Recent elections, including the Brexit vote, have uncovered marked political divergences across European urban and rural areas. However, geographic polarisation of political attitudes is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, Europe had already experienced a stark divergence in voting behaviours between agriculture-oriented rural areas and manufacturing-based cities during the peak of the industrial revolution. Today's re-emergence of this old tendency requires a vigorous response from policymakers and poses severe challenges to our democracies by eroding social cohesion.
Using individual-level data from the European Social Survey (ESS), University of Cambridge researchers unveiled the magnitude of the growing divide in political preferences across 30 European countries. Most importantly, they found that this divergence should not be strictly conceived in binary terms - urban versus rural - but rather as a gradient. Indeed, dissimilarities in political inclinations and beliefs progressively emerge when moving from inner cities to metropolitan suburbs, towns and the countryside. From their analyses, it appears that people living in rural areas trust less the political system and, paradoxically, are much more likely to vote than their urban counterparts. Moreover, people residing outside urban centres are significantly more likely to position themselves on the right of the political spectrum and identify as conservatives. The different perspectives between areas of the country tend to be more pronounced on issues considered particularly divisive in European public discourse. Indeed, both acceptance of migrants and the affection for the EU significantly degrade when shifting the focus from urban to suburbs and rural realities.
In 2018, the European Commission published “the geography of EU discontent” and an interactive map depicting the share of votes cast for parties strongly opposing the EU in previous national elections. Dark purple indicates that EU opponents had received more than 35% of preferences, while dark green signals that their consensus had not exceeded 3%. It is easy to notice that a political gradient exists by looking at the vicinity of urban agglomerates. Indeed, in Northern Italy, highly urbanised areas, including Milan, Bologna, Turin and Genoa, show a lower share of eurosceptical votes compared to their surrounding rural areas. Similar considerations hold for France.
How to explain this growing phenomenon? Many different dynamics, perhaps interrelated, have been put forward. Still, there is not a clear and cut consensus on the underlying mechanism of geographic polarisation.
We are used to visualising the archetype of the anti-system supporter as an individual lacking the skills to survive amid the dynamic post-industrial world and showing a distinctive education level, employment status, age, race and income levels. Suppose a critical mass of these individuals tends to concentrate in rural areas. If so, local political beliefs might be determined by the spatially heterogeneous distribution of individuals. Indeed, the change in the economic structure has led to better wage prospects for skilled individuals residing in urban and economically vibrant contexts, thus attracting more and more highly qualified people from surrounding areas. Conversely, rural regions and cities with an outdated industrial system have become increasingly "left behind", losing their younger and skilled population and facing stagnation or decline. These demographic dynamics might have driven highly qualified, progressive, cosmopolitan individuals to self-select into urban life, progressively widening the gap in political beliefs with non-metropolitan areas. Besides the aforementioned economic reasons, some scholars point to "homophily", the behavioural tendency towards living close to individuals with similar tastes and preferences, as an additional contributing factor to demographic sorting.
So far, we have explored how population inflows and outflows shape political patterns in different locations. However, reversing this perspective, the place of living might be responsible for affecting individual worldviews and not the other way round. Due to a stronger sense of discontent and resentment than their urban counterparts, dwellers of economically declining areas, typically smaller cities and suburbs, tend to embrace a defensive "them or us" attitude. For instance, support for leaving the EU in the Brexit referendum was significantly higher among those residing in the same county in which they were born than those who had previously moved. Notably, this trend was more pronounced where wages had stagnated after the 2008 financial crisis, suggesting a correlation between persistently residing in areas with sluggish economic performance and conservative positions.
The growing distancing in political preferences of economically vibrant cities from the rest of the territory entails severe consequences for the Old Continent. Firstly, the political disenchantment of non-metropolitan areas across the Union provides fertile soil for populism and nationalism, which, in turn, could irremediably hamper the European integration process by exacerbating Member States' cultural and economic differences. Besides its implication on societal megatrends, the polarisation of political preferences might also lead to unexpected consequences on disparate outcomes. For instance, early evidence from the United States suggests divergent responsiveness to vaccination campaigns as the share of people having received their vaccine shot is systematically lower in rural than urban counties. Hence, keeping in mind the existence of a political gradient and peculiar local needs, politicians should develop appropriate policy tools to prevent the urban-rural divide from progressively dissolving social cohesion and trust in the governmental apparatus.