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.Comments