Town and country: liberal and conservative

One feature of political geography seems to leap out whenever I look at a map of election results: the more closely together people live, the more liberal they tend to be. Big cities vote Liberal or NDP in Canada, Democratic in the United States. By contrast, small towns and rural areas tend to be more conservative. Two hypotheses occur to me immediately:

  1. Liberal people choose to live in cities.
  2. Living in cities encourages people to be liberal.

To some extent, I think both are plausible.

The first trend is self-reinforcing. Because cities are mostly full of liberals, they attract liberals from conservative areas. Just think of the stereotype of the young gay person who moves to the big city to find a more tolerant community. While it is a stereotype, it does have the ring of truth to it. Similarly, one might expect clustering even within urban areas: with some predominantly liberal areas continuing to attract new liberals, while other relatively conservative areas do likewise.

The second hypothesis is more interesting. I can think of a few reasons for which it might be true. Mostly, they have to do with being exposed to large numbers of other people. Spending time in the company of people of differing races, classes, sexual orientations, and so forth may well reduce your chances of fearing them. I think it is likely that working with and befriending people with cultures and experiences different from your own is generally likely to make you more empathetic, tolerant, and socially progressive. It may also be the case that people in cities tend to get exposed to new ideas more rapidly and often, putting them ahead of the curve in terms of incorporating them into their own philosophies and lives.

At the same time, just spending time in close proximity to a lot of people reinforces the fact that we are all dependent upon one another, and we cannot live our lives in ways that do not affect those around us. In short, people in cities are constantly exposed to economic externalities: both in the positive form, as with public transit, and in the negative form, as with noisy neighbours or automobile exhaust.

Those in sparsely populated regions may be better able to sustain the myth of self-sufficiency, despite how virtually all rural lifestyles in rich states are just as mutually interdependent as urban lifestyles. Arguably, the lack of contact with both different forms of people and with large numbers of densely-packed people contributes to important elements of political conservatism. I realize that two of the underlying arguments above are likely to bother conservative people: essentially, that social conservatism is the product of isolation and fear and that self-reliance is largely a myth. Feel free to debate those positions, as well as the general question of why people of different political inclinations cluster the way they do.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

23 thoughts on “Town and country: liberal and conservative”

  1. I am a hermit living on a small isolated lake in the Gatineau Hills. Of course I am close enough to a city to use its amenities occasionally, and, like almost everyone else, I am connected to the grids of technology and hydro, so I am not totally insular, but if I fit your prototype for my location and life style I would be fearful and right wing politically.

    In fact I am a leftie and have been all my life and I am one of the least fearful people I know. My experience leads me to the conclusion that many urban dwellers are far more fearful than country folk, and they seem far less connected to people than those of us who live away from cities. Most of them live lives of anonymity and seem to stay clear of even their neighbours as they hop into their cars as soon as they emerge from their houses and shop in big box stores. When they travel on public transport they do so with blank faces that close out contact.

    On a less personal note: The first socialist party in Canada had its roots in Saskatchewan.

    I am interested in your take on this.


  2. I certainly don’t think everyone who lives in cities is liberal and everyone who lives in small towns or rural areas is conservative. I also acknowledge that it is entirely possible to have more nuanced political views than just ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’

    The observation in question is simply that the probability of any given person being liberal is higher in more densely populated areas. Electoral maps from Canada and the US do seem to demonstrate this. If it is true, it would be interesting to know why.

  3. Rural Voting in the 2004 Election (PDF)

    “In the 2004 presidential election, rural voters tended to favor Republican George W. Bush, while urban residents more often voted for Democrat John Kerry, a pattern that became associated with the red state–blue state divide. A closer look at this rural–urban pattern finds many exceptions, however, highlighting the wide variety of places that compose rural as well as urban America. The character and politics of many rural places in the South, for example, are unlike those found elsewhere in the country. Similarly, unique rural places exist throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and West, each so unlike the others that the idea that there is one ”rural America” breaks down—there are, in fact, several quite different rural Americas. This fact sheet presents detailed patterns of rural voting by region and “degree of rural- ness” (population density). It also shows that these patterns are better explained by looking at demographic factors, such as ethnic composition and educational levels, than simply by where people live…

    In general, rural areas tended to vote more Republican, but with prominent exceptions of some rural minority areas—Native American lands in the Midwest and West, and black farming regions in the South. Hispanic populations had a less distinct impact on voting, probably reflecting both more divergent voting, and a substantial fraction unable to vote if they are not citizens or registered voters. Th e rural–urban effects remain prominent, however, even after we statistically adjust for differences in region, ethnicity and education.”

  4. Republican Party (United States)

    Since the 1930s the Democrats have dominated most central cities, while the Republicans now dominate rural areas and the majority of suburbs…

    The Republican Party’s strongest focus of political influence lies in the Great Plains states, particularly Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and in the Mountain states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah (Utah gave George W. Bush more than 70% of the popular vote in 2004). These states are sparsely populated, have very few urban centers, and have overwhelmingly White populations, making it extremely difficult for Democrats to create a sustainable voter base there. Unlike the South, these areas have been strongly Republican since before the party realignments of the 1960s. The Great Plains states were one of the few areas of the country where Republicans had any significant support during the Great Depression. However, these areas also have very few electoral votes or House seats, making them of limited political utility relative to more populous states.

  5. People in urban areas have a greater exposure to government on a regular basis, and they tend to be far more reliant on government provided services. Self reliance is not so mythical when you think about the kinds of services that do not exist in many rural areas like trash collection, fire protection, public water and sewers, etc. It is natural for urbanites to be less suspicious of government for the simple reason that they are more familiar with it.

  6. You are right to call the description above a caricature. As usual, reality is more complex.

    Both social liberals and social conservatives recognize the fact of inter-dependence. They just have differing preferences about how that dependence is moderated. In general, it seems that conservatives favour private social organizations like churches, while liberals favour moderation through a secular state.

    Both viewpoints involve libertarian and communitarian elements. They just differ in their opinions on what individuals should be free to do and what obligations are imposed on them by ethics or society. Think about differing opinions on abortion, education, military service, hunting, sexual freedom, free speech, etc.

  7. It’s also worth mentioning that these factors will be correlated with a whole load of other potentially significant variables. E.g. rich old people may retire to the country and rich old people tend to be conservative.

  8. The original post and basically all the comments fail to clearly understand or define the word ‘liberal’. Liberalism IS NOT shorthand for the views of the left, or the Democrats in the US, it is a political ideology based on individual rights, tolerance of minorities and the separation of church and state. Many left parties (particularly those grounded in the labour movement) have been / are communitarian and involve narrowly-defined forms of community; as such they may have little in common with liberalism. When the term ‘liberal’ is properly understood then it becomes clear that it doesn’t map straightforwardly onto partisan allegiance & that it has nothing to do with bonds of trust described by the first commenter.

  9. Sarah,

    Conservatism is also being defined here in contemporary rather than theoretical terms. This is the conservatism of Fox News, not of Burke.

    While it is certainly interesting to know about the historical origins of classical liberal and conservative thought, one might legitimately ask what relevance they maintain now.

  10. Since liberalism remains the dominant strand of political thought in the West and is enshrined in our constitutional documents (such as the Charter) it is plainly still relevant. Aside from that conceptual point, any productive debate requires a clear definition of terms in order to understand where and why disagreement is arising; the North American tendency to call anything pertaining to the left ‘liberal’ produces sloppy, contradictory and nonsensical arguments. I am not therefore making a distinction between historical and contemporary use (though such a distinction might be made), I am simply making a distinction between correct and incorrect use of a crucial concept the terminology of which is correctly applied by virtually everyone outside North America.

  11. I agree that terminology is important here.

    Elements of what North Americans consider ‘liberal’ are actually socialist. Meanwhile, the term ‘liberal’ is used as an insult in much of the US.

    Why not use ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ to signify those mainstream positions, keeping ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ for more cautious use?

  12. “[O]ne of the main drivers of moral change is human contact. When we associate with other people and share common goals, we extend to them our affection. Increases in travel and access to information as well as political and economic interdependence mean that we associate with many more people than our grandparents and even our parents. As our social circle widens, so does our ‘moral circle’.

  13. Wide open spaces and the struggle to settle them are the keys to American culture, argued Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian, a century ago. The practical skills and rugged individualism of the frontiersfolk made the country prosperous, decentralised and democratic. Turner overstated his case, but America is far more decentralised than other rich countries. In Britain “there’s London, London and London,” says Mr Kotkin. In America there are scores of hubs. There is also a libertarian streak in America’s most sparsely-populated states. Only 10% of Idahoans trust the federal government, says Greg Hill, a professor at Boise State University. Butch Otter, the state’s governor, rebelled against both Obamacare and George Bush’s Patriot Act. “Don’t tread on me” was one of the first slogans of the American revolutionaries; and in the open spaces, no one needs to tread on anyone else.”

  14. “Okay. Here is a village.” On the right half of the page al-Bazzaz wrote a V and beneath it he drew a collection of separate small squares. “These are houses or tents,” he said. “Notice there are spaces between them. This is because in the villages each family has its own house, and each house is sometimes several miles from the next one. They are self-contained. They grow their own food and make their own clothes. Those who grow up in the villages are frightened of everything. There is no real law enforcement or civil society. Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders. This is the tribal mind. The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village. Each of the families is ruled by a patriarch, and the village is ruled by the strongest of them. This loyalty to tribe comes before everything. There are no values beyond power. You can lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and it is okay so long as you are a loyal son of the village or the tribe. Politics for these people is a bloody game, and it is all about getting or holding power.”

    Al-Bazzaz wrote the word “city” atop the left half of the page. Beneath it he drew a line of adjacent squares. Below that he drew another line, and another. “In the city the old tribal ties are left behind. Everyone lives close together. The state is a big part of everyone’s life. They work at jobs and buy their food and clothing at markets and in stores. There are laws, police, courts, and schools. People in the city lose their fear of outsiders, and take an interest in foreign things. Life in the city depends on cooperation, on sophisticated social networks. Mutual self-interest defines public policy. You can’t get anything done without cooperating with others, so politics in the city becomes the art of compromise and partnership. The highest goal of politics becomes cooperation, community, and keeping the peace. By definition, politics in the city becomes nonviolent. The backbone of urban politics isn’t blood, it’s law.

  15. But trends over the last decade or so suggest the country is becoming bluer. When we talk about population growth in the United States, we’re almost invariably talking about a group that votes Democratic. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira, who co-authored The Emerging Democratic Majority back in 2006, points out that minority voters have grown by 11 percent over the last 20 years while relatively conservative white working-class voters have decreased by 15 points. Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz projects that nonwhite voters will constitute one-third of the electorate in 2020. (By 2042, the entire U.S. population will be more than half minority.) College-educated women, 65 percent of whom supported Obama in 2008, went from 8 percent of the over-25 female population to 28 percent over the last 40 years. Young voters, who went for Obama 66-32, add 4 million new members to their ranks every year. Professionals, 68 percent of whom voted for Obama, are the “fastest-growing occupational group,” according to Teixeira. And, adding insult to injury, the fastest-growing religious population is “unaffiliated” voters, three-quarters of whom voted for Obama.

  16. Another cause of conservative mistrust is that, in some countries, the electoral system gives conservative politicians a particular incentive to encourage polarisation. Liberals tend to be concentrated in cities; conservatives are more spread out. In winner-takes-all systems, this puts liberal parties at a disadvantage, as they pile up huge majorities in cities while conservative parties win more seats by lower margins elsewhere. In America this means the Republicans can win the electoral college with a minority of the popular vote (as they did in 2000 and 2016). In Britain it means Brexit supporters are in the majority in nearly two-thirds of constituencies but make up only about half of voters. The upshot, argues Ezra Klein in a new book on America, “Why We’re Polarised”, is that ultra-partisanship works better for conservatives. Liberals have to win votes from moderates; conservatives can prevail by just getting out their base. As politics becomes more polarised, energising the base gets easier, and winning over moderates harder.

  17. Our analysis of the election results suggests that 2020 accelerated a long-running trend

    American politics is even more split along urban-rural lines than it was four years ago

    Preliminary results supplied by Decision Desk hq, a data-provider, show that voters in the least urbanised counties voted for Mr Trump by a margin of 33 points, up from 32 points in 2016. (Specifically these are the bottom 20% of counties by population density. Counties which are more than 10% Hispanics, which shifted right for reasons unrelated to density, have been excluded.) Meanwhile, voters in the most urbanised counties—the top 20%—plumped for Mr Biden by 29 points, up from Hillary Clinton’s 25-point margin in 2016. More broadly, the greater the population density, the bigger the swing to the Democratic candidate.

    One possible explanation for this trend is the tendency for Democrats and Republicans to live among their own kind. Americans are still sorting themselves into politically like-minded communities, a movement noted by Bill Bishop in “The Big Sort” published in 2008. For liberals, this means diverse, densely populated cities; for conservatives it is places that are mostly white, working-class and where the neighbours are a .22 round away.

  18. But an analysis of the election results by The Economist suggests that the partisan divide between America’s cities and open spaces is greater than ever. Preliminary results supplied by Decision Desk HQ, a data-provider, show that voters in the least urbanised counties voted for Mr Trump by a margin of 33 points, up from 32 points in 2016. (Specifically these are the bottom 20% of counties by population density. Counties which are more than 10% Hispanics, which shifted right for reasons unrelated to density, have been excluded.) Meanwhile, voters in the most urbanised counties—the top 20%—plumped for Mr Biden by 29 points, up from Hillary Clinton’s 25-point margin in 2016. More broadly, the greater the population density, the bigger the swing to the Democratic candidate. Even after controlling for other relevant demographic factors, such as the proportion of whites without college degrees or Hispanics in each county, the data suggest that urban and rural voters are more divided today than they were in 2016.

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