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People walk in the centre of town of Boston in Lincolnshire, northeast England, on April 18, 2019. In most developed countries, 60 per cent to 80 per cent of people live in cities, and the majority of the population supports city parties and their views.LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP/Getty Images

The United States, like most Western nations, no longer has a conservative political party and a liberal party, but rather a city party and a country party.

Democrats are struggling to find a candidate who can win over the angry rural and outer-suburban voters in the five or six states the party must recapture in 2020 in order to snag the presidency – and do so without losing appeal to their almost entirely urban membership.

Meanwhile, Britain’s city party, Labour, has not fully survived Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward attempt to hold onto its mainly urban, pro-European voters while trying to gain voters in ridings long held by the country party, the Conservatives, by avoiding opposition to the Tories’ Brexit plans. Almost a dozen MPs have quit in disgust to form an urban, pro-Europe breakaway party, Change UK.

And Canada’s own country party, the Conservatives, is currently trying to create a federal version of the victory won by its Ontario sibling party, the Progressive Conservatives, which won 60 per cent of seats with only 40 per cent of votes, by campaigning intensely in rural ridings and fuelling resentment toward the views of the city parties, the Liberals and the NDP.

The divide is always the same: City parties and their voters favour free trade, immigration, racial and religious diversity, ecological policies, government institutions and the higher taxes that support them; country parties favour national pride and identity, ethnic homogeneity, closed borders and less of a role for government.

It is not a 50-50 divide. In most developed countries, 60 per cent to 80 per cent of people live in cities, and the majority of the population supports city parties and their views. But in most electoral systems, including Canada’s, geography (the number of ridings or constituencies) trumps demography (the number of votes), so country candidates frequently win and often have an edge.

“Underrepresentation of the urban left in national legislatures and governments has been a basic feature of all industrialized countries that use winner-take-all districts,” Stanford University political scientist Jonathan Rodden writes in his forthcoming book Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide.

We’ve come to take this divide for granted, even as it has become more pronounced and unhealthy in recent years, fuelling the intolerant politics of Donald Trump and the European far right. But the reasons for it are not so obvious. It is not as if rural and outer-suburban residents are different creatures from city-dwellers; they are fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons and so on.

Dr. Rodden sees it as rooted in “the era of large factories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” which attracted educated workers to the cities and inspired parties of the left to court them. And the rise of a postindustrial knowledge economy “has only exacerbated the pattern of urban-rural polarization that started with the second industrial revolution,” he writes. It is, in his view, a matter of path dependency and could come unglued in the coming years.

But there is clearly more to the politics of cities than their economic role. One well-supported scholarly view is known as the contact hypothesis: People in cities and larger towns are more open to immigration, racial and religious diversity, global trade and institutions because they are directly exposed to those things and find them welcoming; country-dwellers aren’t exposed to them, so fear them. It’s a version of the old German expression stadtluft macht frei – “urban air makes you free.”

Elections seem to confirm this: Votes for political parties opposed to immigration and racial diversity, across Europe and North America, are almost exclusively concentrated in places without any immigrants or racial minorities.

But there’s another way to read the urban-rural divide. What if it isn’t that cities make people liberal-minded, but that most of the liberal-minded people move to cities? In Europe, there has been a huge exodus of the young and educated from the periphery to the more successful cities of Germany, France and Britain. Are such migrations driving the rural-urban divide?

That “composition theory” is tested in a fascinating new big-data study by Rahsaan Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. It finds that cities’ less “nationalist” and more “cosmopolitan” politics are caused less by the transformative effects of city life and more by the sorts of people who move from rural areas to cities. Those people tend to be even more cosmopolitan-minded than people who spend their entire lives in cities.

On the other hand, Dr. Maxwell finds that people who move from cities to rural areas are not, and do not become, supporters of country parties and their views. The rural-urban divide is a product of self-sorting – but it doesn’t seem to be reversible. And both theories suggest that it might not outlast the current generation.