Written on 23 Nov 2020 by Professor Michael Kenny and Dr Davide Luca

The urban-rural polarisation of political disenchantment in Europe

The recent Presidential election reminded us of how wide the urban-rural divide is in the United States. But political polarisation between metropolitan cores and other areas is also marked in Europe, and policy-makers need to understand its dynamics and address its causes, write Michael Kenny and Davide Luca.

As the results of the US presidential election demonstrate, the gap between the political allegiances of many urban and rural voters remains wide. Across Europe too, notable political events, such as the UK 2016 Brexit vote, and the 2018 Gilet Jaunes protests in France, have also shed light on a divergence between the political outlooks of urban and rural places. Yet, despite growing evidence of this phenomenon in individual countries (like the UK and France), relatively little research has explored in a systematic way whether the growing political divide between urban and rural areas is apparent across the entire European continent.

In a new paper we present the first systematic evidence on the link between place of residence and differences in social and political attitudes between urban and rural places across 30 European countries. And we find that the polarisation between urban and non-metropolitan places is also significant on this side of the Atlantic, and is especially strong across Western Europe.

Our analysis draws on survey data representative of the adult population of all EU27 countries, plus the UK, Norway, and Switzerland, and covers the period 2002-2018. It shows how – compared to dwellers in inner urban cores – respondents living in suburbs, towns and rural areas are far more likely to be conservative in their orientation,  more dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy in their country, and less likely to trust the political system, even though they are strikingly more likely to participate in it, especially by voting – a finding which has an important bearing on current debates about the future of democratic politics. However, while our analysis highlights some stark geographical variances in attitudes towards migration and globalisation, we do not find significant geographical variation on issues which have traditionally been at the core of left-right cleavages, such as support for welfare state redistribution.

The polarisation of electorates across the urban-rural divide is by no means a new, or recent, phenomenon. At the peak of the industrial revolution, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many European countries were divided politically between the interests of rural and small-town dwellers, engaged in agricultural production, and those of urban residents, experiencing a new spatial economic order dominated by manufacturing. Yet, in the second half of the last century this stark divide faded partially, as new political cleavages, which reflected economic issues, class divisions and the role of the state in society, emerged. The renewed overlapping of territorial and attitudinal cleavages signals a new geographical fracture in European societies which, in the long-term, may have significant implications for the major challenges associated with declining social cohesion and rising disenchantment with democracy.

These findings carry significance for debates about two important contemporary phenomena. One is the growth of political disenchantment in many non-metropolitan locations across Europe, and the fertile soil this provides for nationalist and populist parties and causes. The other is the debate about ‘rural consciousness' what kinds of policy agenda and political response are required in order to re-engage the inhabitants of what are commonly termed ‘left-behind’ places.

In relation to current debates about the causes of political disenchantment, our findings suggest the importance of a place-sensitive conception of this phenomenon, and simultaneously serve to undermine overly generalised characterisations of ‘rural consciousness’ or ‘left-behind’ disillusionment. The clear gradient that we identify in terms of political attitudes and social values, and their correlation with different spatial scales and kinds of community – ranging from metropolitan centres at one end of the spectrum through to more remote, rural areas at the other – suggest the need for a detailed and contextual understanding of the geography of disillusion.

This research also contributes to an ongoing debate about whether people’s outlooks are ultimately shaped by sociodemographic characteristics – that is, by compositional effects and the geographical sorting of people with different attributes and outlooks – or by place effects, the long-term influence exercised by place of birth and upbringing. Even though attitudes are highly stratified by individual characteristics such as age, educational attainments, and occupation, we underline how place still appears to have a non-negligible correlation with values and outlooks after controlling for individual observable characteristics.

More work is needed to understand better the mechanisms through which this relationship works. Other recent research has, for example, shown how place of birth and the context where individuals spend their ‘impressionable years’ – i.e. the period during which people form durable political attitudes – have a significant influence in moulding both observable an unobservable characteristics such as education and cognitive capacities. Even in some of the most dynamic and developed economies in the world, it appears that where you are born and grow up is one of the most important facts about the life of any citizen, and this should give policy-makers food for thought. There are large numbers of people resident in areas where trust in politics and the political system is low, and where socially liberal values have only a thin presence. Yet, successful majoritarian politics require that parties of the political mainstream find ways to win the support of many of these voters.

This challenge connects with the second main implication of these results. Our analysis suggests that a firmer appreciation of the geographical specificities of different rural areas, towns and cities is integral to a more contextually informed and tailored policy response to the challenges posed by inter- and intra-regional inequality. Place-sensitive policies need to reflect an understanding of the distinctive history and economic characteristics of a place, but also their degree of connectivity to other large urban agglomerations. Recent research  shows how the EU’s Cohesion Policy contributes to generating economic growth in rural areas close to urban agglomerations, but not in those further away from large cities.

Overall, our results support the conclusion that there are important trends and dynamics at work right across the continent and, especially, western European countries. Of course, there are still key differences of political economy, history and institutional structure at work in these different countries and regions, and these need to be given due analytical consideration. Yet, understood as a wider phenomenon, we are much more likely to grasp the underlying economic and cultural dynamics that are driving and perpetuating these spatially embedded patters of political disillusion.

  • About the author

    Professor Michael Kenny, Inaugural Director, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

    Professor Kenny directs the Institute’s place and public policy programme.   Learn more

    Mike Kenny
  • About the author

    Dr Davide Luca

    Dr Davide Luca is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cambridge, Department of Land Economy, and a By-Fellow at Churchill College. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics. His research explores the links between power, place, and public policy. It is interdisciplinary, cutting across Economic Geography, Public Policy, and Political Economy, and covers three main themes: (1) spatial inequality and political discontent; (2) the politics of territorial development; (3) local governance and public policy delivery.

    Davide Luca