How populism will change the electoral landscape

We're living in a populist moment.  That is the contention of a number of journalists, thinkers, observers, panjandrums, and political invigilators.

From Washington to Warsaw, the West is seeing the postwar order of openness and  flexibility challenged.  A nascent nationalism is taking root, challenging the core precepts of liberal cosmopolitanism that have shaped social and economic policy since the Bretton Woods Conference concluded seventy-odd years ago.

That's the big picture.  What it looks like electorally is a shuffling of alliances, a rejiggering of traditional constituencies.  Loyalties are crossing border lines, almost literally.

In the U.K., working-class voters are putting their piddling fortunes behind the Tories, rather than their natural home in Labor.  There is a concomitant reversing of field among the middle class, which is swapping blue kits for red.  As Andrew Sullivan writes, "[t]he Tories now have almost twice as many working-class voters as Labour, which was founded to defend the working class!"  This tracks with the Brexit vote, where 55% of rural residents cast a ballot to ditch the E.U. 

The geographic political divide is more pronounced in the U.S., illustrated most recently in our off-year elections.  In Pennsylvania, local races resulted in Republicans becoming more entrenched in rural counties, with the obverse occurring in urban areas.

The same phenomenon transpired in once red Virginia, with statewide Democrats winning overwhelmingly in the suburbs.  CityLab estimates that Democrats took 73% of the vote in districts deemed "dense suburban."  Eight years ago, Democrats managed to win only 46% of voters in the same conurbations.

Just across the western border, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated the unpopular Matt Bevin for the Kentucky governorship despite hemorrhaging hayseed voters his father had won just eight years ago.  Beshear made up the filial difference by running up the vote in towns and cities.

Farther south in the Magnolia State, which is far less populated than Kentucky or Virginia, Republicans held the governor's mansion.  Mississippi lacked the cities to make a Democrat competitive statewide.

Even the ongoing impeachment hearings, which are as scintillating as a block universe theory book club, reflect our rural-urban divide.  The eyelid-dragging proceedings are broadcast nonstop in Washington, D.C. bars.  They are the fumarole from which endless gassing is emitted on TV roundtables shot in New York City.  Otherwise, outside large metropolitan areas, they are nonexistent.

Despite it being the fourth impeachment inquiry in our entire nation's history, those not in the center of a major media market are tuning them out.  NBC ran an entire piece about how gym rats and Vegas slot jockeys don't give a toss about the televised proceedings.  "It appeared not all Americans were convinced of the event's nation-shaping significance," the reporter admits with pained reluctance.  A professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio asked a class of 80 students if they were discussing impeachment and the drummed up Ukrainian scandal with their friends and family.  Two replied in the affirmative, with the rest expressing classic young-person acedia.

Trump's approval rating remains unfazed through the hearings, holding steady in the low 40s.  Clearly, the maundering and playacting that concretize these "investigations" aren't finding rapt audiences outside a few major ZIP codes.

"[T]here's literally one political trend and it's happening everywhere all the time," reporter Matthew Zeitlin observes, noting the geographical retreat of our binary politics.  This trend isn't flagging any time soon.  As the left and right fall back into their familiar enclaves, rebuffing Hannah Arendt's entreaty to "train your imagination to go visiting," suspicion, even hatred, of the other side is renascent, particularly for the urban left. 

U.C. Berkley instructor Jackson Kernion revealed in a now deleted tweet how many leftists feel about rural conservatives: "I unironically embrace the bashing of rural Americans.  [T]hey, as a group, are bad people who have made bad life decisions."  Kernion wants to "shame people who aren't pro-city" and make their lives "uncomfortable."

His blunt and reductive contempt evinces the kind of attitude with which urban professionals regard the provincial class.  "Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows!" they cry to anyone questioning the flow of wealth and talent to metropolises, leaving non-urban areas destitute of talented leaders.  A decompensation of mutual fellow feeling naturally follows.

The political abysm between city and country continues to deepen.  If a billionaire New Yorker with a heart for the Rust Belt can't bridge the divide, who can?

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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