Urban/rural split could lead to political polarisation as seen in the US

The brown provinces represent those with zero or negative population growth in 2013-2018 (left), and projections for ...
Maxim Institute

The brown provinces represent those with zero or negative population growth in 2013-2018 (left), and projections for 2038-2043 (right).

OPINION: I've been to the far North twice this year, and both times I knew I was a long way from home. While I wouldn't call myself a typical JAFA—I grew up out west in Glen Eden and still live there now—the differences were pretty striking.

As I drove the Northland roads, I knew I was among communities with deep roots and deep attachments to their land. It's also common to hear that people are trading the higher salaries and greater demands of the city to move out of Auckland for a better quality of life. Although my suburban lifestyle is different to theirs, I know they're just as committed to thriving in their place as I am to thriving in mine.

So regional differences can be the natural and healthy product of different ideas about what's important in life. But evidence from the US shows that there can come a point when those lifestyle differences harden into political divisions.

Op shops and vacant storefront on Waimate's main street. Within 30 years, South Canterbury's population is not expected ...
Alastair Paulin

Op shops and vacant storefront on Waimate's main street. Within 30 years, South Canterbury's population is not expected to grow.

Researchers have found that since the 1970s, increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to live in the same place as others who think and act like them, sharing cultural and lifestyle values. The researchers, who found that marriage rates were the best available indicator of differences in deeply held beliefs, worked out that this "geographic clustering" plays a significant role in the stark increase of polarisation we can see playing out in federal US politics. 

Political differences on a common ground of understanding are a natural part of democratic life, but political polarisation takes things to another level. It means we've become so different, so sealed off from each other that we can't empathise or have genuine, respectful, peaceful disagreements.

At worst, living in a polarised society can mean being governed by people who don't understand you but have the ability to tell you what to do all the same. At best, it can mean being ignored by those people and left out of decisions that shape your nation. That's a pretty ugly recipe for strife and dysfunction. Could it happen here?

Parliament's electorate profiles allow us to compare diverse places around the country, like Northland, Wellington Central, and Clutha-Southland. What do these electorates have in common? Perhaps not all that much. In Northland, the marriage rate is 40.5 percent, average family income is $51,000, and the average age is 43. In Wellington Central, the marriage rate is 27.1 percent, average family income is $111,000, and the average age is 29. In Clutha-Southland, the marriage rate is 46.6 percent, average family income is $74,000, and the average age is 38.

Unlike the US data, these figures are a snapshot so they don't tell us whether there's a trend for New Zealanders to cluster into increasingly similar communities, and whether that trend could drive greater polarisation. But the figures do show that we already have geographic differences, and Maxim Institute's most recent research suggests there's a big risk that some of our other regional differences are going to widen dramatically over the next 30 years.

For example, 39 percent of the population of 5.9 million is projected to cluster in Auckland, with another 31 percent of us either living close to Auckland or in the other major centres like Wellington or Christchurch. That's a lot of urban voters, and it's going to be very tempting for politicians to focus more and more on urban interests in order to win those votes, possibly at the expense of the rest of the country.

It could also make it easier for urban voters to ignore or mock the interests of voters living in very different communities.

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None of us want a future where our communities feel alien and isolated from each other, and where our politics begin to fracture as a result.

The good news is that doesn't have to happen. If one reason for polarisation is that we can't see each other's point of view, then it's important to look to what may divide us, and work to fill in the gaps of understanding. For example, as a city dweller, I can make regular time to read an online newspaper from one of New Zealand's regions, to get a local perspective on issues that don't trouble me in Glen Eden.

Each of us can push out of our home communities and look for ways to connect with people and places that are different to us. With the lesson of the US to motivate us, it's a good time to try. 

Alex Penk is the CEO of the Maxim Institute, an independent think tank that foster ideas and leadership that enable freedom, justice, and compassion to flourish in New Zealand.

 - Stuff

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