Brexit and Trump: The Spatial Stories. By Alex Rhys-Taylor

Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing a series of city-focussed responses to both the Referendum on European Union membership, and the election of Donald Trump.


The recent election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States cannot help but be interpreted alongside the British vote to leave the European Union. Both events, the result of ostensibly democratic processes, signal a significant shift in the direction of political, economic and social processes on either side of an ocean. In both cases, ‘the city’ is crucial to understanding what has happened, and how we might respond to these events. Firstly, it is important to think about the city in terms of what it has come to symbolises for different people, and the ways it is used to mobilise political action. But is also going to be important to look very closely at the actual spatial formations associated with city life, the ways in which they bring particular types of people together, while keeping others apart. And finally, the city is going to be the site from which to respond to the danger in which both Brexit and Trump have placed Anglo-American society. The mixity of urban life, the stories we can tell about our cities, and the interventions we can make in them, are going to be central to developing alternatives to the exclusionary world that both Breixteers and the Trump Whitehouse, are trying to conjure.

Following both Brexit and Trump’s election, there have been countless ‘hot-takes’ trying to understand exactly where the eruption of exclusivism and resentment arose from. Cycling through a series of variables, the vast majority of narratives locate the anti-cosmopolitan ‘nativist’ protectionism amidst the unintended consequences of the neoliberal de-industrialisation. There is then, an important class element to the story. Race too, plays a key part. Though not a ‘cause’ of de-industrialisation, cultural and racial identity were, in both campaigns, presented as the conditions through which many now want to see resources seemingly lost through the last thirty years, being returned. In both Brexit and the US election, resources, culture and race were irrefutably the key issues through which the winning side’s voters were mobilised.

As the exit polls from both Brexit and the US election came out, it became clearer that, inextricable from the popular algebra of race and socio-economic status, was also space. Not least whenever race, socio-economic status, and associated political identities, were invoked, it was often with reference to particular types of space. And, to an extent, they were not incorrect to point to spatialized culture differences, with stark contrasts between the demography and culture of rural, suburban and metropolitan regions. The US election is particularly instructive. As the New York Times exit poll data demonstrates unequivocally, residential location was one of the most reliable predictors of voting patterns. The further away from a large metropolitan centre that you lived, the more likely a voter was to vote for Trump. This goes for both between, but also within states. In New York State, the urban centres of Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, New York City, all voted democrat. But they were amongst only 16 of the states’ 62 counties that did. This is significant, not least because of the fact that, as a result of historical legacy and Republican gerrymandering, the electoral college system in the US actually results in a slight over representation of rural and sparsely populated areas within the legislature. But that is only half the story.

Residence has not always been such a good predictor of voting preference. On the contrary, many of the rust-belt towns and states within which they were nestled used to be more competitive. One of the reasons that this has started to change is that, tangled up with the process of de-industrialisation, is also a process of intra-national migration. As the journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Bob Cushing note, in 1976, swing states were numerous (and thus were not swing states), and comprised of towns and cities that harboured mixed communities that were fractals of the broader national electorate. As primary and secondary industrial activity migrated beyond the borders of the nation state, those regions infamously lost swathes of jobs. Importantly, those who were willing and able to, moved away. For the main part, they moved – alongside increasingly mobile international migrants – towards the new economy agglomerating in large metropolitan centres. There is, of course, a very clear analogy here with the demographic and electoral consequences of British deindustrialisation. Here again, those with the assets and inclination with which to do so, have left hostile small-town jobs markets for larger cities. Hartlepool’s population, for instance, grew just 2% between recent censuses, Manchester 8.2%, and while growing more slowly recently, London grew 12%.

These small patterns of intra-national migration would be of lesser geopolitical significance were it not for the crucial fact that it seems to have been a certain type of individual who is moving from the old industrial town to the multiplicity of the metropolis. That individual, drawn to the relative abundance of opportunity in already-cosmopolitan cities, to varying degrees, can stomach difference, rub alongside otherness, and even sees opportunities in the confluence of new ideas and materials that cities nurture. They either have a particularly urbane sensibility in the first place – blasé, omnivorous, liberal – or the city induces one by necessity. And, generally, they vote Democrat. London, also hosts a large number of self-selecting intra-national migrants, who want – for both economic and cultural reasons – to be around other cosmopolites. Predictably, they voted to ‘Remain’ in the EU. What this means however, is that there are even fewer Remainers and Democrats residing in and around America and Britain’s peripheral towns and cities. In both cases, this spatial segmentation leaves erstwhile competitive regions significantly more squeamish about the globally embedded and urban nature of 21st century life, while metropolises, which were already liberal simply increase their population of cosmopolites.

Both the Brexit and the Trump campaign have been quick to play up the increasing spatial segmentation of culture and class, using spatial tropes like ‘the city’ or ‘metropolitan elite’ to enervate the melancholia of erstwhile industrial towns and hermetic suburbs. An enduring presence in any politics, the bogeymen and women of cosmopolitan urban culture have, nevertheless, rarely been so prominent in political rhetoric. As such, a whole host of urbane figures – Muslims, Jews, gay couples, ‘nasty’ women, trans communities, immigrants, social scientists, black and brown people – are now, for many who have seen their towns decline, dissociable from the gut-felt resentment they harbour. So many of the key ‘successes’ of both the Brexit and the Trump arise from exploiting spatial constructs, exacerbating a sense of people going, or coming from, elsewhere, and receiving resources and opportunities that might otherwise have been apportioned to somebody more deserving; somebody construed to be like themselves. In some respects, then, responses to the perilous position that trans-Atlantic modernity finds itself in, are also likely to be spatial.

For a start, we need work a lot harder on stories about the movements of people and culture that Anglo-American modernity has thrown up, accounting better for how we came to be where we are without recourse to crude caricatures of nations and cultures. For the last thirty years, popular support for the free flow of commodities, capital and people that came with neoliberalism, has been maintained by appealing to understanding of culture and identity that globalisation necessarily undermines. That has to stop, for obvious reasons. So we need better spatial stories. We need, also, to protect more vehemently, the spaces that demonstrate the possibilities of multiculture. The metropolis, for all of its ills, harbours a great many social resources and institutions with which to cope with what looks set to be an even more turbulent period of global history. Many large cities have historically fostered an everyday amenability to difference that will help communities weather and resist attempts to impose extensive limits on who belongs and what they are allowed to do. We need to recognise and nurture that sensibility. And lastly, we need to better look after the communities residing in our towns and cities. Assuring current and future residents of the city access to affordable inner-city dwellings, would also go a long way mitigating the resentment incurred through de-industrialisation and keep the city’s remaining resources for a progressive, humane, future alive. Another crack of light might be found in the momentum that urbanisation in both Britain and the US has built up. A well-hidden story within the tumult of the recent US election, was that over 70% of ballots over public transit investment, including in the car-loving-tax-hating Californians, were passed. The effective green-lighting of further urbanisation, also signals the potential the revitalisation of peripheral towns and suburbs. Bringing them closer to the centres of the global economy, and bringing the global economy closer to them, can only help to mitigate the effects of the ‘big sort’ through which progressives are clustering closer and closer together. There are a great many other ways in which cities might effect, and be affected by the new political atmosphere that is settling over them. But whatever happens next, the role of both British and American cities, both within the nation and within the global context, is going to be decisive.

Alex Rhys-Taylor is deputy director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research, convenor of MA Cities and Society, and has a book coming out in February 2017 entitled ‘Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of East London’

Image by By Billy Hathorn at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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