Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery

In the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, the Amazonian region was strikingly divided, as is clearly visible on the Globo map posted below. (I have added an oval and two terms on the map to mark Roraima and the Amazonian region.) Most municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) here strongly supported one candidate or the other. Bolsonaro’s zone of support lies to the south of the Amazon River, but has a distinct northern outlier in the state of Roraima. In contrast, in the large state of Amazonas in the northwest, Lula da Silva received more than 60 percent of the vote in almost every municipality. The main exception was the capital city of Manaus (population 2.2 million), where Bolsonaro took 61 percent of the vote.

The electoral divide in the Amazonian region is easily explained by economic and demographic factors. As noted in a recent Mongabay headline, “Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation.” The Amazonian areas won by Bolsonaro have seen extensive forest clearance and now have economies based on agriculture, grazing, and artisanal (and often illegal) mining. As people stream into these areas from other parts of Brazil, pressure for further deforestation grows. As Bolsonaro, unlike Lula, is a champion of forest clearance and mining, his high level of support in these areas is not surprising. As noted by Mongabay writer André Schröder:

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.



The partially deforested, Bolsonaro-voting zone of the southern Amazon is also characterized by high rates of violent crime, as can be seen on the homicide map posted below. Force is often used here to seize land and settle disputes. In such an environment, many voters support Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed widespread gun ownership. In Brazil as a whole, however, roughly two-thirds of the people oppose these measures.

In the Amazonian heartland state of Amazonas, in contrast, relatively little deforestation has occurred. Here most rural people derive their livelihoods primarily from the natural environment and small-scale horticulture. Such areas strongly supported Lula, who significantly reduced the pace of deforestation when he was president in the early 2000s. As noted in a Guardian article, Amazonian municipalities with large number of indigenous people also voted heavily for Lula, as would be expected.

The Brazilian state that gave the highest percentage of its votes to Bolsonaro (76 percent) is Roraima, located in the northern Amazonian region on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The natural vegetation of Roraima is a mixture of savannah and rainforest, both of which have seen extensive agricultural conversion. Illegal mining is also widespread – and environmentally destructive. Roraima, the least populated Brazilian state, has seen explosive growth in recent decades, its population rising from 79,000 in 1980 to 631,000 in 2020. As can be seen on the paired maps below, only one municipality in Roraima supported Lula in 2022; not coincidentally, it has an overwhelmingly indigenous population. But the state’s other northern municipalities also have indigenous majorities or pluralities, yet they voted for Bolsonaro.



The electoral victory of Bolsonaro in the indigenous-majority municipalities of northern Roraima is not easily explained. An interesting graphic in The Guardian notes this oddity (posted above) but offers no explanation. A recent Al Jazeera article reports, unsurprisingly, that indigenous leaders in the state see Bolsonaro as a threat and have strongly supported Lula. The article also claims that the indigenous residents of Roraima have not received any benefits from the mining boom. As the author, writing before the election, notes:

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

 We thus encounter a mystery: why did most voters in heavily indigenous northern Roraima opt for Bolsonaro? Several possibilities come to mind. In Lula’s stronghold of northeastern Brazil, the 2022 election was marked by voter intimidation and suppression. Even the Federal Highway Police, allied with Bolsonaro, tried to delay or prevent people from reaching the polls. Could similar tactics explain the anomalous voting patterns of northern Roraima? I have seen no evidence of this, but my research has been limited. It is also possible that many indigenous people simply did not participate in the election, although Brazil does have compulsory voting.

It does seem that this apparent mystery deserves investigation by someone who knows more about Brazil, and Roraima, than I do.

Brazil’s Stark Electoral Divide

In recent elections, Brazil has exhibited a distinct north/south electoral divide, with the north supporting leftwing candidates and the south supporting rightwing candidates. Strictly speaking, this is a more a northeast vs. south & west-center split, as the sparsely populated northwest is itself electorally divided, as is the large center-east state of Minas Gerais (“MG” on the map below). This political division correlates closely with income and human development. As a general rule, the poorer states of Brazil’s northeast support candidates on the left while the richer states of the south support candidates on the right. This pattern can be seen on maps comparing the 2022 election results with those showing per capita GDP by state and the Human Development Index (HDI) by state. Some exceptions exist, such as the relatively poor but right-voting states of Acre (“AC”) and Amapá (“AP”), and relatively wealthy but left-voting Minas Gerais, but the general pattern is clear.

This correlation might seem predictable, but it no longer holds in the United States or over much or Europe, where wealthier regions now tend to vote for the left. Brazil’s north/south divide, moreover, has emerged only in recent elections. In 1989, for example, the leftwing candidate Lula da Silva triumphed in the relatively wealthy southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in the prosperous Federal District (Brasilia), while losing most of the impoverished northeast. When Lula finally won the presidency in 2002, he took every state except northeastern Alagoas. Lula’s successful anti-poverty programs subsequently solidified his power across the northeast (with the exception of coastal Alagoas)  In his 2006 reelection, the current latitudinal divide appeared on the Brazilian electoral map. In that contest, the centrist candidate Geraldo Alckmin took most of the south and the center-west. Intriguingly, Alckmin teamed up with Lula to run as his vice-presidential candidate in 2022.

This stark electoral and economic divide has led many observers to worry that there are now “two Brazils” that will not be able to function well together. Lulu is also concerned about this split, which helps explain his partnership with Alckmin. He has also promised to try to heal the division. As Lula recently stated:

“My friends. As of Jan. 1, 2023, I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, and not just for those who voted for me. There are not two Brazils. We are a single country, a single people, a great nation,” he said. …

“We will find a way out so that this country can live democratically and harmoniously again,” he said. “No one is interested in living in a divided country, in a permanent state of war.”

State-level mapping, however, is of low-resolution and is therefore often misleading. But if we look at local level, the same correlation between voting behavior and economic development still holds (see the maps below). Here Minas Gerais does not seem exceptional, as its wealthier southwestern areas went for Bolsonaro and its poorer northeastern areas went for Lula. But again, there are other exceptions. Center-west Brazil, for example, is only moderately developed yet voted heavily for Bolsonaro. This seeming oddity will be explored in a later post.

Brazil’s Lack of a Metropolitan/Hinterland Political Divide

The 2018 and 2022 Brazilian general elections shared some important features with the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In all cases, a rightwing, populist nationalist won the first contest (Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump respectively) but lost the second, in both instances to an older, politically well established, center-left opponent (Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and Joseph Biden respectively). But the electoral geographies of the two countries are highly divergent. In the United States, and in much of Europe, parties on the political left now find most of their support in areas of high population density, whereas those of the right find most of their support in areas of low population density. Michael Lind, a hard-to-classify political centrist, has analyzed this new electoral pattern in some detail. As he writes:

On a map of the United States color-coded by party, big cities and university towns and a few regions with large immigrant and racial minority populations are a chain of Democratic islands in a Republican ocean. Similar patterns appear on maps of voting for Brexit in the UK and elections in continental Europe.

Looking at these maps, it is easy to see why scholars and journalists refer to the “urban-rural divide.” But this is misleading. Farm owners and farmworkers make up only a tiny sliver of the population in the typical Western democracy. Most voters in Europe and North America today live in broadly defined metro areas or small communities on their periphery. In the case of partisanship, the most important border is not between city and countryside, but between expensive, high-density urban business districts and inner suburbs on the one hand and, on the other, low-density suburbs and exurbs.

Rather than use the terms “city” and “countryside,” we can describe the high-density areas as “hubs” and the low-density areas around and between the hubs as “heartlands.”

In Brazil, a highly urbanized country, such a density divide is barely visible. As noted in The Guardian:

Lula’s victory had a peculiarity: he won many votes in some of Brazil’s most populated municipalities but also in most of the sparsely populated areas. In the latter, he reached more than 80% of the vote. It was at these two ends that he made the difference. Bolsonaro, instead, did very well in medium-size cities, as shown by the concentration of blue bubbles in the graph below in districts with between 100,000 and 1 million inhabitants.

But as The Guardian’s chart shows, Bolsonaro triumphed in more than half of Brazilian cities with populations of more than one million. As a map from the same article shows, Brazil’s “hubs” do not stand out from their “heartlands” in regard to electoral geography. A Portuguese-language graphic from Nexo shows that Bolsonaro won more than half of the capital cities of Brazil’s states. In the northeastern state of Alagoas, where Lula took 58.7 percent of the vote, Maceió, the capital city and largest urban center, went for Bolsanaro. (Note that in Brazil, as in most of the world, red is used for the political left and blue for the right.)


An important exception to this generalization is the city of São Paulo located in the state of the same name. São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city by a wide margin, and São Paulo is Brazil’s most populous state by a wide margin. The state voted solidly for Bolsanaro (55.2 percent), but the city went for Lula by a similar margin. Given the large size of São Paulo city, its votes were critical for carrying Lula to victory.

The same pattern is evident in São Paulo’s 2022 gubernatorial election, which was won by a close ally of Bolsanaro, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas. As can be seen on the Nexo map posted below, Tarcísio (as he is mononymously called) lost São Paulo city and most of its inner suburbs while winning in most of the rest of the state. But Tarcísio did triumph in several large cities, taking both Campinas (population 1.2 million) and São José dos Campos (population 729,000; metropolitan area, 2.5 million). No U.S. cities of such a size vote for rightwing candidates. The largest to support Donald Trump in 2020 was Oklahoma City, with a population of 681,000 and a metropolitan area of 1.4 million.

We will examine other aspects of Brazil’s electoral geography in later posts

Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast

Many maps of the current Iran protest movement have been published and posted, showing both cumulative and daily events. Although such maps are highly useful, the patterns that they indicate are not easily discerned. Protests have been happening in so many places that a map of their occurrences approximates a population density map of the country (see the excellent population density map by Michael Izady posted below). Close analysis, however, shows a distinct concentration of protests in the historically Kurdish region in northwestern Iran (see especially first map posted below). This is no surprise. Mahsa Amini was herself Kurdish, and Iran’s Kurdish population has long been noted for its relatively liberal and anti-regime sentiments.

Protests have been relatively sparse, however, in North Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, which is almost half Kurdish. North Khorasan is not part of historical Kurdistan; Kurds were deported from their homeland to this region in the early modern period by Safavid shahs who wanted their help in protecting their empire against Turkmen and Uzbek pastoral peoples from Central Asia. Evidently, pro-Kurdish and anti-regime sentiments are much less pronounced here than they are in the solidly Kurdish regions of the northwest. Population distribution probably plays a role. Although many of the Kurds in North Khorasan live in Kurdish villages, the province’s cities are ethnically mixed, counting many Farsi-speakers and Turkmens. This mixing has perhaps diminished ethnic identity among the region’s urban Kurds.

Electoral returns, however, indicate that deeper factors are at play. North Khorasan, like most of the rest of northeastern Iran, is a conservative area that gives most of its votes to hardline, pro-regime candidates. Reformist candidates would not do so poorly in this province if they received widespread support from the local Kurdish population. Posted below are three Wikipedia maps of relative fair Iranian presidential elections, all of which show moderate/reformist candidates winning in the historically Kurdish northwest yet doing poorly in heavily Kurdish North Khorasan. The 2001 map, which shows vote percentages at the district level, best illustrates this pattern. As can be seen, the most heavily Kurdish areas of the northwest gave more than 84 percent of their votes to Mohammad Khatami, the incumbent champion of relatively free expression, civil society, and a “dialogue among civilizations.” North Khorasan, however, gave Khatami fewer than 39 percent of its votes. Intriguingly, nearby areas to the south and east, with much smaller Kurdish populations, gave Khatami a significantly larger share of their votes.

The relative conservatism of Iran’s northeastern Kurds is an interesting phenomenon that has received little attention in the English-language literature. I can only wonder whether Iranian scholars, pundits, and political activists have examined it.

Maps and Graphs to Help Explain Italy’s Turn to Rightwing Populism

Rightwing populist parties have gained support over much of Europe over the past decade. Italy, however, is the first western European country to see a rightwing coalition led by a populist party come to power. The success of Giorgia Meloni’s Brother of Italy is partly explicable on the basis of Italy’s extremely low fertility rate in combination with its highly negative attitudes toward immigration, as can be seen in the map and charts posted below. With few children being born and immigrants generally unwelcome and no longer staying in large numbers, Italy faces an impending financial/demographic crisis. Unless something changes, future retirees will no longer be easily supported. Meloni’s pro-natalist plans, which call for substantial subsidies for child-bearing couples, thus proved attractive to many voters. Widespread antipathy to immigrants also helps explain the appeal of Meloni’s majoritarian identity politics, focused on nationalistic sentiments.

Why the Italian population is so averse to immigrants is an open question. The country’s foreign-born population is not high by western European standards. It is significant, however, that Italy does not have a long history of receiving immigrants; for most of its time as a nation-state, it has been noted instead for sending out emigrants.

Italy’s economic malaise is another important factor in its swing to the right. In the late twentieth century, the Italian economy was in good shape. In the Il Sorpasso phenomenon of 1987, Italy’s GDP overcame that of the United Kingdom, making it the sixth largest economy in the world. Today Italy’s GDP stands at 2,058,330 (US$ million) whereas the UK stands at 3,376,000 (US$ million). Italy has experienced pronounced economic decline over the past dozen years, and most of its regions suffer from high unemployment. Considering as well Italy’s chaotic political system, it is perhaps not surprising that its voters have turned against their country’s political establishment. Such dissatisfaction also helps explain the recent rise of its left-populist Five Star Movement. But Five Star saw a massive decline in support in the 2022 election. Perhaps its suspicions about economic growth were a factor here.

Economic and Class Factors in the 2022 Italian Election

Historically, leftwing political parties and movements have championed the working class and, in turn, have received its support. But as cultural and social issues have increased in importance, this connection has weakened and now seems to be disappearing. In Europe, concerns about immigration and European integration have also pushed working-class voters from the political left to the right.

Such dynamics were clearly evident in the 2022 Italian election. As the graph posted above shows, the most left-leaning of the major Italian parties, the Greens and Left Alliance, found the bulk of its support in the higher income quintiles. The Democratic Party, the heart of the left coalition, did poorly with lower-income voters. Higher-income voters were much more inclined than low-income voters to support the pro-EU, centrist “Action/Viva Italia” alliance. The one left-leaning party to gain most of its support from the working class was the neo-populist Five Star Movement. But while the Five Star Movement supports economic redistribution and many other leftist policies, it is also hostile to immigration and suspicious of the European Union. As a result, it has sometimes been shunned by the other left-leaning parties.

Parties belonging to the victorious rightwing coalition received a significant amount of support from the working class. Giorgia Meloni’s right-populist (or national conservative, sometimes deemed post-fascist) Brothers of Italy did well across the income spectrum but appealed most strongly to those in the lower-middle income quintile. Surprisingly, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza, an establishment oriented, pro-business party, did best among those in the lowest quintile. Matteo Salvini’s populist and regionalist/federalist Lega party also had slightly higher support among lower-income voters.

Patterns of economic geography are less visible in the Italian election returns of 2022. As can be seen on the map of multi-member electoral constituencies posted above, the left-populist Five Star Movement received most of its support in the south, which is by far the poorest part of Italy. In northern Italy, however, no economic correlations are apparent. The three richest provinces of Italy, as assessed by per capita GDP in 2019 (see the map posted below), supported different parties. Bologna gave most its votes to the leftwing coalition, as it always does. Monza and Brianza, just north of Milan, supported the rightwing coalition, as it generally does. In the far north, the Autonomous Province of Bolzano (or South Tyrol) supported its own regionalist party, as it almost always does. South Tyrol is very distinctive from the rest of Italy, mostly because more than half of its people speak German as their first language.


Left and Right Voting Patterns in Italy’s 2022 Election

(GeoCurrents will return to the Seduced by the Map manuscript later this year. The next few posts will look at Italy’s 2022 election. Posts next week will examine the current protest movement in Iran.)

The recent Italian election saw a clear victory by the rightwing coalition, which gained an outright majority of parliamentary seats. In terms of popular vote, however, the results were not so clear. The rightwing coalition took only 43.7 percent of the total vote. But the leftwing coalition lagged far behind, with only 26 percent of the vote. Most of the rest of the votes went to two non-coalition parties, the left-populist Five Star Movement and the centrist Action-Viva Italia alliance. If these parties had joined the left coalition, it would have received 49.2 percent of the vote. If one were to add the votes given to two extreme leftist parties (People’s Union and Sovereign Italy), the total “left and center” vote would stand at 51.8 percent.

There are two main reasons why the rightwing coalition won a decisive victory despite its minority level of support. One was the lack of unity in the left-center. As The Guardian reported, “The centre-left Democrats, led by Enrico Letta, placed a veto on any alliance with the left-leaning Five-Star Movement, and the centrist Liberals in turn placed a veto on the Democrats. This uncooperative narcissism cleared the way for the far-right victory.” Also important was the ability of the rightwing coalition to reach plurality support in 83 percent of the 232 single-member constituencies of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament). With many parties in play, it is not difficult to reach first place with a far-from-majority level of support. On the electoral map of these constituencies, Italy appears almost solidly blue (the conventional color of the rightwing in Italy – and in almost almost every other country, except the United States).

But if the right’s victory was not as solid as it seems at first glance, the left’s defeat is still striking. Constituencies that supported candidates on the left in almost every election since 1948 failed to come through. Prior to 2017, almost every district in the important regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna in north-central Italy gave at least plurality support to candidates on the left. In 2022, such support was whittled down to Florence and its environs in Tuscany and Bologna and Reggio-Emilia and their environs in Emilia-Romagna. Although the left-coalition did win several densely populated urban cores elsewhere in northern Italy, the country as a whole does not show the “urban=left/rural=right” dynamic that is refashioning electoral geography in most other democracies.  Large portions of major cities such as Roma and Milan favored the right. Important cities such as Venice and Verona apparently voted much like their rural hinterlands.

Equally significant is the fact that the Italian left is not nearly as leftist as it used to be. The leading member of the left coalition, the Democratic Party, has recently moved relatively close to the center. The only clearly leftist major party, the Greens and Left Alliance, took only 3.6 percent of the vote. The hard-left parties did worse, barely cracking one percent. The Italian Communist Party took a grand total of 0.09 percent of the vote. In contrast, in 1976 the Communist Party took roughly 35 percent of the Italian vote, with the Socialist Party taking another ten percent. At the time, Italy’s “Eurocommunist” movement had dropped many of its extremist positions, but on basic economic issues it was still vastly more leftist than Italy’s current left alliance. The times have indeed changed, but not in the way that many had expected.


Voting Patterns and Population Density – and “State of Jefferson” Exception

As has often been noted, electoral patterns in the United States increasingly correlate with population density; in general, densely populated areas vote for candidates in the Democratic Party while sparsely settled areas vote for candidates in the Republican Party. As a result, major metropolitan areas generally exhibit a pattern of concentric rings, which turn from blue to red as one travels outward from the urban center.

Different cities, however, show major variations on this theme. Minneapolis-Saint Paul exemplifies the annular pattern, with a dark-blue core surrounded by rings of lightening blue that eventually turn pink. Dallas-Fort Worth is more complicated. Here one finds urban cores that are just as blue as those in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, but the urban peripheries and suburbs are more variegated, while the exurbs and enveloping rural areas are a darker shade of red. The greater Milwaukee area is notable for its steep gradient; as one leaves the city, blue yields to pink. Seattle, in contrast, has a gentle gradient, with light blue extending across and beyond the suburban fringe. (The dark red precinct west of Everett is misleading: it recorded all of three Trump votes – but no Biden votes.)


It is not just major cities where this density-dependent electoral dynamic plays out. As can be seen on the map of the 2020 presidential election in central Illinois and southeastern Iowa, all cities with more than 50,000 residents went blue, or at least had blue cores, whereas no town with fewer than 5,000 residents had any blue precincts. Pekin and Quincy were unusual in having more than 30,000 residents but no blue precincts in 2020. Yet even here, the town centers were light pink rather than red.

Several parts of the United States do not follow this pattern. Rural areas dominated by Native Americans and Blacks tend to be heavily Democratic voting. The same has historically been true of Hispanic-majority rural areas, although many are now trending Republican. And as noted in previous posts, rural areas dominated by affluent amenity-seekers also tend to be blue.

In a few parts of the country, this linkage between population density and voting behavior disappears. Consider, for example, far-northern-interior California, a white-dominated region with strong anti-California sentiments associated with the “State of Jefferson” movement. Although the cities and towns here are more pink than red, they lack blue precincts. The one exception is in Susanville, a small city economically based on prisons. But Susanville’s exceptional blue precinct is small, with just 54 votes cast. In contrast, many of the more remote parts of this region are Democratic voting. This is particularly true in the west, an area that has been heavily involved in cannabis cultivation.

The city of Redding, the “metropolis” of far northern California, has grown rapidly in recent decades, surging from under 17,000 people in 1970 to almost 100,000 today. Many of its newcomers have relocated from California’s major metropolitan areas, seeking lower prices and a more conservative social and political milieu. Although the Redding areas has many attractive natural features, its average July high temperature of 99.9 degrees dissuades the affluent, as does its political climate. Left-wing outdoor enthusiasts find places like Mt Shasta City, Weed, and Dunsmuir, all located in the mountainous blue-zone between Redding and Yreka, far more attractive. In 60%-Biden-voting Dunsmuir, population 1,700, class-three whitewater rapids are uniquely located in the middle of town.

Montana’s Changing Electoral Geography

Although Montana has usually opted for Republican candidates in U.S. presidential elections, it was until recently something of a “purple” state, often dividing its votes relatively evenly between the two main political parties. As can be seen in the map series on the left, it has been trending in a decidedly red direction. In 2008, Barack Obama received 47 percent of Montana’s votes; in 2016, Hillary Clinton got only 35.7 percent.

As can be seen on these maps, Montana’s patterns of electoral geography have changed as well. The first two maps (1948 and 1960) show a north/south divide, with the south favoring Republicans and the north favoring Democrats. Many counties, however, were almost evenly split, with few experiencing landslide elections. These patterns disappear in the later maps. The north/south divide is now only vaguely evident, and landslide elections are common, at least in the Republican-voting east. Several counties have switched their party alignment. Cascade (Great Falls) formerly trended blue, but is is now reliably red. As the second map show, Cascade County even saw a minor red-shift from 2016 to 2020 (moving from a  57.1 % to a 58.46 % Trump vote). Gallatin County (Bozeman) has moved in the opposite direction. As recently as 2004, Gallatin voted Republican. It is now reliable blue – and getting bluer. It remains, however, Montana’s most libertarian county.





County-level maps of the Trump and Biden vote in 2020 reveal some interesting but subtle patterns. At the crudest level, the state’s main geographical divide now separates the east from the west. Although most western counties are still solidly red, several of the more populous ones are blue. Equally notable, no western county gave more than three-quarters of its votes to Trump. The statistical website 538 thus maps Montana’s western congressional district as leaning Republican, in contrast its solidly Republican eastern district. Twelve eastern counties gave more than 80 percent of their votes to Trump. But Biden did win two eastern counties and came very close in a third. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, all three of these counties have Native American majorities.



The main electoral geographical divide in the United States now pits metropolitan areas against small towns and rural areas. This pattern, however, is only vaguely apparent in Montana’s county-level data. As can be seen in the paired maps, the most sparsely settled counties gave the highest percentage of their votes to Trump, and several relatively densely populated western counties supported Biden. But Montana’s population leader, Yellowstone County (Billings), solidly backed Trump, and several rural counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans voted for Biden.



Montana’s rural/urban divide is more clearly evident at the precinct level. Consider Silver Bow County, which is politically consolidated with the city of Butte. Historically, Silver Bow was Montana’s bluest county, its many miners consistently supporting Democratic candidates. Today, the mines are largely shuttered, and the city now specializes in reclaiming toxic sites. It is still blue, although not to the extent that it formerly was. As can be seen, central Butte remains dark blue, whereas most of the outlying areas of Silver Bow County are red. The electoral maps of Billings, Helena, and Livingston all show blue urban cores surrounded by red rural hinterlands. Even the small town of Havre on the Great Plains, population 9,362, had one light blue precinct in 2020. On the other side of the ledger, two of Montana’s largest cities, Great Falls and Kalispell, had no blue precincts in 2020. But they are not as red as their surrounding areas.




A few rural areas and small towns in Montana that are not on native American reservations now habitually vote for Democratic candidates. The college towns of Bozeman and Missoula are both surrounded by rural blue precincts, although they are not as blue as those in the urban cores. Several remote towns and rural areas situated in areas with abundant natural amenities are distinctly blue. Big Sky, noted for its luxury ski resort, falls into this category, as do the small towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Red Lodge, also near Yellowstone and adjacent to the spectacular Beartooth Highway, falls into the same category. Near Glacier National Park one finds the small blue towns of West Glacier and Whitefish. Nearby Columbia Falls, however, is decidedly red. This difference reflects demographic sorting tendencies: Whitefish became an early center of outdoor recreation and environmentalism, which in turn attracted newcomers with similar interests and values. As Bill Bishop argued in The Big Sort more than a decade ago, Americans are increasingly moving to places that that match their political orientations.

Recent Population Growth — and Decline — in Montana

(Note: As I am spending the summer in Montana to be with my granddaughters and their parents, a number of forthcoming post will focus on the state.)

As can be seen in the map on the left, Montana is a booming state, posting the third largest rate of population growth (in percentage terms) in the United States from 2020 to 2021. In the 2022 election, Montana will gain a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which it had lost in 1993 due to lagging population growth at the time. Montana is still a sparsely settled state, with the third lowest population density in the country (after Alaska and Wyoming). Its population surge, moreover, is relatively recent. As can be seen in the second map, from 2010 to 2020 it experienced a moderate rate of growth (9.6%), higher than the national average (7.4%), but well below those of neighboring Idaho (17.3%) and North Dakota (15.8%), as well as nearby Utah (18.4%).





As might be expected, Montana’s recent population expansion is very unevenly distributed. Whereas some counties are experiencing sizzling grown, others continue to decline. Growth is concentrated in the mountainous west, whereas decline is pronounced across much of the Great Plains in the east. But as can be seen in the map on the left, two far-eastern counties (Richland and Carter) experienced rapid growth from 2010 to 2020, defying the regional norm. This map, however, is somewhat misleading; as Richland and Carter are sparsely settled countries, small increases in absolute numbers translate into rapid proportional growth. A gain of a mere 255 residents in Carter resulted in a 22% growth rate over the decade. Previously, the tendency had been one of steady decline. In 1920 the county had 3,972 residents, dropping to 1,415 by 2020.


The growth in Richland County from 2010 to 2020 is easily explained; adjacent to the booming oilfields of eastern North Dakota, it became something of a bedroom community for housing-short Williston, ND. But as the oil boom has receded, so too has Richland County. As can be seen in some of the maps posted below, the county lost population from July 2020 to July 2021. Explaining the growth in Carter, one of the most remote counties in the lower 48 states, is more challenging. A recent article in the excellent Montana Free Press, however, is quite helpful. A newly paved road improved access to eastern South Dakota, another area of recent population expansion (due in part to the natural amenities of the Back Hills region). The article also cites a healthy county budget, owing in part to transit fees from energy pipelines, and, unlikely as it might seem, dinosaur tourism. Ekalaka, Carter’s county seat, is evidently a high point on Montana’s so-called Dinosaur Trail.

To help readers make sense of changing population patterns in Montana, I have made several versions of my population-change-by-county maps (posted below). As can be seen in one of these iterations, growth has been concentrated in and around Montana’s largest cities, although Great Falls has lagged behind. Later posts will explore some of these patterns in more detail.

The most recent census data, covering the period from July 2020 to July 2021, shows a continuation of most of the trends seen in the 2010-2020 period. Although most Montana countries grew sharply during this time of COVID, the northern Great Plains continued in its seemingly inexorable decline. All of Montana’s larger cities, except Great Fall and Butte, saw rapid growth. So did Ravalli County in the scenic Bitterroot Valley, a zone of high rural population density (by Montana standards). Also of note is the growth rate of Flathead County in the northwest surpassing that of Gallatin County (which includes Bozeman) in the southwest. This somewhat surprising; as an expanded headline in the Montana Free Press notes, “Montana’s fastest-growing city last year? It wasn’t Bozeman. New Census Bureau estimates chart Montana’s population shifts during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalispell led the pack.” This article, by Eric Dietrich, is well worth reading, especially for Dietrich’s superb cartography. (Note that there are a few discrepancies between his map and mine; although I have re-checked the data, his figures may be more accurate.)





The competition between Bozeman and Kalispell is interesting. Intriguingly, Kalispell is Montana’s only significant city with no “blue” (Democratic voting) precincts, although the nearby tourism-oriented town of Whitefish is a different matter. Bozeman, in contrast, is markedly blue, as is Gallatin County as a whole. Gallatin’s smaller towns and most of its rural areas, however, are decidedly red. I have posted details from one of Eric Dietrich’s excellent Montana electoral maps, also published in the Montana Free Press. Later posts will explore Montana’s changing electoral geography in more detail.










The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism

Europe Political Orientation MapGeoCurrents reader Rafael Ferrero-Aprato recently brought to my attention an interesting map of political divisions in Europe made by the Dutch electoral geographer Josse de Voogd and reproduced by The Economist in 2014. Josse de Voogd notes the difficulties and limitations in making a map of this sort: “Some countries [are covered] in much greater detail than others and there are lots of political parties that are difficult to place ideologically. The information comes from a wide range of resources over a long time-span.” In general terms, the map seems reasonably accurate. But at the more local scale, the situation often gets too complex to be easily captured in a map of this sort. As Rafael Ferrero-Aprato notes in regard to his own country, Portugal:

Speaking for Portugal though, the red corresponds to the strongly leftists regions of Alentejo/South Ribatejo (because of the latifundium agricultural system) and Setúbal Peninsula (an industrial region). It includes also the moderately leftist areas of the north Algarve, lower Beira Interior and Lisbon. So far, so good.

But after giving it more attention, the borders are not perfect: they include south Algarve (moderately right-wing) and the city of Porto, despite it being considered right-wing. Some leftist “enclaves” are missing too, such as the peninsula of Peniche (industrial fishing) and the city of Marinha Grande (industrial).

The Alentejo, Setúbal Peninsula, Peniche and Marinha Grande were also areas of strong influence of the Portuguese Communist Party during the 1926-74 dictatorships, the only force that remained organized in the face of strong repression by the regime. As such, these regions saw numerous revolts during that time.

Germany Electoral Maps 1The only country that seems to be misconstrued on the map—at least for recent elections—is Germany. As the set of maps from Electoral Geography 2.0 indicates, German elections have recently been structured largely Germany Electoral Maps 2around a north/south division, especially those of 1998, 2002, and 2005. The 1994 and 1987 (West Germany only) maps fit better with de Voogd’s depiction, although it does seem that he unduly minimizes the left-wing Ruhr industrial area.

European right-wing populism mapUnfortunately, the interpretation of de Voogd’s cartography by The Economist is not particularly enlightening. Much of the attention here focuses on environmental determinism, referring both to the map discussed above and to another map made by de Voogd, posted here to the left. As the noted in The Economist article:

Flat areas are more right wing The flat pains of southern Sweden, East Anglia, north-eastern France, Flanders and Padania vote for right-wing populists. Hilly regions like Cumbria, south-west France and most of the Alps tend to stick with the mainstream parties. This observation is not as facetious as it may seem. According to Garry Tregidga, an historian at Exeter University, hilly pastoral areas are generally characterised by left-leaning politics. One debatable explanation is that flat crop-growing areas benefit most from economies of scale, so fathers traditionally passed on their land to the first born, reinforcing differences in wealth and creating a more hierarchical political culture. In hilly, pastoral areas inheritances were more commonly split equally, which over the generations created a more egalitarian social structure and political tradition. Another (equally debatable) explanation is that arable farms need cheap vegetable-pickers and that the consequent foreign immigration into otherwise homogeneous rural areas stokes right-wing sentiment.

Europe physical mapThe Economist author simply gets the physical geography of Europe wrong. Upper Saxony in Germany and Provence in France are correctly depicted as right-wing populist strongholds, yet they are hardly flat areas. And as the “dominant political force” map indicates, many “flat” areas generally vote for the left. Examples here include southwestern France (Aquitaine is not “hilly,” despite what The Economist claims), the lowlands of Scotland, the Brandenburg region of Germany, the plains of Andalucía, and the lower Danube Valley. And what of upland area such as the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pindus, and the Cantabrian Mountains that are accurately depicted as more “rightist” in their voting patterns? As a comparison of de Voogd’s basic political map with a physical map of Europe shows, there is simply no pan-European correlation between topography and political viewpoints.

Like most geographers, I am often perplexed by the hold that environmental determinism retains on the public imagination. Actual evidence is rarely able to dislodge such fallacies. Evidently there is something deep comfortable about the idea that landforms and climate determine how we think.

Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy

Valencian Community MapFive days before the recent regional elections in Catalonia, the Archbishop of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, gained attention and generated controversy by urging Catholics to “pray for Spain and her unity” while also arguing that “Spain is bleeding out” and that “there is no moral justification for secession.” It is not surprising that such sentiments would be voiced by the Archbishop of Valencia. The region of Valencia (officially, the Valencian Community) is largely Catalan speaking by strictly linguistic criteria and many Catalan nationalists would like to include it in a future independent Catalonia, but most of the people of Valencia firmly reject Catalan national identity.

Catalan Countries mapThis rhetorical battle over identity and language extends beyond Valencia to include other Catalan-speaking areas outside of Catalonia proper, encompassing a broad transnational region often called Països catalans (Catalan Countries). As the election approached, the rhetoric heated up. As reported in El País:

A suggestion by a Catalonia government official that the region could offer Catalan citizenship to residents of Valencia, the Balearics, parts of Aragon and parts of southern France if it becomes independent has been met with widespread indignation. Javier Lambán and Ximo Puig, the regional heads of Aragon and Valencia, called the proposal to extend Catalan citizenship to all residents of the area nationalists regard as the Països catalans (Catalan countries), because of historical ties, “intolerable” and “senseless.”

“It’s an intolerable lack of respect,” said Lambán about the statements made on Saturday by Catalonia regional justice chief Germà Gordó. “It is a clumsy and irresponsible opinion that not only violates basic legal norms, but also toys with the dignity of an entire region and the feelings of its people, in a display of identity-based arrogance – if you can call it that – with highly disturbing historical overtones.”

Catalan Language Valencia MapBut as the El País article noted, no other members of the Catalan government voiced support for Gordó’s position. Still, his comments reveal some of the deep controversies that undergird questions of regional and national identity in Spain. Gordó made it clear that in his interpretation the Catalan nation is essentially coterminous with the Catalan-speaking region. As he was quoted in the same article:

“The construction of a state must not let us forget the entire nation,” he said, specifying that this greater Catalonia included “North Catalonia [the French areas of Roussillon and Haute-Cerdagne], the Valencian Country, the Strip [the border area with Aragón] and the Balearic Islands.”

Greater Catalonia MapThe only part of the Catalan-speaking realm excluded by Gordo is the city of Alghero in Sardinia. Perhaps this was an oversight on his part, or perhaps making potential claims to a portion of Italy was simply a step too far. A few Catalan nationalists, however, would perhaps include within their envisaged domain almost all of the territories ruled by the Crown of Aragon during its medieval height, at least as evidenced by the maps posted to the left. Interestingly, they do not include the lands in what is now Greece that were dominated by the Catalan Company in the 1300s.

2015 Spanish Municipal Elections MapThe people of Valencia, as would be expected, have mixed views on the Catalan controversy. Most support the unity of Spain regardless of linguistic considerations. As can be seen in the maps posted to the left, Valencia’s voting behavior tends to mirror that of Spain as a whole, and is such is unlike those of the more separatist regions of Catalonia and the Basque Spain 2011 Election Mapcountry. But quite a few people of the region do prioritize Valencian identity. According to the Wikipedia, this “Valencianist” group itself is “bitterly divided over the very nature of the Valencian identity, something which is best reflected in the debate over the philological affiliation Valencian Language MapCatalan Dialects Mapof Valencian.” Some Valencianists simultaneously embrace a larger sense of Catalan identity, although this seems to be a decidedly minority position, with its supporters receiving at best around half a percent of the vote in recent regional elections. Pejoratively called catalanistes by their opponents, members of this group tend to identify with the political left. More conservative or centrist champions of Valencian identity, on the other hand, more often reject the Catalan connection, regarding their Valencian tongue as a separate language (the linguistic position of Valencian is a significant controversy in its own right.) They also generally favor enhanced autonomy within Spain rather than outright independence. The main political group of this movement, the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, currently holds six out of 99 positions in the Valencian legislature (Corts Valencianes) and 384 out of 5,784 elected positions in local governments.

 The growth of Catalan nationalism has been associated with a countervailing “anti-Catalan” movement both in Valencia and elsewhere in Spain, as discussed in a Wikipedia article on “Anti-Catalanism.” As noted in the article:

[A]nti-Catalanism expresses itself as a xenophobic attitude towards the Catalan language, people, traditions or anything identified with Catalonia and the political implications of this attitude. In its most extreme circumstances, this may also be referred as Catalanophobia. Several political movements, known for organising boycotts of products from Catalonia, are also actively identified with anti-Catalanism. Anti-Catalanism in its most virulent form is mostly associated with far-right Spanish political parties.


In response to such sentiments, anti-anti-Catalanism statements have also been forwarded. One such view focuses on the arts and other forms of cultural production. As argued in an A*Desk article by Oriol Fontdevila, “Anti-anti-Catalanism is a stance with which to eradicate the ballast that nationalism has placed on certain aspects of Catalan culture, that if on the one hand naturalizes it as a culture of the state, on the other, makes it difficult to place them in correspondence with current challenges and articulate them within contemporary cultural production.”

In the end, all that I can say is that the situation is complicated indeed, and as a result is highly interesting.


Val d’Aran: The Catalonian Exception

Val d'Aran 2015 Election 2As the previous post noted, the rural areas of Catalonia generally supported pro-independence political parties in the 2015 regional election, whereas most urban areas did not. There are, however, several exceptions to his generalization. The most striking one is the comarca (“county”) of Val Val d'Aran 2015 Election 1d’Aran, located in the extreme northwestern portion of Catalonia. With a population of 9,993 scattered over 633.5 km2 (244.6 sq mi), Val d’Aran is hardly an urban area, yet its voters firmly rejected the independence movement, favoring instead regionalist and unionist parties.

Val d’Aran’s rejection is Catalan nationalism is easy to explain, as the comarca is not part of the Catalan cultural region. The indigenous inhabitants of the valley speak Aranese, a dialect of the language of Occitan (which is itself often disparaged as a mere dialect) that formerly extended across southern France. Although fewer than 5,000 people speak Aranese as their native tongue, it was granted the status of the third official language of Catalonia (along with Catalan and Spanish) in 2010. (If this maneuver was designed to bring the people of Val d’Aran over to the side of Catalan nationalism it evidently failed.) According to the 2001 census, roughly a third of the comarca’s inhabitants speak Spanish as their native language, whereas some 19 percent speak Catalan. As noted in the Wikipedia, “speakers of languages other than the local Aranese are typically people born outside the valley, or their children.”

Dialects of Occitan MapPhysical geography helps explain why Val d’Aran is part of the Occitan rather than the Catalan linguistic sphere. Unlike the rest of Catalonia, Val d’Aran is located to the north of the Pyrenees crest, with its streams draining through France to the Atlantic Ocean. It is thus not surprising that its cultural affiliations link it more to southern France than to northeastern Spain. Maps of the Occitan language, like the one posted to the left, thus typically show Val d’Aran as something of an outlier, the only part of the Occitan linguistic region located on the Spanish side of the border.

Occitan Supradialects 1From a broader linguistic perspective, however, this view is somewhat misleading. Most students of the Gallo-Romance languages place Occitan and Catalan in the same category, Occitan Supradialects 2as these two tongues are quite closely related. Some dialectologists, moreover, argue that the southwestern Occitan dialects of France are actually more closely linked to Catalan than they are to the northeastern Occitan dialects, as can be seen in the maps posted here. In this view, Catalan and southwestern Occitan together form the “Aquitanopirenec” dialect grouping.

In pre-Roman times, the people of Val d’Aran probably spoke a precursor to Basque, or at least a closely related language in the hypothesized Vasconic family. The place-name itself suggests as much. According to the Wikipedia, “The name Val d’Aran is formed from val in Gascon [an Occitan dialect], meaning valley, and aran from Basque haran, also meaning valley. The name is thus a pleonasm or tautological place name as it translates to Valley of the Valley.” In pre-Roman times, the Pyrenees did not form a linguistic frontier. As noted in another Wikipedia article:

 Pre-Roman Languages of Iberia MapThere are many clues that indicate that Aquitanian [a pre-Basque Vasconic language] was spoken in the Pyrenees, at least as far east as Val d’Aran. The place names that end in ‑os, ‑osse, ‑ons, ‑ost and ‑oz are considered to be of Aquitanian origin, such as the place-name Biscarrosse, which is directly related to the city of Biscarrués (note the Navarro-Aragonese phonetic change) south of the Pyrenees. “Biscar” (modern Basque spelling: “bizkar”) means “ridge-line”. Such suffixes in place-names are ubiquitous in east of Navarre and Aragon, with the classical medieval ‑os > ‑ues taking place in stressed syllables, pointing to a language continuum both sides of the Pyrenees.