For almost a decade, the West has been engaged in a deepening conflict. Sometimes it flares up as a political debate; sometimes as a culture war. But whatever form it takes, it is inevitably framed as a disagreement between classes, races or ideologies.
This is a mistake. Demography may be destiny, but it is geography that determines its political shape. The greatest division today is to do with place: in particular, three basic terroirs — urban, suburban and rural — which reflect a divergence in economic interest, family structure and basic values, particularly between big city economies and those on the periphery.
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This fracture is widening at a time when the demographic balance between these regions is shifting. For much of the past two centuries, the overwhelming inclination was towards urbanisation, with dense cores serving as the prime engines of economic, cultural and social change. Today, however, that pattern is shifting, particularly since the pandemic, which saw two million citizens move out of big US cities. Even in urban-oriented Europe, 63% of cities experienced a population decline during the pandemic.
Does this mean “the era of urban supremacy is over”, as the New York Times put it? Quite possibly. But don’t expect the urban leadership to acknowledge it. Even as they desperately attempt (and largely fail) to lure workers back downtown, urban political interests continue to dominate the national conversation — even amid high levels of crime, street-level disorder and the resulting shuttering of businesses.
Largely ignored by the city-dominated media, the world’s urban core has been losing this battle for generations. This is not only evident in the United States, but also across Europe and Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, little more than 5% of growth from 1966 to 2021 was in the core cities. In Europe, barely 37% of people live in cities, with the rest in fast-growing suburbs, small towns and rural areas.
Of course, many cities have experienced some revival over the past decade, but that “boom” has largely benefited educated newcomers and their wealthy employers. Urban regions became both richer and poorer; according to Pew research, the greatest inequality in America now exists in “superstar cities”, such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and San Jose.
These shifts have, unsurprisingly, shaped urban politics. As middle-class families have left, the urban terroir has been gutted of the old urban bulwark of solid middle and working-class families; as Fred Siegel has observed, it is dominated by an “upstairs/downstairs” coalition of the affluent and dependent.
This demographic reality has driven a shift towards a more progressive politics. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won 31% of the vote in San Francisco and 27.4% in Manhattan. In 2016, Donald Trump won only 10% of the vote in each. Between 1998 and 2018, urban counties — which sometimes includes suburbs — went from 55% to 62% Democratic. Today, there is not a single Republican Mayor of a city of more than one million people. Recent victories of progressives in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, New York and Minneapolis, despite widespread social disorder and economic decline, suggest this pattern may well be inexorable.
The antipode to the urban terroir lies in the countryside and rural hinterlands, which are experiencing a modest revival across the Western world. Yet even as they begin to regain appeal, rural areas are struggling against the dominant urban drive to “net zero”, which threatens economies based on local fossil fuel development, farming and manufacturing. For instance, it was high energy prices brought on by climate policies that sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement in France’s small towns, villages and exurban communities. To meet climate demands and limit their use of chemical fertilisers, Dutch farmers, among the world’s most efficient and ecology minded, have similarly risen up and joined their Spanish, Polish and Italian counterparts.
Even worse, the urban elites propose reaching their net zero fantasies by physically disfiguring rural communities. This offensive is being pushed by oligarchs such as J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, who resents peasants blocking land acquisition for subsidy-driven “green” investments and seeks federal help to secure these lands. But he is just one man of a wider movement, in which rural areas, home to the vast majority of proposed new solar and wind projects, are now asked to fulfil the green dreams of Manhattan, San Francisco and west Los Angeles. In California, the Nature Conservancy estimates that fulfilling the state’s net zero targets would require up to one-tenth of the farming acreage in the coming decades.
People living in the areas have responded as one might expect: between 2015 and 2022, community rejections of such projects in the US grew from 50 to over 500. A similar narrative is playing out throughout the EU and among farmers Australia, who fear transmission lines and windmills will not only make their farms less productive, but destroy the surrounding landscape.
For now, the political revival in small towns and rural areas represents an enormous boost to the Right. The once-strong progressive populism of rural communities has evaporated as more residents now feel more threatened by urban interests than corporate power. As a 2020 study from the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge found, there is a “deepening geographical fracture” in European societies reminiscent of “the stark urban-rural political divides of the early 20th century”.
This can be seen most clearly in the United States. In 2008, Barack Obama won nearly one quarter of the country’s non-metro counties. Eight years later, Hillary Clinton won barely 10%. In the past, notes Ernie Goss, professor of economics at Creighton University, the rural states regularly elected Democrats. How will Biden fare? “He couldn’t get a cup of coffee in this part of the country,” he told me. “To say he’s unpopular is an understatement.”
Caught between these two increasingly extreme polities lies the third terroir, “the middle landscape” of suburban and exurban areas. Although these areas constitute an absolute majority of Americans and two-thirds of Europe’s 99 largest metros, they have little political power. This largely reflects the fact that suburbs tend to be populated by middle and working-class households, often too preoccupied with making a living and raising a family to indulge in political theatre. In other words, the middle landscape has the numbers, but has not found its voice.
Yet ultimately, it is the suburbs that will determine America’s future. They remain, unlike the other terroirs, contestable, home to at least 40% of all US House seats. For almost 20 years, the Republican-leaning suburban voters held steady at around 47%, with Democratic leaders at 45%. In 2016, the suburbs voted 50 to 45 for Trump, but two years later the suburban electorate tilted blue, effectively handing the House back to the Democrats. Then, in 2022, the predicted GOP landslide never developed, in large part because suburbanites split their ballots.
Whether this will be repeated remains unclear. On the one hand, Biden’s embrace of policies that seek to force communities to densify and take in low-income residents are not likely to be widely popular among suburbanites, who, after all, moved there to escape the city. On the other, the suburb’s changing demography could work to the favour of Democrats, as culturally liberal millennials and ethnic minorities join the city exodus.
But none of this represents the politics of choice — a programme suited to the needs and aspirations of this middle terroir. Right now, politics is inflicted on these communities rather than being shaped around them. Until they gain a voice, the West’s geographical cleavage will continue to widen, producing endless conflicts that fail the majority caught in between.
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