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Democracy is threatened by the dictatorship of geography

There are two paths to political power in a democracy. You can go for demography – that is, appeal to the interests and beliefs of the largest group of people, and win their votes. Or you can win through geography – that is, by ignoring most of the population by focusing on securing the many constituencies that have hardly anyone living in them. If your ideas are offensive to the majority, you can still stake your victory on the swaths of land between the places where most people live.

At the moment, across large parts of the democratic world, the politics of geography are triumphing over the politics of demography.

This is happening most infamously in the United States, where both the presidency and the Senate can be won by securing a majority of the tracts of land rather than a majority of the people – a fact that the faction of the Republican Party now associated with U.S. President Donald Trump has manipulated like nobody before. A strong majority of the American people hold liberal, racially tolerant and international-minded views; this majority's interests and voices have been silenced by the dictatorship of geography.

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Back in 2010, when former U.S. president Barack Obama's broad centre-left voting coalition seemed to dominate U.S. politics, the urbanist Joel Kotkin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute offered a projection: "Demographics may seem a long-term boon for Democrats," he wrote, "but geographic trends tilt in the opposite direction." The increasingly non-diverse, older populations of the country's underpopulated centre offered a path to victory for right-leaning Republicans willing to play to a dispersed minority. Mr. Trump's victory, despite a sizable majority having voted against him, was built on sparse places: Of 592 counties that shifted to supporting him, 520 had fewer than 50,000 people and he won almost every county with fewer than 10,000 people.

This is not just an American problem. In Europe, fringe parties of intolerance have gained a strong foothold – and in some cases a parliamentary majority – by turning into parties of geography. The strong showing in October's national election by the extreme-right Alternative for Germany was largely a result of its appeal to the sparse and depopulated regions of former communist East Germany. Poland's Law and Justice Party governs with a parliamentary majority after it turned nationalist and xenophobic in order to appeal more to rural areas. France's National Front made it to the first round of presidential elections by working the politics of geography.

Canada is far from immune. The dangerous flaw in our democratic system, ready for exploitation, is the great imbalance between rural ridings and urban and suburban ones, which tend to have higher populations per riding.

The 2011 Fair Representation Act, which added 30 new ridings, made Canada more equal between provinces, but it did little to address rural overrepresentation. As legal scholars Michael Pal and Sujit Choudhry found in a 2014 study, this means not only that those rural ridings have more voting power, but that Canadians from racial-minority backgrounds – who tend to live in metropolitan areas – are greatly underrepresented. If the average Canadian's vote has a power of 1, they found that Canadians in ridings that are more than 99-per-cent white (there are 66 such ridings) have a voting power of 1.37, and Canadians in ridings that are more than 30-per-cent non-white have a voting power of 0.88. In other words, voters in all-white ridings have 55 per cent more electoral clout than voters in diverse ridings.

Geography politics can be seen in the continued support, by every major party, of agricultural supply management, which is harmful to consumers and to the overall agricultural industry, but happens to deliver a large number of sparsely populated ridings. And there remains a path to victory for a party willing to seize on symbolic resentments and fears of voters in low-population areas (this is, for example, what Alberta's United Conservatives are attempting). It is not that such voters are intolerant or fearful people; it is that low population density means that the few who hold such views are more likely to be heard at the ballot.

Moderate parties need to win back geography. America's Democrats are struggling with recent studies showing that geography voters – notably those in the northern states that decided the 2016 election – found their candidate too liberal on social issues (but not economic policies) – while more numerous voters in safe Democratic urban districts felt the opposite. Too liberal can mean many things, and the answer may lie in delivering different election-year messages rather than in changing policies. But the frightening aftermath of that election is teaching parties everywhere that the in-between places are ignored at their peril.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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