Around the world, old, rural voters count more than young people in cities

In The Value of a Vote: Malapportionment in
Comparative Perspective
, published in the British Journal of Political Science, two scholars from the University of Minnesota Department of Political Science document more than 20 industrial democracies where the votes of rural citizens — who skew older and more conservative than their urban counterparts — carry more weight than city-dwellers' votes.

This has been a major factor in the rightward swing in many elections; it gave Canada 10 years of oil-based Tory rule and consistently pushes Ontario significantly to the right of its Toronto-dwelling majority, it pushed the UK into Brexit, and it elected Donald Trump.

But this overweighting of rural votes also extends to Malaysia, Argentina, Japan and elsewhere. In the US, rural midwesterners' votes help deprioritize climate change, an urgent issue for coastal urbanites; these votes also ensure than infrastructure spending goes to highways instead of public transit. In Argentina, the sparsely populated rural areas (where votes count 180 times more than those cast in Buenos Aires) receive massive cash transfers that are pushing the country's fragile economy to the brink of ruin, while the 40% of Argentinians who live in Buenos Aires struggle for adequate housing, education, and basic services.

In Japan, elderly rural voters' outsized representation ensures punishing tariffs on food and massive agricultural subsidies — and elects xenophobic warmongers to high office.

The high weights given to rural votes are the realpolitik of 19th and 20th century federalist projects, which unified nations by guaranteeing sparsely populated regions that they would not be overwhelmed by their more industrial, urban counterparts. But industrialization and post-industrialization has steadily increased the sparseness of rural areas and the density of cities, making the divide progressively starker and more manifestly unfair.

Many Americans scratched their heads at the role the Electoral College played in the 2016 election. The College has two purposes: first, to stabilize the American project by giving the establishment a veto over the people; and second, to protect the interests of rural (and enslaving) states from the rest of the country. I favor the Electoral College's abolishment, but I also understand that doing this will make a good many American states' priorities subservient to the more populous urbanized states — and America would suffer greatly from the secession of those to-be-disenfranchised territories. Some accommodation must be made for low-density and small regions, but the reasonable compromises of yesteryear have ballooned into massive inequalities that favor a fear-based, unsustainable, denialist agenda.

n 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.

The Value of a Vote: Malapportionment in
Comparative Perspective
[David Samuels and Richard Snyder/British Journal of Political Science]

The Growing Urban-Rural Divide Around the World
[Jon Emont/The Atlantic]

(via Naked Capitalism)