Liberal Cities? What Recent Elections Mean for Global Urban History

By Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin

The agitated politics of 2016 have led intellectuals the world over to ponder the “end of the Anglo-American order,” the “bankruptcy of the post-war world order,” and the death of “liberalism.” That this death has been diagnosed before—for instance by the late Chris Bayly in the conclusion of his magisterial study of the globalizing nineteenth century—makes today’s echoes of the past all the more eerie. But the precedent may also make historians chary of issuing premature death certificates. Urban history and global history can be combined fruitfully in thinking about past and current trends in democracy and populism.

Much ink has been spilled on the parallels between the fateful Brexit vote of June and the election of Donald Trump. Together the pair forms the smoking gun for the death of “liberalism” and the rise of right-wing “populism.” Apart from the notoriously slippery and contested nature of both concepts, the societal underpinnings of the sea change, and particularly the motivations of voters, also remain hotly contested.


Map of the Brexit Vote: Blue = Remain / Red = Leave

Voting patterns in both the British EU referendum and the American November elections have been scrutinized in terms of class, race, gender, age, and education. Meanwhile, the rural-urban divide—or population density as a variable—has received a little less attention, even as urban studies specialists have noted that it has been a strong predictor of voting patterns. In the United States, the large metro areas voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, while most English cities, and London in particular, came out for Remain by wide margins. Although other factors, such as education, were also good predictors, some of them might themselves be partly a function of the rural-urban split. Moreover, although the American red-blue divide along rural-urban lines is not new, it has become much more pronounced in recent years. There is evidence for growing spatial political polarization in the U.S. in general. Satisfactorily explaining these developments is an urgent matter for current affairs; and one at which the social sciences and history haven’t done a very convincing job so far.


Population Density Map, London

The trend holds true also within cities. A map of New York City’s Democratic vote in November, for instance, does not look very different from a population density map, with a few exceptions. The story is similar for Greater London. And other countries reveal a comparable, albeit less salient, pattern. Poland’s right-wing jingoistic Law and Justice Party fared much worse in cities than in the countryside in the 2015 elections, even as the national map is “polluted” by an East-West gradient. Austria’s repeated presidential elections of 2016 showed a similar picture, with the far-right populist FPÖ performing much better in rural districts, and especially poorly in Vienna. The geographic spread of the FN vote in France is more complicated, but in recent years it has also become increasingly rural.

Urban historians should look at these results because they seemingly buttress old assumptions about the politics of city life that were declared dead some while ago—perhaps also prematurely. Clearly some of this year’s populist vote is inspired by resentment of an imagined urban cosmopolitan elite tied into global intellectual and financial circuits, resembling the way the German sociologist Georg Simmel caricatured blasé urbanites in his landmark 1903 The Metropolis and Mental Life. As far as voting patterns in the West go, the apparent correlation between urbanization and liberalism looks like an uncomfortable belated ratification of an aspect of modernization theory. All of the theory’s obvious flaws and justified dismissals notwithstanding, the ballot boxes of 2016 have powerfully resurrected the idea of the liberal city. For the United States in particular, it seems truer than ever before.

However, the caveats pile up once we dig deeper or look sideways. One has to do with urbanization as a historical process, as opposed to a snapshot revealed by electoral demographics. Before Trump’s election, it was widely assumed that America’s “metro-ification,” alongside the rising demographic weight of non-whites, would send the Republican Party on a long-term downward spiral. This conviction resembles core elements of modernization theory, where several –izations, that is historical processes, march forward in lockstep. But of course the United States has never historically been as urbanized as it is today; and it is this “metro-ified” country that has elected its most illiberal, unreasoned, and uncivil president in more than a century—though one who enjoyed an upbringing in America’s mot urban environment and ironically was once attacked for representing “New York values.” The optimism about the beneficial political effects of urbanization as a historical process looks rather misplaced from this viewpoint.


December 2015 Electoral Map of Argentina: Yellow: Macri, Blue: Scioli

Lateral glances beyond North America and Europe also make the correlation between population density and liberal politics look patchier. International comparisons are complicated because not every country boasts its own of Trump. While Latin America has had its fair share of illiberal populists, many of them have, unlike Trump, incorporated certain elements of social democracy and for the most part steered clear of xenophobia. Yet, for what the comparison is worth, in Argentina, for instance, class has historically been and continues to be a much better predictor of the Peronist vote than population density.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, elected in 2014, and the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, another winner of 2016, make for better political analogies with Trump. But the geographic composition of their voters differs markedly from Trump’s. In India, even though the Hindu population is more rural than that of other religious denominations, the Hindu nationalist BJP vote that brought Modi to power disproportionately concentrates in cities. Contrary to what happens in the U.S., the salience of the rural-urban divide appears to be fading in India on a variety of social and political indicators. In the Philippines, it was primarily Manileños who joined with voters from Duterte’s home base in Southern Mindanao to help an authoritarian demagogue into office.


May 2016 Election Results in the Philippines. Inlay: Metro Manila

Should urban historians therefore conclude that the cliché of the liberal city holds true in North America and Europe, but not in the developing world? Probably not. First, there are counterexamples on both sides. The voters of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, another strongman often compared to Trump, are, like Trump’s, predominantly rural, but the right-wing populist AfD in Germany typically does better in urban settings. Second, there is no good logical reason why the paradigm about liberal cities should be true in the West, but not in the Global South. In fact, the quarters of public debate in which the traces of modernization theory remain most visible, tend to be especially optimistic about the long-term consequences of urbanization in the Global South. “Fast-growing metropolises like Lagos and Manila,” The Economist wrote in February 2016, “perform an amazing alchemy by turning poor rural migrants into better-educated […] urbanites.”

A global comparison of long-term imaginations about the role of big cities in different national fabrics would in fact suggest that the idea of the liberal, cosmopolitan city, which serves as a bridgehead of foreign penetration into the real and authentic interior nation, is especially ingrained in peripheral economies. To be sure, ruralist themes and imagery, as well as nativism and anti-intellectualism, featured prominently in American populism 120 years ago. But it is particularly in countries in the Global South—especially those with overbearing primary cities such as Buenos Aires, Bangkok, or Manila—where a full-fledged bicultural vision has emerged that opposes the liberal city to the “deep nation.”

Urban historians should thus push back against misinterpreting the rural-urban political split of Britain and the United States as a global phenomenon. They’d better shed light on the peculiarity of the forces that seemingly confirm an old cliché in specific countries, more so today than in the past. From a more global angle, the annus horibilis of 2016 should put to rest the myth that the most urbanized societies produce the most enlightened politics.


Michael Goebel is Professor of Global and Latin American History at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Argentina’s Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool University Press, 2011).



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