World

The New/Old Politics of Capital vs. Countryside

Marine Le Pen talks to the media after an excursion on a fishing boat (Reuters: Jean-Paul Pelissier)
In recent elections all over the world, the apparent divide is between the geographic heartland and the capital establishment.

Capital vs. countryside — that’s the new political divide, visible in multiple surprise election results over the past eleven months. It cuts across old partisan lines and replaces traditional divisions — labor vs. management, north vs. south, Catholic vs. Protestant — among voters.

This was apparent last June in Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union. London voted 60 percent to remain, while the rest of England, whether Labour or Conservative, voted 57 percent to leave. It was plain in Colombia’s October referendum on a peace settlement with the FARC guerrillas. Bogotá voted 56 percent “sí,” the heartland cordillera provinces 58 percent “no.”

In both countries, the ethnic and geographic fringe — Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Caribbean provinces — voted with the capital. But in each case, the historic heartland, with the majority of voters, produced a surprise defeat for the capital establishment.

It was a similar story here in November. Coastal America — the Northeast minus Pennsylvania, the Pacific states minus Alaska — favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 58–35 percent margin. But the geographic heartland, casting 69 percent of the nation’s votes, favored Trump by a 51–43 percent margin.

The contrast is even starker if you separate out the establishment metro areas — New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco — that produce most Democratic big-dollar funding. They voted 65–29 percent for Clinton; the rest of the country they feel entitled to rule voted 49–45 percent for Trump.

And on April 23, France voted in a presidential race that scrambled the usual party divisions. Marine Le Pen, shunned by the Paris establishment as a neo-fascist, finished fourth, with 11 percent of the vote, in metro Paris and third, with 15 percent, in 13 other prosperous cities. But she ran first in la France profonde, with 24 percent. She’ll almost certainly lose the May 7 runoff, but she has already topped her National Front’s previous high of 17 percent.

Is there any precedent for this? The Economist’s Bagehot columnist, Adrian Wooldridge, spots one in the 17th century. He quotes historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s description of the “general crisis” of 1620–60 — a “revolt of the provinces not only against the growing, parasitic Stuart Court, but also against the growing ‘dropsical’ City of London; against the centralised Church . . . and against the expensive monopoly of higher education by the two great universities.”

In different ways, Brexit, Le Pen, and Trump seek to counter the university-trained bureaucratic, financial, and cultural elites in London, Paris, and NY/DC/LA/SF.

The capital vs. the countryside, in other words, much like today. The countryside party, Trevor-Roper writes, vied to “pare down the parasitic fringe” of central government and sought to “protect industry,” “rationalize finance,” and “reduce the hatcheries which turned out the superfluous bureaucrats.”

Similar impulses are apparent in Britain, France, and America today. In different ways, Brexit, Le Pen, and Trump seek to counter the university-trained bureaucratic, financial, and cultural elites in London, Paris, and NY/DC/LA/SF. They resent over-large and under-competent bureaucracies and public-employee unions, the paymasters of the Labour and Democratic parties. With blunt, often ill-advised rhetoric, they challenge the pieties of the universities as 17th-century countryside parliamentarians challenged the established church and universities.

Consider the debate over what has become, for many, the religion of global warming. Those with doubts that predicted harm will occur are labeled “deniers,” heretics who must be punished. The science is settled, the elites insist. That’s exactly what the church told Galileo.

Or consider the “speech codes” promulgated by most colleges and universities. We see violent disruption of speakers on campus go unpunished, excused, and even praised. We see the New York Times publish an article by a New York University dean arguing for restricting free speech.

We see the deadweight cost of public-employee-union pensions and un-policed murders destroying one of the great creations of civilization, Chicago. No wonder the countryside resists; this is how these arrogant bullies govern the precincts of society they control.

In this struggle, the capital has certain advantages — huge super-majorities in its strongholds, inhabited largely by elites and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. It monopolizes most established media. Its claims that opponents are bigots are taken as gospel.

The countryside has serious grievances and majority numbers but doesn’t always find steady leadership. Le Pen’s insalubrious pedigree suggests she’ll lose May 7, though Theresa May’s icy steeliness has British Conservatives headed to a landslide win June 8. Donald Trump instinctively (calculatedly?) reckoned that the countryside was the key to victory; now he has to deliver. The battles of capital vs. countryside will go on.

— Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2017 Creators.com

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Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2018 Creators.com

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