The Urban-Rural Divide is Becoming a Political Time-bomb in First World Western Nations

Traditionally, the wealth gap, sanitation gap, living standards gap and education gap between urban and rural populations was more pronounced in the developing world than in fully developed/first world nations. While many developing nations are working intensely to close this gap with China set to reduce rural poverty to 0% by the end of the year 2020, in terms of baseline statistics, the aforementioned gaps still tend to be most pronounced in developing nations.

But in terms of political and accompanying social trends, the gap between urban and rural is becoming increasingly pronounced in first world western nations that once prided themselves on the divide between urban and rural being mostly cultural rather than political. But as these political divides solidify, politicians of all stripes will have to at long last address this ticking time-bomb which threatens to collapse previously stable political consensuses throughout the western first world.

In the United States, where as recently as 1988, Republican Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush won the state of California, it is now inconceivable that California with its large coastal cities would ever again elect a Republican. Likewise, it is becoming increasingly inconceivable for Democrats to win in the southern states in which they once built a post Civil War political empire.

The arrival of Donald Trump to the front and centre of the political stage in the US has made these trends not only solidify at a rapid rate, but has further heightened a general urban/rural divide within individual states. In modern America, most big cities are a hotbed of anti-Trump feelings where expressing even one’s casual disgust at the very notion that Trump is President is considered de rigueur. Inversely, in rural or semi-suburban parts of the US, particularly in the centre and south of the country, expressing support for Trump and wearing his infamous MAGA hat have become an expressions not only of political loyalties but of a sociological identity and set of core values.

Elsewhere in western first world nations, in England, as debates on Brexit continue to become more heated, it is becoming clear that in London and other urban centres, the idea of even maintaining friendships with Brexit supporters is becoming quietly taboo, while outside of London and some other urban areas, opposing Brexit is seen not only as undemocratic but as disloyal in terms of both local and national patriotism.

In both cases, the divide between the urban rich and rural poor only tells half of the story. While it is obvious that someone prospering under any given status quo would vote in favour of maintaining that status quo, while someone who has been economically hit by existing trends would be attracted by what appears to be a viable alternative, there is far more to the urban-rural divide in western nations than economics or traditional class loyalties.

In both the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum held that same year, the electoral maps of those voting for Trump and Brexit respectively, demonstrate that in both rich and poor non-urban areas, support for Trump and Brexit was strong.

In the following map, congressional districts are shaded from blue to red indicating support for either Donald Trump (red) or Hillary Clinton (blue). The deepest reds and deepest blues indicate strong support for the respective candidates while weaker shades indicate a more mixed political dynamic according to the intensity of the colour.

Thus, it would appear that geographical factors beyond traditional wealth gaps and racial/ethnic divides played a key role in determining who won the election. Of course the other factors are imported as well, but the fact remains that the urban/rural divide cuts across the other trends while the inverse is far less apparent.

A map of the United Kingdom’s Brexit election shows much the same in England and Wales. Below are the geographic results of the Brexit vote with blue shaded into areas where a majority voted to leave the European Union while the yellow areas signify a majority for remaining in the European Union. The fact that  Scotland voted to remain while most of England and Wales voted to leave also shows a further divide that is unique to Britain,  but within England and Wales, one sees the same phenomenon that happened in the US when Donald Trump was elected.

But it is not just in the Anglosphere where the urban/rural socio-political divide is taking shape and solidifying. Similar trends have emerged in both Germany and France. While Russia is not a western nation, due to the fact that its political system is widely based on western models, it is significant that during regional Russian elections in 2018, the ruling United Russia party got something of a bloody nose at the hands of both the populist right and the communist left.

But while those on both the right and left are coming to acknowledged the urban vs. rural divide as being a major force in shaping political opinion and elections throughout first world western nations, there are few who are actively proposing a means to lessen this divisive political gap.

In China, where urban areas benefited more in the short term than rural areas after the historic opening up and reform of 1978, the solution to rural renewal has been conducted in empirical terms. The Chinese government continues to increase economic investment in rural areas, training the rural poor for free so that they can learn new modern skillets and likewise, the government has invested millions in giving modern technological equipment to farmers so that they can earn more, be more productive and enjoy a less stressful working environment.

But because the urban/rural divide in countries like the United States and Britain goes beyond the wealth gap, a different solution is required. While it is easy to quantify geographically based wealth gaps, as well as gaps in ethno-racial and religious demography, it is not entirely possible to quantify cultural differences.

Yet it remains within the realm of the qualitative differences between town and country rather than traditional quantifiable differences where the answer to the problems lies in respect of preventing long standing urban/rural divides from breaking apart the political core of once politically stable countries.

The fact of the matter is that both wealthy, poor and median income individuals in non-urban areas feel that there is a trust deficit between a mostly psychologically urban political class and those outside of big cities. Likewise, even among many working class city dwellers, there is a sense that those in non-urban areas are somehow less in tuned with the economic and political realities shaping the world and thus are less qualified to voice an opinion worth hearing.

In each of these cases, it is more of a ‘feeling’ than anything particularly empirical that is dividing the urban from the rural populations of multiple western first world nations. And yet these gut feelings are motivating the electorates in both urban and rural environments and therefore need to be addressed.

Beyond this, the solution to the urban-rural divide is not found in a party electing a culturally rural individual as its leader in order to appeal to rural votes or vice versa. After all, the New York born and raised Trump is about as urban as it comes in terms of his personal lifestyle and yet his politics appeals almost exclusively to those outside of America’s big cities.

The answer therefore lies in communicating a sincere understanding of the differences between rural and urban and articulating this in a manner which seeks to minimise political alienation, while accepting the fact that it is not a politician’s job to change anyone’s local culture. In other words, what is required is a new breed of politician who acknowledges that people will always have different feelings about the world based on their cultural and sociological environment, but that it is still possible to offer pragmatic economic solutions that help to mutually elevate the material condition of those in cities and in non-urban areas. Just because city dwellers and those outside of cities have different aspirations in respect of how they would use their enhanced economic status, does not negate the fact that prosperity and peace are the only two universal things that are sought by populations throughout the world and therefore certainly within deeply divided nations.

Yet instead of doing this, politicians who (as politicians do) always promise more peace and prosperity, are doing so while also overtly and even more worryingly covertly shaming people for their cultural characteristics. This is the root of the problem. So long as politicians combine an economic programme with attempts to shame people for their local or regional cultural characteristics, people will vote with their hearts rather than their heads – they will vote based on that which they believe best preserves their local or regional culture, even if this means voting for an economically less qualified politician or political party. The key therefore is to convey a tolerant belief in the cultural autonomy of all areas within a nation, while promoting economic manifestos that seek to enrich the prosperity of all regions of a nation, in spite of whatever any given leader feels about these cultural characteristics.

If a politician cannot rise above his or her own feelings regarding which set of cultural characteristics are preferred, it makes such a politician no better than the constituents he or she privately (and sometimes publicly) derides.

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