Media and Polis in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right

[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Our managing editors, Brendan Kredell and Erica Stein, begin our discussion by questioning and debating how to think about the urban and media together in the wake of recent events.

ES: Of all the issues connected to the global upheavals caused by the outcome of the US Presidential Election, Brexit, and the global rise of right-wing populist nationalism, two of the most prominent in the discourse have been the role of media and of the urban. However, while both terms have been debated endlessly and conceptualized in multiple ways – from fake news to the mediation of the public sphere and from a locus of elitism to a shorthand for opposed demographics – they have not been discussed in connection with one another. Because Mediapolis’s purview and its very name are dedicated not only to the conjunction of mediation and the urban environment but also to the contention that we can no longer understand either term except in light of the other, we have created a new kind of very extended, collective and collaborative editorial note / round robin we’re calling From the Editors’ Desk – composed of our Managing Editors and members of our Editorial and Advisory Boards. This From the Editors’ Desk is dedicated to a discussion of the roles mediations of the urban and the culture of cities play in the current socio-political landscape. In this introductory post, Brendan Kredell and I lay out some of the issues, questions, and conversations that have been important to us in formulating the feature  and what we hope to illuminate through it.

One of the issues that immediately occurred to both of us, and which many of the contributors to this feature also raise, is the dominant model of an “urban-rural divide” driving response to social change and voting patterns in both US politics and Brexit. I think for both of us, Brendan, our immediate response was “which cities,” and “what divide.” We’ve each meant different things by this, of course, but I think for me one of the most obvious points is that “the urban” often seems to mean global cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London and not sunbelt cities like Houston or former industrial cities like Toledo or Sheffield. Moreover, there are myriad challenges to coherently talking about the urban and the rural as two separate entities for reasons including:

  • the spatial (exurbs, infrastructural connections, grids, etc)
  • the epochal (shared tendency toward extreme homogenization and uneven development under globalized late capital)
  • the economic (midwestern cities have very similar experiences of the collapse of their major occupations and population loss as midwestern farming communities)
  • the political (heightened unequal recovery from 2008 is certainly present in all kinds of locations)
  • the notion of being decentered or ejected from public life and view (the rural is more obvious here, but I’m also thinking about the accelerated ejection of both the working and middle class and non-commodified public space from almost every urban center).

Essentially, there are a lot of good arguments to be made about the mesh of urbanism having spread over the entirety of the developed world and having undone a lot of the constituent aspects of both town and country while also accelerating uneven development within and between spaces. Which would beg the question of why the divide is still so prominent in discourse about the US election,1Less so in discussions of Brexit, in part because regional unity in the UK – say, Scottish votes for remain vs Welsh votes for exit – overrides some of the distinction between urban and rural except the answer to that question seems self-evident: because it’s an easy way to characterize the city as “not real” in terms of both being peopled by, say, a not-“native” or normative elite and a non-“native,” non-normative collection of people of color, religious minorities, LGBT folks, etc. And it works so well because it’s so highly resonant with centuries of romanticist and anti-urbanist traditions that are key to both American and British political life.

So I don’t know how much it’s worth to work through that argument as it’s certainly not a new one. But what I think might be worth arguing, or trying to figure out, is what we do in response to this. What role does media play? What would it mean to attempt to mediate or investigate the city through a new expanded view that doesn’t oppose it to the rural? What does it mean to think about mediating the city particularly in terms of imaging of mass political response and action? What happens to the city and its self-imaging in an era where talk of political fragmentation, political independence, and succession are on the table at the level of the region, the state, and the city?


BK: When you talk about the “mesh of urbanism” spreading over the world, I think you are raising a point that for me deserves far more scrutiny that it receives. We focus a lot on the fact of urbanization, and understandably, given how dramatic the demographic shifts that we observe are. Accompanying this is the vogue in certain urban studies circles around the notion of classifying “world cities” according to some or the other power ranking. Witness the Global Cities Index (associated with Foreign Policy and Saskia Sassen, whose 1991 book The Global City incites this list-making frenzy) and the Global Economic Power Index (The Atlantic and Richard Florida), to say nothing of the Global City Competitiveness Index (The Economist) and the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC).

Given all these permutations, you would be forgiven for thinking that we’d resolved some fundamental questions about the relationship between urbanization and globalization. But reflecting on the recent rise of right-wing populism from the US and the UK to the Philippines, perhaps we’ve forgotten that time moves much more slowly – or at least unevenly – in culture than it does in economics. Forget the Washington Consensus – we who study cities have assumed a kind of “urban consensus” that has allowed us to say things like “75% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050” and expect that to mean just as much for the future of urban culture as it does for the provision of clean water and healthcare.

We needn’t even gaze into our crystal balls to realize that the heterogeneity of the urban experience disrupts our every attempt to generalize from it, and the events of 2016 are as profound a reminder as we will receive of that. Here in the United States, it is an article of faith that the Democratic Party represents the interests of urban America, the Republican Party represents the interests of rural America, and that elections are thus won and lost in the suburban fringes of big cities. This isn’t wrong, per se, but by repeating so often that it becomes received wisdom, we – and particularly those of us on the left – have missed a schism underway within urban America that our politics are ill-designed to respond to.

Writing in the Washington Post, for example, Lazaro Gamio offers a compelling argument for how the Democratic Party has seen its success come in America’s largest counties, while Republicans have been successful at increasing their share of the vote in the country’s smaller counties. As compelling as this argument is, it reproduces for me the flawed assumption undergirding the “global cities” argument: in short, all cities are not the same. To look around the industrial Midwest is to see city after city (Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia) where Trump cut into the margins that Democratic candidates previously earned. Notably, the exception to this rule is the largest city of the Midwest, Chicago, which is also the only one to earn “alpha” status from the GaWC.

Just as the effects of globalization have been felt unevenly across the US electorate, and across the urban/rural divide, so too have they been felt unevenly across US cities.2Indeed, they have been felt differently within US cities; as Daniel Kay Hertz has shown, the uneven development of Chicago over the last two decades has created wide disparities in safety across different parts of the city. In the 1990s, the most dangerous third of the city had six times the number of murders as the safest; by the late 2000s, the disparity was approaching fifteen times. This should not surprise us, but it helps us understand why there sometimes seems a disconnect between a politics that attempts to address the lived experience of people in cities and the actual experience of living in cities. Residents of Flint could be forgiven for being less concerned about how today’s urban planners should anticipate tomorrow’s transportation landscape in a world of impending autonomous automobility; procuring clean drinking water is a more pressing concern.

Likewise, I think this same disconnect is reproduced in the media-city nexus. Even talking about “the media” and “the city” monolithically seems dissonant in an era in which Breitbart has better access to the White House than the New York Times, and when the challenges confronting the cities of, say, San Francisco and Cleveland seem as far removed from each other as could be.

To invoke another axiom of American politics: the only thing perhaps more predictive of election results than the urban/rural divide is the white/non-white divide. While there are often strong correlations between the two, we can observe plenty of pockets of blue in otherwise deeply red America, in places like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the Black Belt of Alabama, where non-white voters are historically clustered in non-urban areas. Bearing this in mind, we ought to be mindful of what we’re looking at when we’re talking about urban election results. On a map, those distinctions are softened: San Francisco and Cleveland are blue; much of the area in between them is red.

But that similarity in hue should not lead us to mistake correlation for causation. In practice, it is hard to assign rationales to group voter behavior. How much of what we are seeing in those blue spots is a repudiation of racist, xenophobic, white nationalist politics by voters who feel particularly at risk due to those policies? How much is it a repudiation of an “America First,” anti-global right-wing populism that threatens to undermine the global world order that the United States has built and leads? Those are two very distinct reasons to oppose Trump, and while there is undoubtedly some significant group of voters who subscribe to both arguments, it would stand to reason that there are other voters who are sympathetic to Trumpist economics but not its cultural nationalism, or vice versa.

Disentangling the two seems a primary challenge of the left in the months and years ahead, but I worry that existing media structures are insufficient to the task, given the extent to which they are bound up in a specifically global kind of US urbanism. With notable exceptions – I’m thinking here of magazines like the Oxford American and Belt – US media outlets are concentrated in America’s global cities, imposing a structural challenge on the primary question of representation. Understanding the role that media has to play in urban culture is the central organizing question of Mediapolis; understanding its specific role within urban politics is a task that now looms larger than ever, and I’m anxious to see what our board members will have to say on that front.

ES: I’m trying to think of a less cheesy transition than “I’m glad you asked,” but I’m not coming up with one. Fortunately we’ve got good stuff that will offset my vocabulary failure. Our From the Editors’ Desk participants re-connect and re-think the media and the urban in a variety of ways. Sabine Haenni and Mark Shiel’s posts both offer different models of the large-scale perspective shifts it might require to re-orient our critical attentions to and assumptions about media and the urban in the present context. Sabine’s first post will address how greater attention to the mediations of mapping in general and the mapping of migration in particular might offer new definitions of the urban experience that don’t depend on opposition to the rural or on other old binaries, producing instead a modern cinematic carte de tender, mapping “warmth of welcome” in fiction film. Mark Shiel’s post focuses on the role of pedagogy in such a shift, asking what objects it might be most useful to foreground in curriculum, and how we might also change the methods we use in our own work. Caitlin Bruce and Johan Andersson’s posts offer a closer view of the phenomenon of the definition of the city as political negation in cinema and on the role fiction film played in preparing the way for Trumpism, respectively. Finally, Stan Corkin examines the (print) media’s inability to parse or articulate the nature of the city and events within it, and its neoliberalist dictates as a root cause of which Trump is a symptom.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Less so in discussions of Brexit, in part because regional unity in the UK – say, Scottish votes for remain vs Welsh votes for exit – overrides some of the distinction between urban and rural
2. Indeed, they have been felt differently within US cities; as Daniel Kay Hertz has shown, the uneven development of Chicago over the last two decades has created wide disparities in safety across different parts of the city. In the 1990s, the most dangerous third of the city had six times the number of murders as the safest; by the late 2000s, the disparity was approaching fifteen times.

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