Analysis

Remote working could radically change the political landscape

Nick Barron

Our polarised political climate is partly the result of where we choose to live and who we choose to live with. Flight from major cities would burst bubbles that have been growing for decades

San Francisco real estate marketplace Zillow reports that new listings are up nearly 100% as Bay Area residents seek new lives beyond the city limits.

In New York earlier this month, Governor Cuomo begged for the city’s rich to return after they fled during lockdown: “You got to come back! We’ll go to dinner! I’ll buy you a drink! Come over, I’ll cook!”

In London, house prices continue to rise, but a BBC survey of major employers found that none have plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future and while the CBI has pleaded for a return to city centre working, major city firms such as JP Morgan and Linklaters have declared that part-time office working will be the new normal for their employees.

These are early warning signs that major city centres may lose their vice-like grip on high status jobs, and the people who do them. If you don’t have to go to work, you don’t have to live near work — and some will inevitably choose not to.

This would throw into reverse a trend that began in the 1990s and has reshaped Western politics, producing a full blown Culture War. The political bubbles that have been growing inside our major global cities may be about to burst.

 

The liberal takeover of city centres

In his 2012 book “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City”, US demographer Alan Ehrenhalt observed that:

“The late 20th century was the age of poor inner cities and wealthy suburbs; the 21st century is emerging as an age of affluent inner neighborhoods and immigrants settling on the outside.”

Cities like London became more like Paris, with wealthy elites and the ‘Creative Classes’ choosing urban chic over the pleasures of the suburbs. One side effect was to turn these city centres into vast ideological bubbles of like-minded people, with shared values and worldviews, increasingly at odds with the wider nation.

As the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes: “Many studies have shown that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, while novelty seeking and openness to experience are among the best-established correlates of liberalism.” It is liberals, therefore, who tend to be attracted to university and then to life in major city centres.

And if people surround themselves with people like themselves, who see the world the same way, echo chambers form, incentivising people to double-down on their existing values and opinions. The political divide grows.

You can see this moral clustering effect in voting patterns worldwide. Writing in 2018, The FT’s Gideon Rachman noted:

“[Trump’s victory] is part of a political phenomenon — visible all over the world — that is pitting “metropolitan elites” against pitchfork-wielding populists based in small towns and the countryside. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump lost in all of America’s largest cities — often by huge margins — but was carried to the White House by the rest of the country. This flame-out in big-city America replicated the pattern of Britain’s Brexit referendum earlier that year, when the Leave campaign won despite losing in almost all big cities.”

Mixed communities provide some defence against polarisation, but as the voting map has become more divided, so the polarisation increases.

 

The liberal takeover of culture

The direct political effect of the liberal takeover of city centres was to redraw voting patterns and create more strident and activist populations, but it has also indirectly shaped our politics in two significant ways.

Firstly, it has exacerbated liberal dominance of the levers of cultural power that are almost entirely found in our major cities.

Agglomeration economics means that cities like London and New York are not just home to most of our great arts institutions, but also the media, tech companies, fashion houses, communications and marketing companies, NGOs and the vast majority of businesses and influencers with major public platforms.

Liberal dominance of newsrooms, studios and marketing departments is now well-established, but this is not the result of Gramscian conspiracy — instead, the Long March through the institutions is largely the result of mobile populations, which have self-segregated over the last few decades. These job opportunities are on the liberal doorstep.

Secondly, liberals’ purchasing power has grown as economic growth has been concentrated in major cities. It makes good commercial sense therefore, for these same cultural institutions to cater to liberal tastes. As NYU’s Scott Galloway told Business Insider:

“Put simply, Democrats have all the money” these days. Demographic shifts in America mean that much of the wealth being generated in the country is centered in some very blue districts. Economic growth has been centered in major democratic strongholds like New York and California, so it makes sense for marketing to speak to these consumers first.

The takeover of major cities has thus given liberals disproportionate cultural power both as producers and consumers. And as Andrew Breitbart observed: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

 

When the liberals leave

So what happens if companies stop asking employees to come to work every day and business travel declines?

  1. Fewer people will commute into the middle of cities each day and fewer city centre business meetings will take place
  2. Fewer businesses catering to these workers (from shops and hotels to gyms and restaurants), will operate in city centres. Agglomeration economics begins to break down
  3. With fewer attractions in city centres and less reason to be there for work, more people will choose to meet friends elsewhere — social gatherings will disperse to smaller local centres
  4. City centres will become quieter and more residential, while regional hubs will become livelier and more prosperous. For both liberals and conservatives, this will change the relative appeal of cities
  5. More liberals may rediscover the appeal of their home towns or choose to live in smaller more mixed communities. More conservatives may find the slower pace of life in cities more appealing. The voting map will become less sharply divided between urban and rural populations
  6. If you don’t have to live near work any more, the barriers to entry for many liberal dominated industries will lower for non-city dwellers and such industries may finally solve their diversity problems

The net result of this new equilibrium is that the acute political tribalism we have seen in the last few years may decline as liberals and conservatives learn to live and work with each other once more and realise that the other side is not comprised of the monsters that they’ve heard about on social media and refused to befriend.

More mixed communities and institutions will reduce the risk of groupthink and hyper-polarisation that tribalism produces. We will become better listeners.

Culture will correspondingly become more responsive to the needs and interests of the whole population, not just liberal elites. It’s harder to ignore people’s concerns when they live next door. And as culture becomes more pluralistic, campaigns like Defund the BBC and #BoycottNBA will subside.

So, while the short-term effects of lockdown were to isolate people from one another, the long-term effects may be to bring society back together.

This is not the end of The Culture War. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.