This is why metropolitan vs provincial is the new dividing line in politics

Protestors at Trump Tower, New York City, last August. Image: Getty.

There was no tension over which candidate would carry New York in November’s presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump claimed it as their home state, and such claims have usually conferred an advantage. But the state hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1984: Trump never had a chance.

Yet headline results can obscure as much as they reveal. Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama’s performance in several counties in and around New York City but she lost ground in the state as a whole – and upstate, Trump surged. In the largely rural Franklin County, he turned Mitt Romney’s 62-36 loss in 2012 into a 50-43 victory.

The pattern was replicated across the US. The electoral college encourages us to think in terms of red (Republican) states fighting blue (Democratic) ones. The facts are more complicated: Southern conurbations such as Houston and Miami moved towards Clinton; small towns and rural areas in historically blue states swung to Trump.

Nor is this trend unique to the US. Across the Western world, cities are opting for progressive or establishment causes while the provinces vote for extremist or populist candidates. In Britain’s referendum on EU membership last June, most cities were markedly more pro-European than their hinterlands. The far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer won majorities in the Austrian countryside while the pro-Green Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed in Vienna, Salzburg and Linz. And polls suggest that, should the Front National’s Marine Le Pen win in France, it will be thanks to la France profonde.

It is not quite right to imagine this fault line as lying between city and countryside. Sunderland’s stronger-than-expected vote for Leave was the first sign of an earthquake to come, and even though other northern cities chose Remain the vote was often close. Trump would never have won without the surge in support from smaller cities in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Five outer London boroughs voted for Brexit and Staten Island voted for Trump. Meanwhile, rich commuter suburbs in Connecticut and Kent were enthusiastic backers of Clinton and Remain.

There are other ways of describing the divide: metropolitan and provincial; booming and struggling. “I quite like ‘cosmopo­litan and shrinking’, because it combines attitudinal and economic factors,” says Will Jennings, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Southampton who has researched this division. Certain areas – big cities, administrative centres, university towns – “combine dynamic economies with a more mobile population and socially liberal attitudes”. Others are blessed with none of those things. The physical gap between these places can be a matter of a few miles. The cultural gap can seem unbridgeable.

So, if the difference between the two types of place is not merely physical, what is it? Partly it’s a matter of demographics. The populations of Jennings’s “shrinking” places are usually older, and less likely to have a degree. They are also less ethnically diverse than the more cosmopolitan big cities and they worry about immigration, though they are largely untouched by it.

All these factors, however, can be traced back to another, bigger one: the difference in the relationship between these two types of place and the modern economy. To put it crudely: big cities have won. Under globalisation, entire industries shipped overseas; and, with technological improvements, those that remain require far fewer workers. Towns that grew up to provide workers for a mine or a factory or the docks are now surplus to requirements. Their communities have, quite literally, lost their purpose.

Cities, on the contrary, are booming: the shift towards services has produced an overwhelming concentration of the best-paid jobs in a small number of global trading cities or research hubs. (Research from the Brookings Institution found that, if US counties could vote based on the size of their economies, Clinton would have beaten Trump by 64 per cent to 36.) This has created resentment in communities outside the lucky few. But it has also changed who lives there. Younger, more educated people leave to seek their fortune in London or Paris, Vienna or New York. Many of those who stay are older, less educated – and less liberal.

It is an oversimplification to talk about these voters as having been “left behind” by the modern economy. Older voters may be more reactionary, but they are also more likely to have wealth. Yet often they’ve been left behind in another, more literal sense: they are the ones who remain when others have gone. When Jennings calls these places “shrinking”, he isn’t speaking figuratively.

The result is a form of social sorting, in which groups of people with particular attitudes and life experience congregate in particular places, each viewing the other as decadent or backward. In a wide range of areas, such as social policy, trade and immigration, they want completely different things from their government.

Explaining why this division came about is the easy bit: much harder is working out what we can do about it. George Osborne’s solution was to improve transport links, to enable depressed northern mill towns to gain access to jobs now in London or Manchester or Leeds. While this could work in a small country like England, it’s hard to see it working out in Ohio.

This article was originally published in the New Statesman

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.