Disrupting politics

When you look at the detailed results of a couple of recent elections or referenda, you’ll find clear symptoms for a serious divide between voters in cities and voters in rural areas. Just take the following three examples, which all occurred over the last twelve months:

In each of these cases, on average, city dwellers voted more liberal, whereas country folk voted more conservative. And in all these cases, the “rural perspective” took the majority.

What’s the problem?

The first thing to observe is the existence of a “rural-urban divide”: opinions about many political, economic, and social topics differ widely between rural and urban voters. You could simply say that their outlook on life has little in common, and that’s not really new. You might even expect that the advances made in information sharing over the last few decades (including cable TV, cell phones, and most recently the internet) should have levelled these differences to some extent. But the contrary is true: the divergent opinions appear to be more entrenched and polarised than ever before. Hence it comes as no surprise that the rural-urban divide is likely to become a battleground especially for future elections.

Which brings me to the second observation, and this presents an even tougher challenge that is literally shaking the foundations of our legal system.

  • We have gotten so used to the principle of the rule of law that we sometimes forget its legitimation and limitation: in democratic states, the law is legitimised by the people (based on votes cast in elections); and the law’s application is limited to the territory of that state. This system of governance and law-making is based on the idea of the Westphalian nation-state, which was built on an assumed unity of people, language, and religion, taking a homogeneous population distribution for granted.
  • However, since the Industrial Revolution the population distribution across states has become more and more heterogeneous, as cities attracted ever larger shares of the population. Today, more than half of the global population live in cities (in fact, we passed the 50% mark as recent as 2006). With that additional data point in mind, there seems to be a mismatch between the local (rural vs. urban) results for recent elections, and their outcomes at national level.
  • The underlying reason for this mismatch can be found in the static layout of voting districts. As population shifts from a rural to an urban area, the number of voters in the urban voting district grows over time, whereas the number of voters in the rural district shrinks. As a result of this “voter migration“, the number of votes required to gain the majority in the urban district will increase, while it will decrease in a rural district. Consequently, the urban voters are comparatively underrepresented in national parliaments. And given the unbroken trend for further urbanisation, this mismatch will grow.

What we observe here are the long-term effects of urbanisation and their impact on politics, in particular on the composition of parliaments. Of course this is first and foremost a challenge within individual nations to handle the rural-urban divide by ensuring appropriate representation in parliament, so that the urban and the rural perspectives are taken into due consideration in national politics and law-making.

But this challenge has major repercussions for international affairs as well, given that the majority of humanity now lives in cities. The international concert is still mainly made up of national voices, and as outlined above, they don’t sing to an urban tune. Therefore, it is high time that we adjust our global political system to the hidden power shifts driven by demographic change. It’s time that we devise rules of the game that appropriately balance the needs and interests of cities and rural areas, and that we implement them across the planet.

Are solutions emerging?

Take the announcement of many U.S. cities to remain committed to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, in defiant opposition to the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw from the Accord. This is a very recent example of municipalities making a concerted effort to influence international politics, despite their national government’s refusal to act.

More systematically, the Global Parliament of Mayors provides a venue for city governments to voice common concerns, to exchange best practice, and to share practical solutions. This “governance body of, by, and for mayors from all continents” seeks to increase the political weight of cities in global governance, based on their economic weight as the hotbed of innovation and wealth generation.

Of course city governments will not replace the nation states, or overthrow our established international order. However, I am convinced that we will see cities rise as powerful international actors, building on their global economic clout to gain political leverage. And I expect that cities will make themselves heard, as an additional and an influential voice in the international choir of global governance.

Cities are directly exposed to many of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, such as migration or sustainability. Trough the sheer density of people and of ideas in urban environments, cities are both, forced and well positioned to develop pragmatic solutions. Home to more than half of the world’s population, cities can bring to bear their economic clout and their innovative spirit in tackling global problems, to benefit all of us, regardless of the size of the community we live in.




  1. I think it is about borders. We are constantly trying to contain our thinking in these. This allows both good and bad outcomes, it generates the “haves and has nots”, it draws comparisons that are not the most relevant to the individual. The rural perspective sees the material aspects they believe comes with urban life, they often forget or ignore the connections they have in strong bonds with nature, with their community and forget about the real ‘value’ of these. The battleground is “values” and will these be weaker in Urban life, stronger in Rural. Will these differences be exposed, exploited and leveraged ofr individual gain? Economic clout might reside in Urban life as we chase the material parts that draw many in but the true clout will come from the sources of fresh water, of what we can yield from the soil and how we can manage those precious resources.

    It is how we tackle the problems that sustain life, reduce poverty etc and these might be felt are solved in Urban environments but perhaps they are not.

    • Thanks for sharing. There’s a lot to agree with.

      “borders” of course includes the connotation of territorial boundaries, but it also holds the idea of “being part of a group”, the sense of “belonging”. And that’s where values come in, especially the shared values within a homogenous group. That’s where rural values seem to have little in common with urban values, although I would argue that there is considerable mutual envy – rural people envying the material opportunities in the city, urban people envying the social coherence and the calm of the countryside.

      You rightly point at the critical question of resources. And cities are truly at the heart of it. Given their population density, they have tremendous need for fresh water, food, energy. They in fact cause major pollution. And then there’s the flipside of the coin: the innovation capacity of cities, through the diversity across their population and the density of interactions. That’s another resource. And that’s how I understand cities to be extremely important for solving many of our problems: they are forced to find pragmatic solutions (because they are extremely exposed to the problems), and at the same time they have the innovation capacity to develop these solutions.

      My thinking here is deeply influenced by Geoffrey West’s recent book on “Scale”, in which he puts forth his ideas and cities and companies, and to which extent they “behave” like biological organisms. Fascinating read – will summarise those ideas in a later post.

  2. Complicated topic. The issue of urbanization and the rural-urban divide, is not the cause of disruptive politics, but rather a multiplier of the results of globalization that leads to disruptive change of politics. The increase of big cities continues through the course of history. At least since the Roman empire, cities are expanding and growing as long as there are sufficient resources, technology and institutional mechanisms to sustain their existence and well being. You are right, big cities are exposed more to challenging problems and forced to find innovative solutions faster. But there is no fundamental changes in the way public opinion is affected in urban and rural areas. In Rome the emperor’s will was filtered by financial/ religious authorities and passed through the then “social media” of the arena in colosseum and the final verdict was easily manipulated (ie. “through them to the lions”). Similarly today, politics are depleted by economic powers before drawing the agenda for the next elections. But as mentioned above, the national borders remain a notion in our minds that is miscalculated due to the effects of globalization and the fact that everything is connected. Even a thousand years ago the difference between rural and urban devide was relatively the same. Most people in the countryside just didn’t participate in any decision-making. So the overall perspective was similar, just in a different scale. So, I think globalization is affecting the behavioural change of the citizen. The globalization of IT, internet, telecommunication, economics, trade, education etc, has made those “national”citizens react in an unconventional and unpredictable way in elections or referendums. So the politics today are not disrupting, but rather disrupted I would say. And maybe there is a need to review the essence of politics, starting from Aristotle, and revisiting the theories of Carl Marx, Adam Smith and John Keynes (but this is maybe for another post). In total, I would say that despite the relation between facts of urbanization and change of politics, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

    • It wouldn’t be interesting if it was simple.
      I completely agree: it’s not about disruptive politics, it’s all about politics being disrupted. Demographic change such as urbanisation forces us to rethink that way we want to govern our societies, and how we as citizens want to be governed.
      However, I would limited the time scale a bit, to focus on what we have achieved over the last, say 300 years. In that regard, I’d see the need to revisit Marx, Smith, Keynes in today’s context, and to really start out from their basic assumptions: Are those still valid today? And into the future?
      That is a formidable task, and one that will need a full dedicated sabbatical, I’m afraid. Good food for thought.

  3. Indeed, we should limit the time scale to be able to validate (or not) any politico-economic theory in today’s and tomorrow’s environment of innovative melting pot of mega-cities, nations or the new world order, that will challenge the foundation of the legal system as we know it.

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