Location, location, location

Naomi Magnus is a third year HSPS student at Robinson. She is currently undertaking a dissertation analysing the roots of support for insurgent political forces such as Brexit and Donald Trump. She argues below that much of the discussion surrounding the result of the presidential election has ignored the main decider of voting tendency, geography.


2016 has been a bad year for political predictions. The polls and the pundits both failed to predict a majority Leave vote in the Brexit referendum in June, and did little better in predicting a Trump win in the recent US Presidential election. Since then, journalists and politicians have been quick to draw parallels between these two unexpected outcomes, leading many to declare them as part of a wider backlash against globalisation by the ‘left behind’. Whilst the Brexit and Trump result do, in part, signal the dissatisfaction of many citizens with globalisation, the ‘left behind’ narrative tends to overstate the significance of class in both of these results. One only needs to look at some of the data on Brexit and Trump voters to see that this analysis has serious limitations. With regards to Brexit, for example, the 2015 British Election Study Internet Panel of over 24,000 respondents found that class only explained a 1-2% variation in Brexit voting intention among individuals. Meanwhile, estimates compiled from spring exit polls and Census Bureau Data show that the average Trump supporter earns $72,000 a year, compared to the median US household income of $56,000. White people across a broad spectrum of income levels and educational qualifications voted for Trump.

This is not to say that globalisation hasn’t had its part to play in the Brexit result and the political rise of Donald Trump. Rather, a more compelling argument about globalisation can be made by drawing attention to the divisions that it has created on the basis of location. The Brexit result and the election of Trump have brought to the foreground the significance of location as a deeply dividing force. Where one is born and lives most of their life will often determine their class. But the divisive power of location isn’t just due to its intersection with class. Location is key in influencing how people view and experience globalisation, and how they construct their identity in connection with this.

Location has come to produce a divide between those who have benefited from and/or welcome globalisation, and who are more likely to construct a cosmopolitan identity as a result (‘globalists’); and those who feel that they have lost out from and/or fear globalisation, and who are more likely to construct a nationalist identity as a result (‘nationalists’). The ‘globalists’ tend to live in university towns, capital cities and commercial hubs, cosmopolitan areas that have experienced the most positive aspects of globalisation. The ‘nationalists’ are more likely to leave in areas that have not had such positive experiences and are likely to be less ‘cosmopolitan’ in character, especially in rural and former industrial areas. In both the UK and USA, a divide has opened up between these groups and these corresponding areas. This was demonstrated by the difference in Brexit voting patterns of areas in relatively close proximity; for example, Cambridge voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (74:26), whilst Peterborough voted to leave (61:39).

Part of the sense of ‘losing out’ that these ‘nationalists’ have is no doubt economic. Globalisation has seen substantial increases in real incomes for the top 1% and the middle 50% of the global population, but has produced little or no income gains for those in the 75th to 90th global percentiles. It has also led to a loss in trade and jobs in former-industrial areas throughout the UK, areas where the Brexit vote was particularly high, and in the ‘rust belt’ of the USA, where many traditionally Democrat-supporting districts voted for Trump. Mass immigration has compounded the lack of economic gains that these ‘nationalists’ have enjoyed. A perceived threat from immigration is particularly likely where a sudden spike in immigration in an area is not met with a corresponding increase in resources.

But the backlash against immigration by ‘nationalists’ is not just economic. Rather, this group feel that their positions in society are under threat, and fear the perceived (rather than actual) changes that immigration brings. Both Brexiters and Trump supporters perceive immigration to be a threat to their jobs and resources, but particularly to their community and their ‘way of living’. This perception of threat is most pronounced in areas that are traditionally more segregated and less multicultural. For example, Gallup survey data for 125,000 adults conducted over prior to the US election showed that there is stronger support for Donald Trump in neighbourhoods that are whiter and more segregated than their community as a whole. Inhabitants of these areas are more likely to construct their identity on the basis of a national identity, rather than a sense of cosmopolitan identity. For the ‘nationalists’ in such areas, immigration is perceived to pose a dramatic and threatening change to their lives and their communities, and is likely to reinforce this sense of national identity as a result.

This does not mean location is the most significant factor in the Brexit and Trump votes – there are a plurality of reasons as to why people voted for Brexit and Trump, and the significance of identity markers such as race should not be ignored. Nor should location merely supplement class as a way to view Brexit and Trump as backlashes by the ‘left behind’. Yet the Brexit result and Trump’s win have together affirmed the significance of location as a dividing force.


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