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Government / Local politics

From Austria to the US, urban vs rural is the new divide in politics

On Sunday, Austria narrowly elected the independent green candidate Van der Bellen as its new president, rejecting the Freedon party’s Norbert Hofer.

The election was close: nearly 47 per cent of the voters chose the far right candidate, which is pretty terrifying. But he lost, and by more than he had in the previous version of the same election held in July (a proper nail biter, in which Hofer got 49.7 per cent of the vote). So this is, tentatively, good news.

What’s interesting for our purposes, though, is who voted for each candidate – or, more specifically, where.

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— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) December 4, 2016

The sea of blue means that, geographically, much of the country voted for the far right. But Van der Bellen still got a majority because his voters came overwhelmingly from the cities: more than 40 per cent of Austria’s 8.7m inhabitants are squeezed into the metropolitan areas of just three cities (Vienna, Graz and Linz).

This reminded me of something. The map of US election results we’re all used to is the one that’s done by states, because that’s how the electoral college works:

The 2016 result. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But this misleads as much as it informs. This is a map of the 2016 result done instead by county:

The 2016 result. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, it looks like a landslide for the right. Except it wasn’t: Hillary Clinton convincingly won the popular vote, 48 per cent to 46 per cent. But her votes were largely concentrated into urban areas, such as Greater Miami or the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor; as well as a few counties in the south or west which have large Latino or African-American communities.

(Of course, thanks to the vagaries of the electoral system, Clinton lost anyway. Since I last wrote about this, I’ve had letters reminding me that electoral college was created specifically to prevent some a majority restricted to a small area of the country from lording it other a more geographically dispersed minority. This seems like a silly way to run an election to me but, hey, not my country.)

One last map. This is the result of Britain’s recent referendum on leaving the European Union:

 

Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons, with CityMetric key.

This one’s not quite as clear cut. There are clearly regional factors at play too – in Scotland, every council area voted Remain; in the Midlands, the vast majority of places voted Leave.

But nonetheless, it looks a lot like Britain’s cities were generally more in favour of Britain’s EU membership than the rural areas around them.

Image: CityMetric.

There are no doubt all sorts of reasons for this phenomenon. Some of them will be economic (well-paid jobs are increasingly concentrated in cities). Some of them will be cultural (the countryside is more likely to be white). Indeed, these are two sides of the same coin: as young or educated people move to cities in search of opportunity, the places they leave behind will become older, less diverse and more conservative.


Whatever the explanation, though, it looks increasingly like that is the new political fault line in western countries. If you believe in progressive politics, there’s a fair chance you live in a city.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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