurants and bars, multiple entertainment and education options, bike paths, parks and museums that are the stuff of tourism advertisements, but the salutary lessons to be learned through interaction with people who are, to varying degrees, unlike ourselves.

There are plenty of downsides to both urban and rural life, and good policy should address them. We need to figure out how to provide healthcare and stimulate economic development in rural areas. We need to improve police training and provide more affordable housing in our cities. Etcetera. But–as with so many of the truly serious challenges we face–we can’t solve problems we adamantly refuse to see.

Substituting mental images for complicated realities obscures our vision of both urban and rural America.