Why big cities will pre­vail over na­tion­al­ism

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - OPINION - By Leonid Ber­shid­sky

The grow­ing di­vide be­tween ur­ban­ites and ru­ral res­i­dents is shap­ing pol­i­tics ev­ery­where, from Brexit to the rise of Don­ald Trump. On Sun­day, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan re­ceived a man­date for more per­son­al­ized rule from most of his coun­try, but not from its big cities.

Is­tan­bul, Ankara and Izmir are re­spon­si­ble for about 46 per­cent of Turkey’s eco­nomic out­put and just 23 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion. All three cities voted against the per­pet­u­a­tion of Er­do­gan’s emer­gency pow­ers, which made Turkey a strong pres­i­den­tial repub­lic. Like pres­i­dents, Er­do­gan will be able to form Cab­i­nets and nom­i­nate top judges while re­main­ing a mem­ber of a po­lit­i­cal party.

The pow­er­less anger at be­ing out­voted by provin­cials is fa­mil­iar to peo­ple in U.S. big cities. Af­ter vot­ing over­whelm­ingly against Trump last Novem­ber, they took to the streets to protest — just as many res­i­dents of Is­tan­bul, Ankara and Izmir did late on Sun­day night. The same story is un­fold­ing in War­saw (which voted against the na­tion­al­ist PiS party in 2015) and Lon­don (which voted against Brexit).

If Marine Le Pen loses the up­com­ing French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, France will join the club of coun­tries where big cities’ choices pre­vail. That hap­pened in the Aus­trian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2016 and in the Dutch par­lia­men­tary one last month: Lib­eral can­di­dates pre­ferred by ur­ban­ites de­feated na­tion­al­ists with stronger provin­cial sup­port bases.

Even in coun­tries with au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes firmly in place, big cities are rel­a­tively un­happy with them. Moscow has con­sis­tently de­liv­ered some of Vladimir Putin’s worst elec­toral re­sults. Vik­tor Or­ban’s Fidesz party won ev­ery­where in 2014, but it barely eked out a plu­ral­ity in Bu­dapest.

The ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide is of­ten at­trib­uted to glob­al­iza­tion’s win­ners liv­ing in cities while its losers de­cline out­side of them. That’s some­what sim­plis­tic. Er­do­gan, the for­mer mayor of Is­tan­bul, had never lost an elec­tion there, but Turkey’s busi­ness capital re­jected his con­sti­tu­tional changes by 51.4 per­cent of the vote.

Brex­i­teers aren’t op­posed to glob­al­iza­tion or free trade, oth­er­wise they wouldn’t be so en­am­ored with Sin­ga­pore’s ex­am­ple. Putin, Or­ban and PiS ide­o­logue Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski aren’t iso­la­tion­ists, ei­ther.

The gap be­tween the big cities and the heart­land, which ex­ists in most coun­tries, isn’t just about glob­al­iza­tion and its spoils. It’s also about two dif­fer­ent kinds of com­mu­nal iden­tity that are in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile within poli­ties.

One is the tra­di­tional na­tion-state pa­tri­o­tism. A po­lit­i­cal lan­guage ex­ists in ev­ery coun­try to ap­peal to it, and those politi­cians who speak it more con­vinc­ingly win the ru­ral vote, be it in the U.S. or in Turkey. It’s the lan­guage of mil­i­tary strength, ad­her­ence to tra­di­tion, of­ten the yearn­ing for a past golden age.

The en­ergy be­hind strong city iden­ti­ties, on the other hand, is not re­ally glob­al­ist or cos­mopoli­tan. Har­vard so­ci­ol­o­gist Daniel Bell and He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Avner deShalit, au­thors of a 2011 book about city iden­ti­ties, have named it “civi­cism.”

We want to sug­gest that cities have been in­creas­ingly the mech­a­nism by which peo­ple op­pose glob­al­iza­tion and its ten­dency to flat­ten cul­tures into same­ness. Many cities in­vest thought, time and money in pro­tect­ing their unique ethos and pre­serv­ing it through poli­cies of de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture and through the way peo­ple use the cities and in­ter­act with them.

I am more of a Mus­covite than a Rus­sian; now that I live in Ber­lin, I feel like much more of a Ber­liner than a Ger­man. A poll re­vealed sev­eral years ago that more peo­ple in Lon­don are at­tached to the city than to the U.K. I’ve met peo­ple who con­sider them­selves New York­ers first and Amer­i­cans a dis­tant sec­ond — a feel­ing am­pli­fied by its mayor’s de­fi­ant stance against Trump’s anti-im­mi­grant poli­cies.

Is­tan­bul is an an­cient me­trop­o­lis where a lo­cal iden­tity is of­ten stronger than the na­tional one. One could call it more cos­mopoli­tan, but it’s also a city with a dis­tinct soul un­like that of all the places that have in­flu­enced it go­ing back a cou­ple of thou­sand years. That ur­ban soul re­quires a more de­cen­tral­ized and chaotic gov­ern­ment sys­tem than the one Er­do­gan has pushed through with the ref­er­en­dum. So, many of those Is­tan­bul res­i­dents who backed Er­do­gan in pre­vi­ous elec­tions have drawn the line at back­ing his most re­cent re­form.

“Civi­cism” doesn’t have a de­fined po­lit­i­cal lan­guage ex­cept that of lib­er­al­ism. A can­di­date who stresses open­ness, tol­er­ance, even per­mis­sive­ness, usu­ally does bet­ter with big-city dwellers. In a me­trop­o­lis, a live-and-let-live at­ti­tude is the ba­sis of sur­vival. Strict re­li­gious rules and lo­cal cus­toms are of­ten re­laxed to ac­com­mo­date di­ver­sity and re­duce ten­sion among neigh­bors. Be­sides, the com­pet­i­tive­ness of co­ex­ist­ing with mil­lions of oth­ers at close quar­ters makes big city dwellers likely to ques­tion author­ity and tra­di­tion.

The prob­lem with ap­peal­ing to the city dwellers is that many elec­toral sys­tems are tilted against them. The U.S. elec­toral col­lege, which gives a dis­pro­por­tion­ate voice to smaller states, is a vivid ex­am­ple. And politi­cians who win with ru­ral au­di­ences do their best to strengthen their geo­graphic ad­van­tage. The PiS now seeks to ex­pand War­saw’s elec­toral bound­aries, adding 32 sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties to the city so it could seize con­trol of the capital’s city coun­cil in the next elec­tion. Er­do­gan, too, has been re­peat­edly ac­cused of ger­ry­man­der­ing as his party has sought to build an elec­toral ge­og­ra­phy that would help it re­tain power.

These bar­ri­ers to the po­lit­i­cal power of cities, how­ever, aren’t likely to help in the long run. Ur­ban­iza­tion has been an un­stop­pable trend through­out the world. The ru­ral pop­u­la­tion has stopped grow­ing, but the United Na­tions pre­dicts that the cities will add 1.5 bil­lion res­i­dents in the next 15 years. Turkey’s pop­u­la­tion was only 25 per­cent ur­ban in 1950; 75 per­cent of Turks are city dwellers to­day. And the big­ger the city, the less ap­petite there is for the ru­ral va­ri­ety of na­tion­al­ism and for strong­hand rule.

Er­do­gan’s loss in the big­gest cities is a sign that there are lim­its to his project, aimed at strength­en­ing his per­sonal power and the as­cen­dancy of his AK party. Push­ing for a more au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem, with fewer checks and bal­ances, could set off ri­ots in the ma­jor cities, some­thing Er­do­gan will prob­a­bly be care­ful to avoid: He needs to calm the coun­try down af­ter all the harsh­ness of its post-coup state of emer­gency and a highly con­tentious ref­er­en­dum cam­paign.

Ig­nor­ing the will of the cities means swim­ming against the de­mo­graphic tide; it would be a short-sighted strat­egy that might al­low Er­do­gan a few more years of dom­i­nance but would even­tu­ally lead to vi­o­lent change.

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