The revolt of the cosmopolitans

And so 2019 draws to a close; a year in which democracy was bruised and buffeted but also demonstrated its resilience. I hope our readers can say at least as much for their own fortunes.

I’ll do a review of the year in the next few days. For now I want to draw attention to one particular theme that has loomed large in it, as detailed in a piece at Bloomberg last week by Leonid Bershidsky: the divide between city and country. Here’s how Bershidsky puts it:

More often than not, people in the cities want more freedom, are more willing to embrace every kind of diversity and care relatively less about the whole idea of national sovereignty. People in smaller towns and rural areas are more concerned about national identity and preserving local customs, even if that means following strongmen.

… The tension between nation states and cities is difficult to resolve by democratic means, and electoral systems will be increasingly challenged as urbanization progresses.

His examples include the alliance of liberal mayors in the four capitals of the Visegrad countries (Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw); the urban-rural divide in Britain and the United States; the continuing confrontation in Hong Kong; and anti-government protests in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Conflict between city and country was a recurring theme of nineteenth century politics in Europe: revolutionary change happened in the cities, where the concentrated liberal masses could coerce or overthrow governments.

But those masses represented only a minority of the population at large. Governments may have had to make concessions, but if they held their nerve they could draw on reserves of support from the more conservative countryside, and summon peasant armies – or, later, peasant voters – to crush the rebels.

Urban residents, from at least the French Revolution onwards, have often been reluctant to accept the democratic consequences of being in a minority. They regarded themselves, not unreasonably, as more enlightened than their ignorant rural counterparts, who were more easily manipulated by authoritarian rulers.

Something of the same dynamic continues to this day. As Bershidsky notes, cities are not always uncomplicatedly liberal – Turkey’s authoritarian government, for example, was beaten for the mayoralty of Istanbul in part by an appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment. But they remain for the most part at the leading edge of progress; they are the centres of learning, and their cosmopolitanism helps drive cultural and economic growth.

City populations that are fighting for democracy – in Hong Kong, Moscow, Tehran and the rest – should be unreservedly supported. And even in countries such as Poland, where democracy still survives, it’s no surprise that democrats should side with urban voters against the backward rural masses that keep illiberal governments in power.

Nonetheless, democracy involves accepting that one’s own side doesn’t always win. The fact that urban residents may be more well-educated or more knowledgeable about public policy doesn’t mean their votes should count for more, and doesn’t entitle them to prevail if they happen to be in the minority. It’s important to avoid giving substance to the complaint of populist and far right parties that “elites” are frustrating the democratic will of the people.

In reality, however, it is more often the other way around. This is the big change since the 1800s: urban dwellers, once a small minority, now constitute majorities throughout the developed world. But electoral systems and constitutional structures still often discriminate against them. Politicians still pander to rural voters, assuring them that they, not their cosmopolitan brethren, represent the “real” nation.

The angry monocultural populists do not constitute the majority. Indeed, that fact is one of the primary things they are angry about.

Those who support “city” values – the values of openness, diversity and international co-operation – have less reason than ever to fear democracy. Fight against ignorance and manipulation, by all means. But don’t imagine that the masses are the enemy.



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