US midterm mes­sage res­onates across At­lantic

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

One of the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal mes­sages of the US midterm elec­tions has been that ru­ral vot­ers dom­i­nate the cities. While the Democrats made enough gains in ur­ban ar­eas to take con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Repub­li­cans were able to ex­pand their ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate, where each state gets two se­na­tors re­gard­less of pop­u­la­tion size. In an elec­tion where nei­ther side can claim a sweep­ing vic­tory, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s party did as well as it did be­cause the small towns and the more sparsely pop­u­lated ru­ral ar­eas of the United States are still, in the main, Trump coun­try. Mean­while, Demo­crat votes pile up in the cities, use­lessly, from an elec­toral point of view.

There’s more to the ob­ser­va­tion than an ur­ban-ru­ral split, though it may be the most im­por­tant. There’s the north-south di­vide, deep among Amer­i­cans, but not con­fined to them. Bri­tain too has long had one, be­tween, in its case, north­ern ar­eas of­ten still suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of de-in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and mine clo­sures, and a wealthy south-east, Lon­don em­bed­ded within it. So does Italy, with a wealthy, rel­a­tively dy­namic north and a poor, slug­gish, mafia-in­fested south. Both im­pact heav­ily on po­lit­i­cal choices. These di­vides de­pend, not on ge­og­ra­phy, but on where the wealth has con­cen­trated - usu­ally, over cen­turies.

The US split is of­ten thought to be a mat­ter of ra­cial his­tory - a legacy from the Civil War that pit­ted the slave-own­ers of the South against the more in­dus­tri­al­ized north. But in the 21st cen­tury, it’s be­come more com­plex. In a deeply re­searched piece, the AfricanAmer­i­can writer Michael Har­riot shows that ac­tions (rather than words) of­ten show the south sim­i­lar to the north in mat­ters of racism. He finds, for ex­am­ple, that blacks in south­ern states are hired slightly more of­ten than the na­tional av­er­age, and that while blacks are more likely than whites to be shot by po­lice na­tion­wide, they are slightly less likely to be shot in the south than in the north.

Where, ar­guably, the greater dif­fer­ence lies is in ed­u­ca­tion. There the dis­par­ity is not ra­cial - a black, South­ern stu­dent is “more likely to re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion closer to that of his or her white coun­ter­parts than in any other re­gion in the coun­try,” says Har­riot - but geo­graphic. Har­riot states flatly that “the South has the worst schools. Full stop. Al­most ev­ery ed­u­ca­tion rank­ing shows it.”

Ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment, ev­ery­where in the world, runs with the grain of the coun­try-city split. That’s not so much be­cause the best uni­ver­si­ties are al­ways in ur­ban ar­eas - Har­vard and Yale are in rel­a­tively small cities, as are Ox­ford and Cam­bridge in the UK - but their alumni clus­ter in the big met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters, push up hous­ing costs, and push out the low-paid work­ers who ser­vice them.

Ed­u­ca­tion di­vide Ed­u­ca­tion lev­els, like the city-coun­try di­vide, have surged into promi­nence in these pop­ulist times. In the United States, col­lege-ed­u­cated vot­ers are more likely to vote Demo­crat and re­cent Demo­cratic pres­i­dents like Bill Clin­ton and Barack Obama were ed­u­cated at elite uni­ver­si­ties like Ge­orge­town, Ox­ford and Yale (Clin­ton) or Columbia and Har­vard (Obama.) By con­trast, the joint lead­ers of Italy’s pop­ulist gov­ern­ment, Mat­teo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, at­tended univer­sity but never grad­u­ated. Nor did Jeremy Cor­byn, the pop­ulist-left leader of Bri­tain’s Labour Party. Theresa May, the Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter, went to Ox­ford. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron passed through ENA, one of France’s elite Gran­des Ecoles.

This ed­u­ca­tion di­vide isn’t new. The 1968 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion saw the Repub­li­can vic­tor Richard Nixon win smaller cities and the coun­try, but lose most of the large cities. In a caus­tic com­ment, the colum­nist Mur­ray Kemp­ton wrote that “there seems no place larger than Peo­ria from which has not been beaten back. Richard Nixon is pres­i­dent of ev­ery place in this coun­try which does not have a book­store.”

Why is this so? In part, the life of the coun­try and of small towns is usu­ally slower and more tra­di­tion-based than the cities, where change, es­pe­cially from re­cent im­mi­gra­tion surges, is con­stant. In Lon­don, Eu­rope’s most eth­ni­cally di­verse cap­i­tal, suc­ces­sive waves of im­mi­gra­tion - Huguenots (French Protes­tants), Jews, Ir­ish, later West In­di­ans, Pak­ista­nis, In­di­ans, later still Cen­tral Euro­pean work­ers and Rus­sian oli­garchs - were build­ing a highly di­verse city from the 19th cen­tury, a move­ment which ac­cel­er­ated through the 20th into the 21st cen­turies.

This wasn’t a peace­ful process. A fas­cist move­ment, the Black­shirts, staged anti-Jew­ish demon­stra­tions in Lon­don’s East End in the 1930s. In 1968, work­ers from Lon­don’s docks marched in sup­port of the Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian Enoch Powell, who had fore­cast “rivers of blood” to flow from largescale West In­dian im­mi­gra­tion. In 1985, black youths ri­oted in the south Lon­don district of Brix­ton af­ter the ac­ci­den­tal shoot­ing by po­lice of a black woman.

Yet more re­cently, the UK cap­i­tal seems to have be­come more com­fort­able with its eth­nic jum­ble. Tend­ing to vote left, it elected, in 2016, the son of a Mus­lim Pak­istani im­mi­grant fam­ily, the Labour politi­cian Sadiq Khan, as mayor - a choice much de­rided by Pres­i­dent Trump. Eu­rope’s city-coun­try and ed­u­ca­tional splits all im­pact on elec­tions, but, as in the United States, the is­sues of im­mi­gra­tion, of iden­tity and of rel­a­tive de­pri­va­tion now over­lay, of­ten ex­ac­er­bate, the older di­vides. In Swe­den, for ex­am­ple, mi­grants are blamed for crime and in Ger­many anti-im­mi­grant ri­ots have cast shad­ows on what was seen to be - and of­ten still is - rel­a­tively trou­ble-free ac­cep­tance of many of the im­mi­grants.

As in the United States, im­mi­gra­tion re­mains a large mo­tor of po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s open­ing of the borders to im­mi­grants caused splits in her cen­ter-right coali­tion, weak­en­ing her to the point where she is now likely to face a lead­er­ship chal­lenge be­fore she fin­ishes her man­date in 2021.

The com­mon el­e­ment in all of these is­sues, in all Western coun­tries, is a re­volt, greater or lesser in ex­tent, against rapid change, against lib­eral elites and against a loss of iden­tity - white, in the main, but also of set­tled com­mu­ni­ties of past waves of im­mi­grants. Pop­ulists, right to sig­nal these con­cerns, are wrong to claim that an­swers are sim­ple. But ar­gu­ments of com­plex­ity are, in an im­pa­tient time, sus­pect. Di­vi­sions, not only in the United States, presently deepen. — Reuters

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