The Ideological Gap Part Two: Urban vs Rural
Hart Morgan is a 20-year-old student from Belleville, IL, right in the heart of the Rust Belt. He’s a proud supporter of the local labour unions, campaigned for Bernie Sanders, yet he reluctantly voted for Donald Trump. “We all voted for Trump, while the rest of our ticket was Democrat.”
His sister, Kat, lives 2,000 miles away in urban San Francisco. She voted for Hillary, though reluctantly, and Hart feels like they live in two different worlds. A major concern for Hart was the Transpacific Trade Agreement (TPTA) that Trump had promised to scrap, and which threatened the jobs of the union workers he supported. “When I would talk to Kat about the TPTA it didn’t resonate. It was almost like speaking to someone from another country.” He, of course, respects her political views, but it truly surprised him how different her priorities were.
In both the EU referendum and the 2016 US Presidential Election voters living in rural areas swung the vote heavily for leave and Trump respectively. Despite being compatriots, the priorities of those living in the city and those in the country appear to be vastly different. Click on the Electoral College map for Ohio, for example, and you’ll see three clumps of blue amongst a sea of red. Without the aid of a map, I could guess that the clumps were Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
It was a similar story for Brexit. Most, but not all, larger cities and Scotland went overwhelmingly for remain, whilst the vast majority of market towns and rural areas went for leave. Unlike the generational divide, however, this apparent gap in worldviews and priorities has been an almost constant trait throughout history, even if the party that the areas have voted for has switched over the years.
The cultural hub of rural Britain and America has historically been the church, historian Joe Skeaping explains, and these houses of worship were “socially very useful.” The congregation comes together, shares news about the community and thinks the same way. This hasn’t changed much. In a rural setting you generally have the same routine and see the same people, only people go to church less in Britain. “You buy into a way of life, you’re bought up with a particular way of living which you just carry on with, and the idea of questioning that is kind of pointless.”
And it is in protecting this way of life, your friends, your family, your job, your routine, where the main difference between the city and the country lies; People in the city persue opportunity, whilst country folk worry about risk. They don’t want people living hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away meddling with their world. “They worry, with some validity, that those slightly radical ideas will swamp them, because the people who have those ideas hold the levers of power. It’s not irrational.”
I saw this time and time again when interviewing leave and Trump supporters. Hart thought power should be further devolved to the states. Clare and Paul Sampson, from Newton Abbot in Devon, stated legitimate legislative overreach from Brussels as there reason for voting to leave: “If you happen to believe that the answer to the world’s problems is more state involvement, then [the EU] is an attractive option. We don’t.” Douglas Finlayson, from Uttoxeter, thinks the EU has become “very bureaucratic, very big and very expensive.” And Edna Miller, from West Virginia, thinks that government bureaucracy has “gone crazy”, something the Republican Party certainly thinks as well if their rhetoric and legislation is anything to go by. It is the desire for smaller government that I have found unites most Trump and Brexit supporters.
People in the city are more pro-government intervention because legislation has been necessary to keep the population inhabiting the city safe. From the 17th Century, cities began to grow beyond the 200,0000-person mark, and this brings in a new set of problems. Crime, disease, squalor and bad education become rampant, problems that are much more manageable in the country. If you have an outbreak of disease in a city it is going to affect the poor and the rich alike. The police force is a great example. If there was no city, Robert Peel never would have created the force to stop the rampant crime. “There is a massive emphasis on solving social problems in the city,” Joe explains. “I don’t think that exists in the rural world.”
You can apply the same logic to attitudes surrounding sex as well. Sexual promiscuity had to be liberalised, and as a result so did birth control, due to disease and over-population in urban areas. When the AIDS epidemic first struck, although slow to react at first, the city had to change it’s attitudes towards homosexuality, otherwise those affected would be too worried to come forward for tests and treatment. These issues didn’t impact the countryside, and, looking from afar from a strict Christian perspective at the sexual revolution in the city, it is not surprising that it caused outrage. A lot of these attitudes still linger today, especially in the US.
And then there is the opportunity. The cities are where the money, the culture, the experience is. It is where people who think differently and talk differently are, and it is alluring for those looking to take the chances to better themselves, and it has been throughout history.
Justin Brown, a director of photography originally from Somerset, has certainly jumped at the opportunity. Justin travels all over the world, including the EU, and knew he couldn’t stick around in Taunton if he wanted to achieve his goals. “I remember growing up and people were worried about Londoners buying houses in Somerset and forcing the prices up. There is definitely anti-city mentality.” Despite voting Conservative in 2010 and 2015, he considers himself a more liberal person since moving to the city, and is surrounded by like-minded people. “It’s because we see the world, and we don’t have that ‘us and them’ mentality.”
Stephen Clarke of the Resolution Foundation told me: “Fear of migration is one of the best predictors to voting leave.” People who dwell in cities have lived with immigration for generations. They have seen the benefits of it, and have learned to accept and embrace it. Levels of migration in large urban areas have remained more or less the same for some time now, but very interestingly it is the areas that have seen a sharp rise in immigration in recent years that were those who voted strongest to leave. “Boston and parts of Eastern England have seen very large increases in migration, so, although the share of the population who are foreign-born in Boston is around 20%, it’s gone from 2% to 20% in the space of 10 years.”
These areas are economically depressed already, and it is unfair to say that these fears can be written off as xenophobia. Edna and Hart both pointed out that their areas just did not have the infrastructure or the jobs to support large numbers of people coming in. Hart emphasised that he would much rather get the undocumented workers already working in the US help with citizenship, so they can be afforded the same rights as US workers, as this would help to drive wages up. “Who benefits from migrant labour? It’s not the working class people, or the middle class people. It’s the people who own the businesses exploiting these workers.” Douglas actually welcomed more immigration, as long as they were skilled, and he expressed his disappointment that the EU never implemented their passport-free travel proposal from the 70’s.
That is not to say there wasn’t a certain level of worry about the cultural impact of immigration, especially from the Trump supporters. Hart and Edna expressed skepticism about Muslims and other non-European cultures and their ability to assimilate. Edna does not like the idea of immigrants isolating themselves and refusing to learn the language. “I think it intimidates people.”
She talks about Dearborn, MI, a suburb of Detroit, as an example. Dearborn has become somewhat of a hotspot for America’s immigration debate. A predominantly Muslim-American neighbourhood, those on the left have hailed it as a beacon of hope and a great advertisement for how multiculturalism can work. Those on the right, however, seem to think that sharia law has been enacted and that this community is plotting to overthrow local government and take Michigan as it’s own. That is obviously completely false, but it has a worrying level of resonance with small town America. They fear the same thing happening to their own communities. In reality, it’s just a neighbourhood that gets along like any other, just with a few more mosques.
Hart had a very interesting perspective. He came to his vote for Trump from an arguably quite progressive standpoint; that globalism only benefits the very top, and a change is needed. It is a very fair point, and one shared by Jesse Banovic from Wiltshire, who was working for what she saw as a predatory student lettings company at the time of the referendum, a company that had grand plans to expand into the EU. Her only thought was to try and stop them, for the sake of the students in Europe who may be exploited.
Hart thinks that people in the city don’t really want change and progression; they just want the cosmetic stuff. He talked about his trip to California to visit his sister and canvass for Bernie Sanders during the Democrat primary. “I didn’t meet a single person who was for Hillary Clinton out there.” On the day, however, Clinton performed very strongly in areas with well-off young people, despite what Hart had heard. “I think it’s because Hillary doesn’t ask them to do anything. She doesn’t say she’s going to raise their taxes, she tells them they don’t have to give anything up.”
This might be a slightly unfair assessment. After all, people living in the city aren’t automatically rich. Granted, there is a higher rate of pay, but the cost of living is so much higher that it often results in those living in the city having less disposable cash then those in the country, especially amongst young people.
This is a case of something I found time and again on both sides of the city-country divide; a lack of understanding of each other. Edna’s feeling was that the whole country was behind Trump, and that it was only those in New York and California who looked down on him. “They’re not as close to the earth. They think they’re on a higher plain.” Douglas made similar accusations of city-dwellers looking down on country folk when I asked him why he thought people in the city voted to remain: “Made them feel superior? Made them feel better than the Little Britons they were mocking? I think there’s a lot of moral superiority.”
Those in the city, similarly, did not understand those in the country. Angelique Richardson, Edna’s daughter who grew up in Martinsburg, WV before moving to New York and London, does not understand her mother’s anxiety about foreigners. “I’m living in the cities that are going to be affected by terrorism. ISIS aren’t going to show up in Martinsburg and blow up the local church.” Justin feels, similarly, that the desire to vote leave in his hometown of Taunton stems from small-mindedness, “They just have very backward views. They’ll see a tower block being built to house immigrants, and they’ll hate it, but they won’t notice the thousands of other houses being built.”
This lack of understanding from both sides is all the more perplexing when you consider that Justin and Angelique came from these small towns. Douglas lived in cities for most of his life. Edna spends a lot of time in London with her daughter, and meets her friends. Douglas argues it’s a case of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger; that the young want to disparage and ultimately forget where they came from.
Joe suggests that there is a certain level of resentment towards the City from the country as well. They lose their best talent to the city, and are susceptible the cheaper labour coming in to their areas. The ones who stay behind tend to be less educated and less ambitious. That is not to say they are somehow less intelligent, just that they are sometimes made to feel that way from city people returning home. Joe argues: “You can chime with someone from a city in a different country better then you can with someone from the same country who lives in a rural area,” which is pretty much the point Hart made about his sister Kat.
Justin thinks that the Trump and Brexit votes were “the country folk’s last hurrah.” With migration levels to the city always increasing he might have a point. Personally, I think before that happens we need to take a shot at understanding each other, something Kat is desperate to do with her Brother. She thinks alienating people who live in flyover country is a very dangerous thing to do. “I don’t think Trump would be President right now if we’d had a greater attempt at understanding from the liberal city side.” She prides herself on being politically accepting, and is so proud of her little brother, even if he’s from the country and she’s from the city.