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The outcomes of several highly consequential elections over the past few years, such as the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, have focussed attention on the idea of urban-rural political divides in western democracies. These election results and much of the reporting around them have painted a picture of an increasing divide between cosmopolitan, progressive, cities and a nationalist, conservative, and discontented countryside. Although most European democracies have not replicated this urban v. rural electoral battleground, policymakers should be working now to ensure that it doesn’t happen, says Twan Huijsmans, who will defend his PhD thesis on the subject on 21 March at the University of Amsterdam.

A broadening divide between voters in different locations could potentially have serious implications for the functioning of democracies and even the perceived legitimacy of governments. Although this may seem a doomsday scenario, the 2020 election in America saw a striking 40 percent point difference in support for the Democratic party between the most and least urbanised places in 2020, and this was accompanied by feelings of resentment among rural inhabitants, towards both perceived elites and city inhabitants.

Divergent attitudes

Compared to the US, UK and Canada, overall levels of urban-rural electoral divides are still substantially lower in most European countries, due to centrist parties attracting support from both urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, support for the many newer parties which are appearing on the more extreme ends of the political spectrum is often concentrated disproportionately in either urban or rural areas. These parties often emphasize cultural issues, and attitudes on such issues have diverged along the urban-rural continuum in recent years.

Copyright: Twan Huijsmans
At the same time, urban-rural attitudinal differences in European countries are not yet comparable to those we see in the US or the UK. In the Netherlands, for example, they are still relatively small compared to divides between educational groups. Twan Huijsmans

Place-based resentment in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is in many aspects the diametrical opposite of the United States, in terms of political-institutional context (with its multiparty proportional representation system) and geography (smaller distances, much more densely populated). So the Netherlands could be regarded as far less likely to exhibit such strong political divides between urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, there are still substantial socioeconomic, cultural and political differences between Dutch regions. Huijsmans’ findings show that inhabitants of rural and peripheral areas in the Netherlands frequently feel ignored by politicians, that their values and lifestyles are disrespected, and that their part of the country is under-resourced compared to others.

These feelings of place-based resentment can spur negative feelings towards so-called ‘outgroups’, like immigrants and ethnic minorities, and towards politicians and policymakers. Huijsmans: ‘To explain attitudinal differences between inhabitants of different places, thus requires us to pay close attention to how people evaluate the relative position of their place. This encompasses not only socioeconomic differences between places, but also cultural and political differences. It’s important that policy makers make sure inhabitants of all places feel represented, and that their cultural values and practices are taken into account when national policy is being developed. This is how we can prevent problematic growth of geographic polarisation.’

Defence details

Twan Huijsmans: Our Place in Politics: Urban rural political divergence and how place affects political attitudes. Supervisors are Prof. W. van der Brug and Dr B. Lancee. Co-supervisors are Prof. S.L. de Lange and Dr E. Harteveld.

Time and location

Huijsmans' PhD defence ceremony will take place on 21 March, at 13.00, in the Agnietenkapel.