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There is a well-documented link between liberal views and urban locations, and conservative views with rural locations, which has been proven true across many first world nations. However, many nations are becoming more urban as time passes, for example, this graph shows the increased urbanization in the USA.

I'm wondering what the effect of increased urbanization has on the liberal/conservative divide. In theory, if urbanization leads to liberal views, then an increasingly urban location should be expected to be increasingly liberal. There is evidence that countries across the board are becoming more 'liberal' over time, in that things that were considered valid conservative viewpoints in the past are not being espoused by either side any more and previously liberal views are becoming increasingly conservative compared to their even more liberal alternatives argued for today. I am not convinced that this trend is due to urbanization though.

Looking at political parties over time, there tends to be a roughly even divide between liberal parties, like the Democrats in the USA, and conservative parties, such as the Republicans, in countries with first past the post voting systems. So, if there are going to be roughly the same number of registered (or at least voting...) conservatives as liberals, how does that match up with a growing urban population? Are urban populations less of an indicator of liberal views than before as they become more common? Are we simply redefining what qualifies as urban, so a location with a certain level of development might have been considered urban and thus liberal a century ago, but would now be considered rural and thus conservative?

In short, how does the 'urban=liberal' phenomenon persist in the face of increased urbanization but a roughly same number of registered (voting) conservatives as liberals?

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    I'm not sure the premise of your question is even correct (something about proven links between liberal ideology and cities). Large cities, particularly of millions of people existed for over 2000 years, yet the liberal trend only seems be observed for the past century or so.
    – uberhaxed
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:37
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    Clearly, American's views are always getting more and more liberal all the time. It was founded as a liberal experiment right? Neither side wanted gay marriage, green energy, or legal pot 30 years ago. The two parties will always, despite polarization, meet in the middle. Anything else is poor strategy or a waste of funds.
    – dandavis
    Jan 27, 2023 at 3:43
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    @uberhaxed In modern times, in the US, there is a clear correlation between urban vs rural areas and liberal vs conservative views
    – whoisit
    Jan 27, 2023 at 6:27
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    There are a lot of factors involved, and a lot of it is liberals choosing to move to cities, rather than conservatives moving to cities and becoming liberals. But there is no single process - in the past, workers in heavy industry were unionised and hence left-wing, and heavy industry was concentrated in cities, while today the bulk of left-wingers are college-educated and maybe went to cities to study or after study to work in the specialised industries their education qualifies them for. Apologies that I don't have statistics on this.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 27, 2023 at 10:10
  • @dandavis While I see why you say it I don't think it would be fair to say that America was founded as a 'liberal' experiment. However, the trend towards liberalism is not limited to America. Across pretty much all first world democratic nations the same trend is happening, and has been happening for centuries. Conservativism is defined as 'sticking to the old ways'. Any time a liberal party wins a victory their children grow up in that 'liberal' environment, grow to view that way of living as 'the old ways' to them, and thus want to conserve that version of the world they know.
    – dsollen
    Jan 27, 2023 at 15:22

1 Answer 1

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Looking at political parties over the span of time there tends to be a roughly even divide between your liberal party, like democrats in the USA, and your conservative party, such as republicans, in countries with first past the post voting systems.

Duverger's law holds that first past the post voting systems (subject to certain conditions) naturally tend to evolve towards two party systems. And the median voter theorem holds that politicians naturally tend to gravitate towards the position of the median voter in democracies.

So, as the views of the median voter evolve, in order to maintain a two party system, party positions and coalitions naturally evolve toward a situation where the more conservative of the two political parties gravitates towards positions close to the political right of the median voter, while the more liberal of the two political parties gravitates towards positions to the political left of the median voter.

If urbanization or any other cause moves the median voter to the left, then the two main political political parties both shift in the direction of the median voter, so that they have roughly equal numbers of members in the long run.

This means that what makes a political party, a politician, or a voter liberal or conservative is always defined on a relative basis with the views of the median voter as a polestar.

To give a same concrete examples, the leading politicians of the American South have been more conservative than those of the American Northeast since the days of the Articles of Confederation in the late 1700s.

But, for example, while Southern politicians in the 1950s were against interracial marriage, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. argued against pushing this point then called "the social issue" on political movement tactical grounds. But by the 1980s there were formerly segregationist U.S. Senators who had staff members who were in interracial marriages because this had ceased to be point of partisan division as attitudes changed over time.

Similarly, former segregationist leaning areas and politicians shifted from favoring de jure discrimination against African-Americans during the Jim Crow law era, to becoming proponents of a "color blind society" and opposing affirmative action.

But political winds can shift the other direction as well.

For example, for a long time U.S. history lessons that sought to be inclusive of non-white people's experiences in the educational system were uncontroversial. But more recently, the conservative movement has mounted a vigorous and widespread effort to oppose the teaching of "critical race theory" in the schools - which is a shift to a more conservative position than the political right in the United States had previously advocated.

More remotely in time and place, in post-WWI Germany, the political views of the people became decidedly more conservative than they were when the organization of the Weimar Republic was put in place, as the crushing sanctions imposed upon the German nation by the Treaty of Versailles led to a severe deterioration of the quality of life for the average German person at a time coinciding with the Weimar Republic era.

Urbanization has been a consistent trend with almost each new U.S. census since the Census of 1790, and has parallels in almost every other developing and developed nation in the world. And, urbanization is, no doubt, one factor among many that has driven a long term trends, only infrequently interrupted, towards more liberal political attitudes. But the causes of this long term political drift in the the leftward direction are almost certainly numerous and more complex than that.

For example, one cannot explain the stark leftward shift of American politics during the Great Depression by urbanization alone. Indeed, the 1930s was a period in which urban populations were relatively stagnant.

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    This is not an entirely correct application of the median voter theorem because the US is not a single constituency for practically any election. Jan 27, 2023 at 16:20
  • Speaking of the Weimar Republic, I would necessarily call the revanchist attitudes "more conservative". There was a conservative divide there too between rural and urban, but Hitler did not have his fief in the (truly) conservative countryside, although the rural pop generally hated the communists and even the SPD back then. Jan 27, 2023 at 16:27
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    More here about the MVT fail in the US nature.com/articles/s41599-022-01056-0 Jan 27, 2023 at 16:36
  • @Fizz Technically, I suppose, but the correct way to generalize the MVT is to assume that each politician is pulled to the median voter in their constituency, & that the body as a whole tracks the median voter in the constituency of the constituency with the median median voter of all of them, an approach that addresses institutional inequalities like non-population based representation in the U.S. Senate and in the electoral college and the existence of single member districts. In the context of this particular question posed at a quite general level, however, this distinction is immaterial.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 27, 2023 at 18:02

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