Monday, December 12, 2016

So much rural political analysis, so little time to write (Part I): Europe

I've made little time to write for the blog this month; meanwhile, further analysis of the rural vote is pilling up.  I'm going to try to plow through some of it in a few posts, though the result is unlikely to be artful.

Let's start in Europe, where Rick Lyman filed this excellent story for the New York Times a few weeks ago, "Like Trump, Europe's Populists Win Big with Rural Voters."  The dateline is a Polish village, Kulesze Koscielne, and the story's lede goes like this:
The red-tiled roofs of this tiny village cluster around the soaring steeples of St. Bartholomew Church like medieval cottages at the base of a castle, alienated from the cosmopolitan life of cities such as Warsaw by a chasm that is economic, cultural and political.
Lyman reports that 83% of those in this village--but only a third of Warsaw residents--voted for Poland's populist party in the last election.

Some of the tension is cultural, Lyman writes, but also wrapped up in demographic differences between rural and urban populations.   
In the countryside, residents, on average, are older, poorer, less educated and more receptive to the populist message that they are the true protectors of their nation’s culture and heritage. 
The "true protectors of their nation's cultural heritage" reminds me of some of the talk we are seeing in the United States post-election regarding "real Americans."  It also reminds me of Sarah Palin's rhetoric in the 2008 election cycle.  Lyman continues:
And voting against the big-city elites who they think belittle them can be doubly satisfying, analysts say. Rural residents say they are often mocked and marginalized as backward for choosing the traditional, slow-paced life their grandparents lived, and also derided as bigots for their reluctance to embrace the more ethnically diverse, sexually open worldview of the cities.
Lyman quotes Pawel Spiewak, a University of Warsaw sociologist, whose focus is on the cultural divide:
We are living the same lives, of course.  We have the same cars. But we are listening to different music. We are using different words. We are even eating completely different things.
Lyman notes that this rural-urban divide, as reflected in politics, is apparent not only in the recent Brexit vote (read more in this earlier post), but also in Lithuania, Italy, France, and Austria.  In the latter, Lyman reports that Alexander Van der Bellen's recent victory over far-right leader Norbert Hofer has been partly attributed to Van der Bellen's concerted effort to "woo rural voters...visit[ing] dozens of rural settings, pos[ing] repeatedly in front of the Austrian flag."  Perhaps as a consequence, Van der Bellen won an additional 200 communities and an additional 300,000 votes in the second round of voting, compared to the first, in May.

I am reminded of Hillary Clinton's failure to campaign in rural communities, particularly in some key states like Iowa and Wisconsin.  Sadly, she didn't even show up, let alone appear in front of an American flag.

Lyman also makes the point that many of the far right leaders in Europe are--like Trump--billionaires.  Ironically, they are made more popular with rural voters as a consequence of the disdain that urban elites--the intelligentsia and the technocrats--heap on them.  Lyman quotes Jaroslaw Fils, a sociologist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, regarding Poland's right-wing politician, Jaroslaw Kaczynski:
On paper, he is hardly a hero for the underprivileged, but, again, he is so despised by the Polish elites that he has become someone the people in the country can identify with.
This reflects a bizarre alignment between the super rich "populists" and rural folks who feel similarly snubbed by the intelligentsia.  See an earlier commentary here.

Of course, this political phenomenon does not fall neatly along the rural-urban divide.  That is, working class folks in cities are also objects of elite disdain, but that disdain is often expressed as a function of geography, at least in the United States, where you hear references to flyover states and such.  (I wrote about this following the 2008 Presidential election here).  Regarding the Polish situation, Fils commented:
Residents of rural areas are perhaps the only social groups that we can still openly ridicule.  It’s not politically correct to laugh at gay people, ethnic minorities, obese people. But hardly anyone will tell you off for laughing at peasants.
Read more scholarly commentary on this phenomenon here.

While an appeal to nostalgia is something many of these European populist movements share with the Trump phenomenon, there are limits to the comparison.  Lyman explores the post-WWII communist history as an aspect of this European trend:
In the formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe, populists on the left and the right woo rural voters by playing off nostalgia for lost greatness, and the old era of authoritarian leaders and governments that provided for people. 
Lyman quotes Marian Lesko, a Slovakian political analyst;
Where the countryside was mobilized, victory belonged to coalitions that weren’t the biggest fans of liberal democracy and democratic values.
More on the rural vote in the U.S. in subsequent posts in this series.  Read more about Eastern European views regarding Trump here (Baltics) and here (Poland).

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