What lessons to learn from the US Presidential elections?

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on November 14th, 2016

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Cover image: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Why is it important to write about the US elections on the URBACT blog? After all, the US is far away, the main topics of the presidential race have little European relevance and seemingly none at all for knowledge exchange programmes for cities, like URBACT.

The two main (and fairly shocking) events of this year, Brexit and Trump, can be analysed from many angles. The approach I want to highlight in this post is the ’bubble’ view. We all live in our bubbles of our everyday activities and limited circles of friends, and our bubbles are further strengthened by the present dominant communication tools (see Facebook: people get almost exclusively opinions with which they agree, and almost half of the people uncritically accept these to be true, without verifying the information source). In the limited world of our bubbles, we hardly ever met Brexit or Trump fans – thus we were convinced that these events will not happen.

We were wrong in both cases – and it is high time to find the causes of our mistakes and draw the conclusions before the next unfortunate event (the presidency of Marine Le Pen, for instance) becomes reality.

If searching for common elements in the two major political events of the year (and the many other signs of increasing right-wing influence) we can arrive to the dichotomy of large dynamic cities versus stagnating or shrinking small towns and ‘backwater’ rural areas. The latter are the main supporters of the right and extreme right wing parties, not only in the US but also in EU countries, among others in Italy, Hungary and Austria.

How large are these areas in territory and population? The two images below show the results of the 2012 US elections, and the results of the 2016 Austrian presidential election.

In the US map below red represents a Republican majority, blue represents Democrat votes. On the top map there are barely a few blue areas in the sea of red. The bottom map population cartogram (weighted with the population) shows, however, why and where the democrats won the election in 2012: in the larger cities.




Source: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2012/

In the 2016 Austrian presidential election map blue marks areas where the right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer won, while green shows the areas where Alexander van der Bellen received the majority of votes. The situation is very similar to the US 2012 case: the green candidate could only win thanks to the urban voters of Vienna, Graz, Linz, Salzburg, and Innsbruck. However, the results of the second round were annulled and a re-vote is due to take place on 4 December 2016. It will be interesting to see whether the Green Party can repeat its victory after Brexit, Trump, and the refugee crisis.

austrian presidential elections 2016Source: austromorph.space

The winners of the last decades of globalization were the large cities. There are growing gaps between more and less successful cities, as both urban development and its academic analysis concentrate on the already developed areas and the already better-off cities. This increased interest is justified not only by the efficiency view, but also by the argument that poor people concentrate on these cities as well, in hope to find more opportunities (although growing inequalities and socioeconomic polarisation make upward social mobility efforts in richer cities ever less likely to succeed).

Having said all that, living in backwater small towns or rural areas is considered to be an even worse alternative. Here not only the economic opportunities are weak, but the public interest towards the problems is also missing. People in such areas feel that their concerns are not discussed, they are left behind, the ruling elite has forgotten them. “Nothing that happens outside the city matters! … Hey, remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? To watch the news (or the multiple movies and TV shows about it), you’d barely hear about how the storm utterly steamrolled rural Mississippi, killing 238 people and doing an astounding $125 billion in damage. No sports team = no fucks given.”

We, urban analysts and ’change-makers’ are living in our own liberal, urbanised bubble, concentrate on the more developed cities and largely miss the feelings of those people who are in the shadow of unequal development and became the voters for Brexit, or for Trump.

Let me turn now to our core business. City to city exchange, and thus URBACT, is more important than ever. URBACT in its present form is a very useful, even pioneering programme for many cities in the EU. But EU programmes have to change, reaching out to areas which would otherwise never be included in the usual form of the programmes. URBACT needs to consider new approaches and changes in the „holy rules” of its action framework which was developed in the last 15 years or so.

URBACT considers itself a demand-driven programme that pays attention to the geographical and thematic coverage among the cities that are part of the programme – but we all know that the ’open door’ policy does not create equal chances: some cities are more prepared to participate than others, while many are not prepared at all. Instead of just waiting for the ideas of the more active cities, some topics with special interest for backwater areas (e.g. radicalization, safety, job security, social protection) should pro-actively be identified by URBACT.

Moreover, we need to be able to reach the cities with difficulties, inform them and give them the instruments to actively participate. More attention has to be paid to smaller, less competitive, more remote cities, and to rural areas around cities (i.e. to functional urban areas, city-regions). In the case of fully funded cities, the problem of unwilling politicians could be taken into account, if municipalities were not the only entities allowed to become beneficiaries.

Finally, the political values of URBACT should also be strengthened, giving more emphasis – besides integrated and inclusive development – to the active fight against inequalities, heading towards a rights-based urban development model for all.

These might be seen as ’revolutionary’ ideas compared to the usual regulation of URBACT, and can only be tested gradually. But such changes are needed urgently – even the most successful programmes have to make efforts to reach the more problematic urban areas, in order to fight the recent, very unfortunate political trends. All of us, including also URBACT, should step out from our bubbles.

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