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Why are urban and rural areas so politically divided?

Rural residents feel left behind by the globalized economy and alienated from big cities’ multiculturalism.

- March 5, 2019

In both North America and Western Europe, the political divide is increasingly a geographic divide. Urban areas are more liberal, and rural areas are more conservative. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents and Donald Trump won all other types of areas. In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats won every congressional district in the most urban areas, while Republicans won 87 percent of rural districts.

Urban-rural divides are likely to continue growing. Yet it is unclear why they are happening. One possibility is that living in dense urban environments with a diverse mix of people promotes liberal values, while living in small towns and rural areas promotes political conservatism. But my research suggests that this is not the reason. People aren’t much affected by the experience of living in these environments.

Instead, the urban-rural divide exists because different types of people decide to live in different geographic areas in the first place.

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The urban-rural divide in Western Europe

My research focuses on Western Europe, where urban-rural divides are important. In France, for example, “yellow vest” protesters claim that President Emmanuel Macron’s policies favor wealthy urbanites at the expense of poorer rural residents. In Britain, urban dwellers tend to oppose Brexit and want a connection to the European Union, while small-town and rural residents tend to favor leaving the E.U.

In general, the core supporters of right-wing populist political parties across Europe are in more rural areas, where they feel left behind the globalized economy and alienated from the multiculturalism of European capitals.

Who lives where?

People live in urban and rural areas for reasons that are associated with political preferences. My research suggests that these sorting processes drive urban-rural political polarization.

Macroeconomic trends have concentrated better-educated professionals in big cities, where jobs have expanded for highly skilled workers in financial services, technology and creative industries. Meanwhile, agriculture and manufacturing have declined in small towns and rural areas. As better-educated people leave these areas, they are increasingly dominated by less-educated manual workers.

The relationship between socioeconomic status and geography is important for politics because better-educated professionals tend to be the most positive about immigration, while less-educated manual laborers tend to be the most negative about immigration. I analyze data from 13 West European countries and find that people with the same educational and occupational profile tend to have the same immigration attitudes, regardless of where they live. And in research on Switzerland, I find that people who move to big cities tend to have progressive political views before their move. Regardless of education or occupation, people who move to large cities are more positive about immigration and the European Union and are less likely to support radical right-wing parties.

However, it does not work in reverse: Conservatives are not moving into rural areas, at least in Switzerland. Swiss people who move to rural areas are more liberal than the people already living there. This may arise simply because people who make major geographic moves tend to have a higher socioeconomic status and thus more liberal attitudes regardless of where they move.

Does geography affect attitudes?

An alternative view is that living in urban areas with neighbors from around the world actually makes people cosmopolitan and tolerant of diversity, while living in homogeneous rural communities makes people conformist and conservative.

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If this were true, people’s political views should change after they move to a different geographic areas. I found that no evidence of this in both Germany and Switzerland. Moving to urban or rural areas did not affect people’s attitudes on immigration, the European Union or support for radical right-wing parties. And in Switzerland, I found no evidence that people became more liberal as their local area became more ethnically diverse. Only in a more specific context — big cities in Germany — have I found that people in neighborhoods with growing ethnic diversity become more favorable to immigration.

To be sure, there is other evidence that exposure to diverse cultures can actually create hostility to immigrants. But that doesn’t help explain the urban-rural divide, since it’s in large, diverse cities where immigration attitudes are more positive.

The future of political geography

If urban-rural political divides were created by the experience of living in geographic areas that are fundamentally different, we would be doomed to perpetual polarization. My research does not support this view.

Instead, the future of geographic polarization is linked more to the structure of American and European economies. If economic opportunities continue to be geographically divided, political divides across space will likely deepen. And if geographic mobility declines overall, as it has in the United States, urban-rural divides are likely to remain.

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Regardless of future trends, we need to understand the origins of the urban-rural divide if we hope to manage it successfully.

Rahsaan Maxwell (@rahsaanmax) is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.