How to tackle populism: Rebuild rural civic life

Social media, breweries and cartoon mascots are helping revive voters' connection to their local area

As Western democracies experience a surge of right-wing populism, new political cleavages abound — and one of the most important has been the growing split between city and countryside.

Rural voters were significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the United States, and Brexit in the UK. Political analysts have often argued that this pattern reflects a rejection of cosmopolitan, progressive politics by voters strongly attached to their local communities.

Experts, however, say that picture may be misleading. Rural residents, they argue, often have weaker links to the local area, and that disconnection helps drive them towards populism.

But as well as leading to political alienation, the hollowing out of rural life has direct impacts on health and well-being. It’s a challenge governments are starting to take seriously — using tools as varied and unlikely as social media, micro-breweries and cartoon mascots.

The rural right

Small towns and rural communities have long been bastions of conservative politics. But their role at the heart of the recent populist wave has been even more significant.

Almost a third of votes cast in the UK’s Brexit referendum came from local authorities classified as rural — and they broke 55% for Leave, well above the national average. In the US, Donald Trump won 58% of votes in rural and small metro areas, improving on previous Republican results and some twelve points above his nationwide performance.

With both votes being cast as a rejection of the forces of globalisation and rapid cultural shifts, commentators have rushed to explain this rural vote pattern as reflecting country residents’ desire to keep their communities from changing too fast.

An influential book by British writer David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, argued that both Brexit and the election of Trump were the result of so-called “Somewheres” — voters outside big cities, with a strong sense of attachment to their local community and traditions — rejecting the globalising arguments of “Anywheres” in metropolitan areas.

Hollowing out

But academic research undercuts that narrative. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, led a study focused on young voters in rural areas which found that their sense of connection to their local area was weaker than average.

And almost 60% live in what Kawashima-Ginsberg calls “civic deserts”, with little or no access to the civic institutions — such as churches, youth development programs and arts facilities — that engage people in their local community.

People living in such civic deserts were significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, and to be alienated from politics — doubting that their vote was significant, and being less informed about current affairs. That held true in urban civic deserts as well as rural ones, though such isolation is much less common in bigger cities.

It shows, Kawashima-Ginsberg said, that lesser engagement with civic life makes people feel sceptical about and disconnected from politics, and less like they are adequately represented. “They are less likely to believe that ‘we the people’ have power, even when we try,” she said.

In the UK, too, a study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that greater social connections and involvement with their local neighbourhood made people more likely to vote Remain.

But low civic engagement has worrying consequences well beyond its contribution to political extremism.

A large body of research, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg, has shown being more involved in a local community has significant benefits: it improves young people’s academic progress, and older people’s life expectancy, and can speed up the transition from unemployment back into work.

At the community level, areas with higher levels of neighbourhood connection and volunteering suffer fewer job losses during recessions.

Building an oasis

With that level of impact, it’s no surprise that local governments are experimenting with new ways to rejuvenate civic engagement in their rural communities.

One historical mainstay of rural civic life has been the local press, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg, which helps create a sense of community among residents. But their significance is in decline.

“Local newspapers are dying,” said Roberto Gallardo, of Purdue University, who’s involved in an academic project trialling the use of digital platforms to improve civic engagement, in places where traditional local media is often struggling.

Working in three rural communities in Nebraska, the project team is assessing whether improving digital outreach by local institutions can improve trust and local connections.

One town has successfully held a “Twitter town hall” which, Gallardo said, reached a different cross-section of the town’s residents and alerted the local government to some problems with road infrastructure it hadn’t previously been aware of.

It’s an effort to create the kind of trust and belief in government that civic deserts often lack. One characteristic of young voters in such areas, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg, is that “they essentially don’t believe we can do anything through politics”.

But not all civic engagement projects are government-focused. The Nebraska project is also working with chambers of commerce to promote local businesses. And business, or public-private partnerships, are often better-placed to create genuine social connections than the government.

“There are different kinds of institution, that isn’t in a traditional box that a city or town can create,” Kawashima-Ginsberg explained. She pointed to new developments like breweries playing the role of a “third place” — distinct from home and the workplace — where local communities can develop.

“That kind of thing, I think, has a lot of potential — it’s not what we think of as institutions, but it’s serving the same purpose,” she said.

In Japan, many local areas have taken an even more unusual tack: promoting local pride through cartoonish mascots, Yuru-chara, associated with a particular place. The most popular — Kumamon, the bear-like mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture — has sold tens of millions of dollars worth of merchandise.

But Kumamon is not alone: there are over a thousand entrants in the annual Yuru-chara Grand Prix to determine the most popular mascot, and one of the characters’ defining features is the sense of local pride they inspire. “It really created a lot of local attachment and affected,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “They really do like their local animal.”

Developing that sense of local connection could be the surprising secret to combating the rise of political alienation and extremism in rural areas. It’s not a challenge any local area can claim to have conquered — but it’s one they’re taking increasingly seriously.

“Communities need to be responsive, because the local level is typically where people engage with government” Gallardo said. “Any way that you can increase that engagement, and get a more diverse feel of what the community needs, can really help build the trust that, in some areas, is at a very low point.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/Brian Stansberry)

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