If you look at an election results map of America, you will see an ocean of red with only a few blue dots, which might make you think the Republicans won overwhelmingly, but in fact Democrats received more votes (the daft electoral college is an issue for another time). This is because rural areas overwhelmingly vote for the right wing Republican Party while urban areas overwhelmingly vote for the left wing Democratic Party.
This isn’t solely an American trend, a map of British election results shows an ocean of blue for the Conservative Party and only a few red dots for the Labour Party, even though there was only a narrow gap in terms of votes (42%-40%). Similarly, in France the left is strongest in cities and the right is strongest in the countryside. German cities are dominated by the SDP while the rural areas are dominated by the CDU. Even Ireland, where parties aren’t strongly ideological, Dublin is much more left wing and the countryside is more conservative. Even within parties, the rural politicians are more conservative than their urban counterparts.
So why is this true across most developed democracies? Why are rural areas predominantly right wing and conservative while urban areas are predominantly left wing and progressive?
Some of it is demographic. Younger people (especially students) are more left wing and they tend to live in cities where universities are based. Immigrants and ethnic minorities are much more likely to live in cities and they also are much more likely to vote left wing. Cities are more cosmopolitan with more contact with the outside world and are therefore have more of an international influence, which makes them less nationalist, an ideology stronger on the right. Likewise, rural areas are older, more traditional and ethnically homogenous, so right wing parties appeals to traditional values are more attractive.
Different occupations probably have an influence too. Farmers generally work individually and are self-employed, so they prefer a government that stays out of their way. The working class works communally which builds co-operative spirit and encourages collective action. People from small villages are unwilling to see money leave their village which favours small government, while keeping money within a city allows leeway for much higher spending levels. The poorest people often live in inner cities, frequently concentrated in ghettos which form a visible reminder of poverty. As they are the most in need of government aid and main recipients of welfare, they are more likely to vote left wing. Rural poverty is much less visible and much more dispersed, making it seem like less of a concern.
There is probably also selection bias at work. People are more likely to live with like-minded people and are more likely to choose a community that shares their values. Therefore, left wing people will be more likely to choose to live in a liberal urban environment instead of a rural conservative area (and vice versa). It’s common for people to “escape” socially conservative small towns and go to the cities where they feel freer to express themselves and for right wing people to “escape” from the big city values they disagree with.
But this doesn’t explain the core of the issue or why certain demographics are more likely to vote a certain way. There has to be something intrinsic to your living environment that shapes how you vote.
There is a fundamental difference of philosophy between urban and rural living that matches left and right wing philosophies. Both urban life and the left is focused on the collective. It’s impossible to live in a city and not be aware of the constant interaction and interdependence of everyone. This means people are more likely to search for common action to common problems. It seems natural for everyone to pool their resources into a large fund for schools and hospitals. In contrast, rural life is more independent and individualistic. People search for individual solutions to individual problems. Pooling resources isn’t always feasible or desirable and issues can very localised, affecting only a small number of people.
Although both rural and urban voters pay the same tax rate, they don’t receive the same levels of government spending and access to government programs. No matter how high state spending is, it isn’t feasible to run bus routes to remote rural areas. However, no matter how low spending is, there will still be some buses in large cities. It is easier for police to patrol, fire brigades to respond and ambulances to reach people, in high density areas than those in low density areas far from the stations. City dwellers can see the universities, hospitals, museums, offices etc that their taxes pay for and so are less likely to complain about the tax burden. Country people on the other hand pay just as much tax but don’t directly see the benefit so are more likely to view taxes as a burden that should be reduced.
There is a large difference in diversity too. I grew in a small Irish town where pretty much everyone was white, Irish and Catholic. In that kind of environment that seems normal and the proper way for things to be. In isolated homogenous rural areas, people of different race, sexuality, religion can seem strange, unusual and even threatening. However, when I moved to Dublin, the capital city, I began mixing with people from many different nationalities, religions etc. I became much less nationalist because it was much harder to believe Irish people were especially great when I met other nationalities. It has been found that areas with the lowest level of immigration have the highest fears of immigration and most likely to vote for anti-immigration parties.
It has been found that knowing someone who is gay has a large influence on how people vote on same sex marriage. If urban people have more contact with LGBT people, then that would explain in part why urban areas are more favourable to same-sex marriage than rural areas. When you live in urban areas you are more likely to meet people from different backgrounds and see that they’re not so different to you. This diversity weakens the level of religiosity and nationalism among urbanites, which also reduces the appeal of right wing parties.
Just as important as all of the above reasons, is the culture of urban/rural and the stories people tell themselves. Often minor differences get exaggerated and self-reinforcing as people conform to expectations of urban/rural life. People take pride in their area and come to view its features as positive advantages. Even rural people who are not farmers (which is the vast majority of them) still sympathise and identify with that kind of lifestyle. They believe in an individualistic lifestyle even if they don’t practice it. Similarly, an individual self-employed urban person might still view themselves as part of a wider community due to the co-operative culture even if they may be in practice more individualistic than many rightists.