The Growing Urban-Rural Divide Around the World

How politics pits demographic groups against each other

Voters fill out ballots for Japan's upper house election at a polling station in Tokyo on July 11, 2010.
Voters fill out ballots for Japan's upper house election at a polling station in Tokyo on July 11, 2010. (Yuriko Nakao / Reuters)

Immediately following the U.S. presidential election on November 8, anti-Donald Trump demonstrations sprang up in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—cities that vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The protesters felt robbed: Hillary Clinton had won the majority of voters nationwide. But, like Al Gore in 2000, Clinton was hamstrung by the Electoral College, an institution designed to ensure a voice for sparsely populated states in America’s early years—and one that, of late, has spelled doom for candidates with urban-based coalitions.

The outsized influence of rural voters may seem like a unique feature—or bug—of the American political system. But a similar story recurs in places around the world. In over 20 countries, from Argentina, to Malaysia, to Japan, the structure of the electoral systems gives rural voters disproportionate power, relative to their numbers, over their more numerous urban-dwelling counterparts. And on certain issues, this can shift national priorities in favor of rural ones. In the United States in 2016, for example, the Republican platform called for eliminating federal funding for public transit, arguing that it “serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities,” implying that Trump’s expected infrastructure bill could focus on highways rather than on urban transit networks. Global warming, of special concern to urban coastal voters, has been described essentially as intriguing speculation by the president-elect.

In America, each state, regardless of population size, receives at least three electors, and a candidate who wins a majority of a state’s popular vote wins all of its electors, assuming all those electors accept the vote (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine). Effectively, this means that the 259,000 registered voters of more-rural, mostly conservative Wyoming, have around three and a half times as much representation in the electoral college as the 12.5 million and 18 million voters, respectively, of large, heavily urban states like New York and California.

Perhaps the nightmare scenario for this kind of electoral imbalance is Argentina. The country’s upper house of parliament is modeled off the U.S. Senate—where each state is represented by two senators—so underpopulated states have the same voting power as densely populated Buenos Aires. But in Argentina’s lower house, each province, no matter its population, receives at least five representatives, thanks to reforms passed by the outgoing military government in 1983 that, in effect, gave a leg up to conservative politicians. As a result, the voters of Tierra El Fuego, a sparsely populated province, have 180 times as much representation per person as Buenos Aires voters in the Chamber of Deputies.

This has a major impact on policy. Ezequial Ocantos, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Oxford, said that voters in Argentina’s outlying provinces receive massive cash transfers from the federal government even as the country as a whole struggles to maintain fiscal solvency. “Some people would say [this is] at the heart of Argentina’s fiscal problems. There’s some truth to that,” Ocantos said. By many measures, outlying provinces are dramatically better-served by Argentina’s central government than is Buenos Aires, which contains around 40 percent of the country’s population. “Lots of studies show these [outlying] provinces get more infrastructure and [state] employment,” said Maria Victoria Murillo, a political science professor at Columbia. This contributes to Buenos Aires’s mounting struggles to provide affordable housing and high-quality infrastructure for its ballooning population, as well as the province’s disproportionately high unemployment rate compared with the rest of the country.

Japan’s legislature does not fare much better on this score. Its apportionment of representatives was never fully updated to reflect wide-scale migration to urban areas after World War II, when the country rebuilt its bombed-out cities and quickly industrialized. In 2013, the country’s highest court ruled that Japan’s elections existed “in a state of unconstitutionality,” due to the extra voting power wielded by rural voters. (This warning, however, failed to prompt wide-scale changes to the system.)

The result has been policies that hurt the urban majority but benefited the rural minority. Michael Thies, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, credited the power of the rural vote in Japan with delaying structural reforms to the economy, such as lowering the country’s onerous food import tariffs and decreasing sky-high agricultural subsidies. The dominant Liberal Democratic Party has “been trying to wean the party off the organized rural vote in favor of market liberalization for nearly 20 years, but they have struggled with the ability of those rural interests to fight back,” Thies said. It’s only now, with the country’s dwindling rural voters representing such a small percentage of the population, that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded in pushing through long-delayed agricultural reforms.

In particular, the power wielded by elderly rural voters has, arguably, contributed to widespread pessimism among Japanese urbanites about their economic future. Japan has one of the world’s oldest populations and, as in the United States, rural voters tend to be substantially older than urban voters. The power of the elderly rural vote has made it very difficult for Japan, already saddled with one of the world’s greatest debt burdens, to reform its expensive social security system in a way that would curb benefits and attempt to make it sustainable for future generations. “If representation was shifted to a more one-person one-vote result, then the power of the agricultural lobby and the social security lobby … would be reduced,” Robert Feldman, the head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co., told Bloomberg. But one-person one-vote remains a pipe dream in Japan, which could help explain why the country’s largely urban youth are the most pessimistic young people in the world, with 37 percent expecting to work until they die.

Meanwhile, globalization is polarizing urban and rural voter decisions throughout the world, including in the United States. Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford who is writing a book about urban-rural voter cleavages, said, “The people who benefit from globalization and trade live in cosmopolitan city centers, and the people who feel left behind typically live outside the city centers. … I would anticipate a growing urban-rural cleavage based on that.”

There’s plenty of evidence for this. In Austria’s national elections in December, Alexander Van der Bellen, the Green Party candidate, triumphed narrowly over Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party, after getting a majority in nine of Austria’s 10 largest cities; the Freedom Party, by contrast, won most rural districts handily. In Britain, those who voted to leave the European Union were concentrated in rural areas. The same goes for the support base of France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Donald Trump lost cities by historic margins but made up for that with his rural support base.

The worry is that if globalization leads urban and rural voters to embrace starkly different political agendas around the world, democracies like the United States that give rural voters extra power will face crises of legitimacy as national policy is determined by a political minority. “Politics is just a pitched battle between these two geographically based groups,” Rodden said.

There is already reason to worry that Donald Trump will exacerbate this divide. He has emphasized social issues that strongly polarize rural and urban voters, by promising to appoint judges who will modify Roe vs. Wade as well as protect the second amendment. His economic policies may be just as polarizing. “If his economic policy is primarily an effort to bring back manufacturing in the Rust Belt and bring back coal [at] the expense of the innovation economy and knowledge economy in the cities … that would presumably have an impact on how people evaluate” the fairness of the constitutional system, Rodden said. The risk for the United States is that a failure to reform its democratic system will lead to the same crises of legitimacy seen in democratic systems elsewhere, as its urban majorities question why their priorities go ignored.

Kai Ostwald, a professor of Comparative Politics at the University of British Columbia, compared America’s situation to that of Malaysia, where urban voters are disillusioned after failing to unseat the ruling party despite winning the popular vote in the 2013 election. This happened thanks to a districting system that favors rural areas in terms of parliamentary representatives, he said. “It will certainly take time before we get the kind of disenfranchisement and sense of helplessness in the U.S. that is pervasive in Malaysia, [one where] the political system is so fundamentally biased that there is no sense in participating. But I’m not sure that that sense isn’t already quite strong in the U.S. electorate,” he said.

Certainly there is a sense of desperation among some American voters, now that the loser of the popular vote has won the presidency in two of the last five elections—both times, at a Democrat’s expense. (Some Democratic electors reportedly plotted a futile, last-ditch effort to select someone other than Trump as President.) Prominent Silicon Valley titans have latched onto plans to have California secede from the union out of frustration with the Electoral College.

Those frustrated with the Electoral College can take inspiration from Argentina, which succeeded in abolishing its own ahead of a 1995 national election, as part of a political compromise that allowed voter in Buenos Aires to be equally represented in elections for this one branch of government. (The legislature is another matter.) But such a compromise is almost impossible to imagine in today’s polarized Washington where the Republicans that now control the government have no incentive to tamper with a political system that benefits them. “If the frustration level gets ratcheted up I don’t know where we go. There’s either institutional reform or secession. Neither of those things happen easily given our constitution. That’s just the predicament that we’re in,” Rodden said.