Does High-Rise Housing Contribute to Ultra-Low Fertility Rates?

The Antiplanner blogsite recently ran an interesting and controversial post arguing that South Korea’s extraordinarily low fertility rate is linked to its prevalence of high-rise housing. As the author put it:

South Korea’s high-rise housing and low birthrates are closely related. People don’t have children if they don’t have room for them. High rises are expensive to build so living space is at a premium. Birth rates are declining throughout the developed world, but they have declined the most in countries like South Korea, Russia, and China that have tried to house most of their people in high rises.

The post elicited pushback, with one commenter stating that she saw “not a shred of evidence other than his bald assertion that people in Korea have no room for kids.” Evidence is indeed necessary to support such a claim, but is it available? It is true that some other countries noted for their high-rise housing, most notably Brazil, have also experienced plummeting fertility. But in both Brazil and South Korea, low fertility is also characteristic of rural areas and small towns that are not dominated by high-rise housing, albeit not to the same degree as in large cities covered with apartment towers.

My immediate reaction to this article was to try to devise a geographical test, one that would allow direct comparisons of housing types and fertility rates. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a relevant data source in the time that I allotted myself for the task. The best information that I could find is a list of European countries by people living in detached and semi-detached housing. People not living in such dwellings can generally be assumed to live in apartment (or condominium) blocks, which can be low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise. Although this would therefore be a poor test of the Antiplanner’s thesis, it nevertheless seemed worth pursuing.

As can be seen in the paired maps below, the correlation between multifamily housing and fertility levels in Europe is weak. It is true that most countries with extremely low fertility have little detached or semi-detached housing, including Greece, Italy, and Spain. By the same token, some countries that have abundant detached or semi-detached housing have relatively high fertility, such as Ireland. But note the exceptions. North Macedonia, for example, has extremely low fertility but a high percentage of people living in detached or semi-detached housing, whereas Estonia shows the opposite pattern.

Since the Antiplanner claims that high-rise housing generates low fertility primarily because of inadequate room for child rearing, a better measurement would be to compare TFR with average living-space per household. I have not, however, been able to find an adequate data set to assess this assertion. A Eurostat graph showing “average number of rooms per person 2021” (size unspecified), however, does not indicate a significant correlation. According to this graph, Malta has the most capacious housing in Europe, with 2.3 rooms per person, yet its TFR, 1.13, is one of the lowest in the world. The same source also indicates that ultra-low fertility Spain has much more spacious housing (2 rooms per person) than relatively high-fertility Romania (1.1 rooms per person).

Culturally informed views about the amount of room necessary to rear a child vary significantly from country to country. In general, the wealthier the society, the more space is considered necessary. Such calculations also vary with employment conditions. I have been told by several young couples that more room is necessary for child rearing than before COVID, as one bedroom must now be reserved for an office that can be devoted to at-home work through Zoom. That belief could be dismissed, however, as a mere rationalization for not having children.

The most interesting finding from the data on detached and semi-detached housing in Europe concerns the geographical differences between these two categories. As the second set of paired maps shows, a few countries that have relatively little detached housing have an abundance of semi-detached housing, particularly the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Does High-Rise Housing Contribute to Ultra-Low Fertility Rates? Read More »

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa)

The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a 2022 survey, 57 percent of its people reported “no religion,” 18 percent Catholicism, thirteen percent Protestant Christianity, and 5.6 percent Islam. Many of those who profess Christianity, moreover, are not very religious. In 2015, 82 percent of the Dutch population indicated that they “never or almost never” set foot in a church. But despite such widespread secularism, religion plays a significant role in Dutch politics. Three of the 15 parties in the country’s parliament officially signal their Christianity and another has roots in Christian democracy. Such a seeming discrepancy calls for further analysis.

Historically, the Dutch people were often noted for their religiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they formed the core group of the influential Devotio Moderna movement that sought to revitalize Christianity through devotion to piety, humility, and simplicity of life. Learning was important as well, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the mid-sixteenth century, conversion to Calvinism, or Reformed Christianity, was widespread, especially in Holland and Zeeland. This religious change helped spark rebellion against Spanish rule and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1579. Although the Dutch Republic was noted for its religious toleration, it was closely associated with Calvinism, which continued to spread across its seven constituent provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland). Territorial gains made with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought substantial Catholic territories into the republic, most notably in North Brabant, which were long ruled on a semi-colonial basis. As the intensity of Dutch Protestantism declined in the nineteenth century, religion conflict intensified, pitting Catholics, Calvinists, and post-Calvinists against each other. The main response was the “pillarization” of Dutch society, defined as the “the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, four main pillars had crystalized: Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, and Socialist. As Wikipedia notes:

Each pillar [had] its own social institutions and social organizations. These [included] its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation [meant] that many people [had] little or no personal contact with members of other pillars. [Note: quotation edited to put it in the past tense.]

Depillarization began after World War II, but remnants persist, especially in education. The Netherland’s several Christian political parties might also be seen a holdover of the pillarization era, although some of their sectarian lines have blurred over time. The Christian Union party is rooted in the Reformed Church and thus takes a conservative stance on social matters, but it now leans to the left on economic and environmental issues, based on the Biblical precepts of charity and stewardship. The somewhat more conservative Christian Democratic Appeal originated in 1977 through the confederation of three religious-political groups, two Protestant and one Catholic. The third explicitly religious party, the Reformed Party (SGP), represents unreconstructed Calvinism and is decidedly rightwing. It is sometimes even regarded as advocating theocracy, although that allegation is controversial. SGP is the Netherland’s oldest political party, having been established in 1918. One of its founders envisioned a Netherlands “without cinema, sports, vaccination, and social security.” While the antipathy to sports has dissipated, opposition to playing games on Sundays has not.

Although religious affiliation has declined more sharply in the traditionally Protestant parts of the Netherlands than in the traditionally Catholic ones (see the first map below), intense religiosity is more common in the former region. The Old Reformed (strictly Calvinist) congregations have a membership of roughly 400,000, although some sources claim that over a million Dutch people remain affiliated with their version of the Reformed faith. Staunch believers are concentrated in a discontinuous “Bible Belt” that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to the Netherlands’ center-north. It is often mapped based on support for the Christian Union and Reformed parties (see the map below). Intriguingly, the Dutch Bible Belt is located just north of the historical divide between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the country. This distribution pattern has been used as evidence that the Netherlands’ Bible Belt originated from Protestant stalwarts fleeing Catholic domination before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but this interpretation remains uncertain.

In the 2023 general election, the (Calvinist) Reformed Party had its best showing by a wide margin in Zeeland, where it took almost 10 percent of the vote. But it came in first place in only one of the Zeeland’s municipalities. Nationwide, it did so in eight of the 342 municipalities into which the Netherlands is divided. Rather than forming a contiguous belt, these municipalities are widely scattered. One lies in the country’s demographic core (Woudenberg in Utrecht Province) and another, Urk, is found in Flevoland, a land that did not even exist until it was diked and drained in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a new province, it might seem surprising the Flavoland would be home to such a traditional community. But Urk is an old fishing town that sat on an island before the massive drainage projects of the mid twentieth century. It is often regarded as the country’s most conservative municipality. Its politics have long been dominated by Christian parties, particularly the SGP and local offshoots, although in recent years the right-populist PVV and FvD have gained considerable support. The 21,000 residents of Urk have also maintained their own distinct dialect, usually called Urkers As noted in Wikipedia article on Urk:

One of the oldest and most distinctive dialects of Dutch is the language spoken in Urk. Nearly everyone in the village speaks this dialect and uses it in daily life. The dialect deviates considerably from contemporary standard Dutch and has preserved many old characteristics that disappeared from standard Dutch a long time ago. The Urkish dialect also includes elements that are older than standard Dutch  and were never part of the standard language.  … The dialect developed this way because until World War II, Urk was an island and could only be reached by boat. Radio was unknown, and the poor population did not have much money for newspapers and books. Until the modern era primary education for the children typically lasted only two years; afterwards children had to help maintain the family and formal schooling ended.

The hardline Calvinist communities in the Bible Belt have been subjected to harsh criticism in mainstream Dutch society. Opposition to vaccination has long generated opposition. Recent censure often focuses on their steadfast hostility to gay rights and gender ideology.

The deep conservatism of old-school Dutch Calvinism is politically reflected in places far from the Netherlands, most notably among the Afrikaners of South Africa. It can also be seen in the United States, particularly in a few counties in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Iowa that were heavily settled by Dutch immigrants. This correlation can be seen in the paired maps posted below, one showing the prevalence of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Iowa and the other showing the results of the 2020 presidential election in the same state. Donald Trump is anything but a reflection of Calvinist values, but the overwhelming support that he received in northwestern Iowa does indicate an abiding hostility to liberalism and leftism in this region that has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the centrist Christian Union party had by far its best showing in the 2023 general election in Bonaire and the two other special Dutch municipalities located in the Caribbean.

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa) Read More »

The Rotterdam Enigma: Dutch Cities in the 2023 General Election

In the United States, electoral patterns increasingly correlate with population density, with voters in metropolitan cores favoring the left and those in more peripheral areas preferring the populist right. Does this pattern hold in the Netherlands? The answer is partially “yes” but mostly “no.” The situation, in other words, is complicated.

As the map posted below shows, in a few Dutch provinces the municipalities with the largest city were the only ones that favored GreenLeft-Labour, with all others giving the plurality of their votes to a conservative party, mostly Geert Wilders’ PVV. Intriguingly, this pattern is limited to peripheral provinces: Zeeland, Groningen, and North Brabant. It almost holds in Friesland, but the province’s – and the country’s –  two most sparsely populated municipalities, Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland, also voted GreenLeft-Labour. It is probably not coincidental that they heavily depend on tourism.

In the Dutch demographic and economic core, however, this electoral pattern breaks down. This region, called the Randstad (“Rim City”), is roughly equivalent to the provinces of North Holland, South Holland, and Utrecht. It is conventionally divided into two subregions, the “South Wing” (Zuidvleugel), anchored by Rotterdam and the Hague, and the “North Wing” (Noordvleugel), anchored by Amsterdam and Utrecht (although the Utrecht area is sometime seen as constituting a wing of its own). The Randstad is home to some 8.4 million people, roughly half of the Netherlands’ population. Between its two wings lies the more sparsely populated Groene Hart (“Green Heart”), a region dominated by farms and wetlands, although it also contains a few cities, such as Gouda and Zoetermeer.

As the map below shows, the North Wing of the Randstad largely fits the electoral pattern found in the United States, with most of its larger cities giving a plurality of their votes to the GreenLeft-Labour Party and with plurality support for Geert Wilders’ PVV mostly confined to more peripheral areas. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem, Amersfoort, and Hilversum (the Dutch media capital) are all unsurprisingly colored red for the Labour Party on the map to the left below.

It is a different story, however, in the Randstad’s South Wing. Rotterdam and The Hague, the Netherlands’ second- and third-largest cities, both gave plurality support to the populist-right PVV. In this region the only municipalities to support GreenLeft-Labour were Leiden, a university center, and Delft. Gouda, located in the Randstad’s “Green Heart,” also voted GreenLeft-Labour.

The fact that the PVV came in first place in Rotterdam and The Hague does not, however, mean that they are dominated by the populist right. In the former city, PVV received 22 percent of the vote while GreenLeft Labour got 19.8%, center-right VVD 11.2%, pro-immigrant but socially conservative DENK 10.4%, and center/center-right NSC 9.0%. Similar ratios were found in The Hague. Although profoundly mixed, these results indicate “center-leaning” electorates shifting in a right-populist direction. In both Rotterdam and The Hague, Geert Wilder’s PVV Party more than doubled its level of support over that received in the previous election.

The popularity of such a vociferously anti-immigrant party is especially surprising in Rotterdam, a city demographically dominated by recent immigrant and their descendants. Fifty-two percent of its residents have at least one parent born outside of the country. Since 2009, moreover, Rotterdam’s mayor has been Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim of Moroccan descent who represents the Labour Party. Rotterdam is also a relatively poor city, which, by conventional reasoning, would lead one to expect a higher level of support for Labour and other parties of the left.

One theory for Rotterdam’s populist shift focuses on the city’s non-immigrant population, contending that that the influx of migrants and the increased cultural diversity that it entails has pushed them in a xenophobic direction. But some evidence indicates that increasing numbers of immigrants are themselves turning to the PVV. A recent Guardian article, for example, reports that:

Across the street, Hasan Jakh, a recently arrived immigrant from Turkey, confessed he had voted for Wilders, driven by his frustration over the lack of affordable housing. “It’s stupid that he’s so Islamophobic,” he said. “But for the rest, he’s great.”

Housing affordability seems to be a key factor in the growing support for anti-immigration parties, and not just in Rotterdam. Just because a person is of immigrant origin does not necessarily entail support more immigration, especially if it is perceived to be against one’s own economic interest.

Not surprisingly, Rotterdam’s populist turn has generated considerable interest and concern among scholars. As the conclusion to an edited collection on the topic by Steven Vertovec begins:

What’s the matter with Rotterdam? This is a question I asked in a 2017 lecture (available to view at, when trying to figure out how and why the city seems to disrupt common contemporary narratives concerning migration and cities. That is, social scientists since Simmel have postulated that cities are largely incubators of cosmopolitanism, or openness (if only indifference) to socio-cultural differences. It is often presumed that such openness goes together with an acceptance of ethnic diversity and immigration. Opinion polls and ethnographic research in cities usually bears out this presumption. Hence, it comes as surprising if not shocking to learn that in super-diverse Rotterdam – with over 50% of its population stemming from some 180 nations – the urban model of cosmopolitan incubator seems to fail. Authors in this collection have pointed to developments in Rotterdam by way of negative reactions to diversity, substantial voting for rightwing, anti- immigrant parties, and an ‘unhappy version’ of super-diversity in which the growth of a disapproving atmosphere has led to sharper ethnic boundaries, retreat into white enclaves, and low levels of white-ethnic minority social contact. Indeed, what’s the matter with Rotterdam?

In this volume we have read of how, despite – or because of? – its remarkable levels and kinds of diversity, Rotterdam is the Dutch city with the highest number of voters for Geert Wilders’ populist PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid or Party for Freedom), and where the rightwing Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam) party, heirs of Pim Fortuyn’s anti-immigrant movement, is also the City Council’s largest. How and why has this particular configuration (a high degree of super-diversity combined with strong right-wing sentiments) arisen?

Vertovec’s analysis, however, is rather indecisive, although he does conclude that “there is nothing the matter with Rotterdam.” What I wonder is whether Rotterdam is more a singular exception to a firmly ensconced rule or more a harbinger of things to come. In the United, communities rooted in relatively recent immigrations streams are also showing signs of moving in a right-populist direction, as Ruy Teixeira emphasizes. If this trend holds, we may see major political upheavals and electoral reconfigurations in the coming years.

The Rotterdam Enigma: Dutch Cities in the 2023 General Election Read More »

The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland

The Dutch general election of 2023 reveals a low degree of regional political differentiation, with most parties receiving relatively similar vote percentages across the country. The main exception is the special Dutch municipalities in the Caribbean: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba.

Consider, for example, the provincial voting patterns for the top five parties (see the maps below). Geert Wilders’ PVV took between 17.6 (Utrecht) and 30.1 (Limburg) percent of the vote everywhere, coming in first place in every province except Utrecht and North Holland. As the first map shows, PVV did slightly worse in the Netherlands’ demographic and economic core (North and South Holland and Utrecht) and slightly better in more peripheral regions, but the differences are relatively small, and South Holland, the most populous province, defies the generalization. The GreenLeft-Labour Party narrowly came in first place in North Holland and Utrecht and also did relatively well in Groningen, historically noted for its labor activism, but again the discrepancies are relatively minor. Regional differences were also relatively muted for the main center-right party, VVD. The new centrist NSC party does, however, have something of a positive outlier in Overijssel; it is not coincidental that NSC is closely associated with its founder, Pieter Omtzigt, who lives in that province. The centrist party D66 also shows relatively minor regional voting variation, with the notable exception of the Netherlands’ Caribbean municipalities.

The Netherlands does, however, have a number of strictly regional political parties, but they generally restrict their activities to provincial elections. But as the map below shows, few of them gained more than a few percent of the vote in the 2023 provincial elections, and in the three core provinces (North and South Holland and Utrecht) their share was negligible. The one outlier on this map is Friesland, where the Frisian National Party took over 8 percent of the vote and the Provincial Interest of Friesland Party a little more than 2 percent. In 2003, however, the Frisian National Party received more than 13 percent of the vote in Friesland’s provincial election.

It is not surprising that Friesland would have the Netherland’s strongest regional party, as it is a culturally distinctive province with its own language, West Frisian. (In Frisian, “Friesland” is called “Fryslân.”) Despite its nationalistic name, the party does not push for independence. Instead, it advocates a federal system of governance for the country, which would allow substantial autonomy for Friesland. It also wants more support for the Frisian language and provincial control of local natural gas reserves. Although most regional political parties in Europe lean decidedly either to the left or the right, the Frisian National Party spans the spectrum. As reported by Wikipedia,  “According to a survey of 554 party members done by the European Policies Research Centre… in 2009, 5.05% of members identified as far-left  on the political spectrum, 13.9% as left-wing, 28.16% as center-left, 17.51% as centrist, 14.98% as center-right, 7.4% as right-wing, and 2.53% as far-right, with 10.47% unsure. Whether such ideological diversity helps or hinders the movement for Frisian autonomy is an open question.

Although the Frisians are not recognized as a distinct national minority in the Netherlands as they are in Germany, the Frisian language is in a much healthier condition in the former country. Whereas roughly half a million people speak West Frisian in the Netherlands, the two Frisian dialects (more properly, languages) of Germany together have only around 12,000 speakers. In schools in Dutch Friesland, instruction in the language is mandatory. But as the map posted below indicates, most people in southern Friesland cannot speak the language, although many more can understand it. Many Frisians fear, moreover, that their language will be gradually supplanted by Dutch.

Frisian was a much more important language a thousand years ago than it is today. As one of the maps posted above shows, it once covered the entire North Sea coast from what is now the Netherlands’ border with Belgium to Germany’s border with Denmark. Frisian is usually regarded as the language most closely related to English, although this interpretation remains somewhat controversial and it holds only if Scots English is reckoned as a dialect rather than a separate language. It must also be noted that English has undergone such profound transformations that its relatively close relationship with Frisian is by no means obvious to native speakers of either language.

The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland Read More »

The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands

The recent Dutch election sent out political shockwaves that extend well beyond the Netherlands, as noted in media outlets both left and right. A headline in right-leaning Spiked Online reads “The Humiliation of the Dutch Establishment: The Victory of Geert Wilders Shows Voters are Desperate to Hit Back Against the Elites,” while one in left-leaning Daily Beast claims that “Shock Election Triumph Crowns Geert Wilders as the World’s ‘King of Islamophobia: Far-right Populist … Scores Huge Victory in Dutch Election, Despite Previous Conviction and Bans.” Although such interpretations are understandable, they obscure the complexities of Dutch electoral politics and exaggerate the trends that this election revealed. Although Wilders’ right-populist Party for Freedom (PVV) did better than any other party, it still took less than a quarter of the votes cast, giving it only 37 out of 150 seats in the House Representatives. It will be a challenge, and perhaps an impossibility, for Wilders to cobble together a coalition large enough for him to form a government and become prime minister. If that does happen, his Party for Freedom will probably have to moderate if not abandon its most controversial positions. (It is his party, moreover, as he is the sole member.)

With strictly proportional representation and a low threshold – 0.67% ­– for parliamentary representation, the Netherlands has a complex political environment with many competitive parties. In 2023, 15 received enough votes for representation in the House of Representative, down from 17 in 2021. As a result, multi-party coalitions are generally needed to gain a parliamentary majority of 76 seats.

 To get a better sense of the election results, I have arranged the main Dutch parties along a conventional one-dimensional political spectrum, extending from the far-left to the far-right (see below). In doing so, I relied on Wikipedia to categorize their political positions along this axis, as it uses relatively consistent criteria for doing so. I am, however, skeptical of the one-dimensional “left-right” spectrum, omnipresent though it is. It has never adequately captured the essence of political viewpoint diversity, and its misalignment with actual conditions is currently intensifying. What is needed instead is multi-dimensional model of political space. But for time being, I reluctantly retain the one-dimensional scheme. But I do deviate from the norm by dividing Dutch parties into three main categories: left, right, and center. Given the strength, albeit diminishing, of the Dutch political center, this scheme is more fitting than a simple “left/right” bifurcation. In the system used in the diagram below, a party that is deemed either “center-right” or “center-left” by Wikipedia is slotted into the broad political “center,” while one described as “center-left to left-wing” is classified instead as “leftwing,” just as one deemed “center-right to right-wing” is classified as “rightwing.” Several of Wikipedia’s designations, however, are highly debatable, and as a result the categorization scheme found below should be regarded as merely suggestive.

As the diagram shows, although the center parties suffered a sharp rebuke in the 2023 election, together they remain the Netherlands’ largest block by a considerable margin. Overall, the Dutch electorate skews slightly to the right of center, at least according to the classification scheme used here. In the 2023 general election, the political center’s loss resulted in major gains for the populist right. Rightwing populist voters moved toward Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), with two smaller parties of the same ilk losing support. One of these, JA21, portrays itself a “proper” rightwing party, less radical than Wilders’ PVV (although Wikipedia slots them into the same political space). The other, FvD, is usually regard as more radical than PVV, as well as more favorable to Vladimir Putin. The more centrist but still right-populist BBB, or Farmer-Citizen Movement, also registered major gains. It did not, however, perform nearly as well as it had in the Dutch provincial elections earlier in this year, when it took 19 percent of the vote nationwide and gained the largest number of seats in all 12 Dutch provinces. The BBB’s agrarian focus, along with the lack of ambition for national leadership by its leader, Caroline van der Plas, probably contributed to its loss of votes in the general election.

Of the three Dutch electoral segments outlined here, the left is clearly the weakest. It now receives much less support than it had in the late twentieth century, when the leader of the Labour Party (PvdA) Wim Kok served as Prime Minister (1994 to 2002). After poor showings in 2021, the two main “center-left/leftwing” parties, Labour and the Greens, combined to form PvdA–GroenLinks (GreenLeft-Labour). As can be seen, this joint party did relatively well in 2023, winning eight seats more than its two constituent parties had won in 2021. Its gains, however, apparently came at the cost of the Netherland’s more leftwing parties, which collectively lost eight seats. The party furthest to the left, the Marxian, identity-focused BIJ1, did not receive enough votes to retain parliamentary representation.

Despite its solid showing overall, the broad Dutch political center experienced major losses and profound upheaval in this election cycle. Its three main parties, center-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy), center/center-right CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal), and center-center D66 (Democrats 66) saw a staggering collective loss of 35 seats. These three parties, along with the smaller Christian Union (which also lost seats), had formed the Netherland’s governing coalition. D66, which supports European Federalism, lost more than half of its seats, while CDA lost two-thirds. As a result, Christian Democratic Appeal is a now a shadow of its former self; as recently as 2006 it was the Netherlands’ top party, winning 41 seats and taking 26.5 percent of the vote that year. Many of the defections from the parties of the governing coalition went to a new center party, NSC (New Social Contract). Led by Ph.D economist Pieter Omtzigt, NCS grew out of the Eurosceptic wing of Christian Democratic Appeal. In the 2023 election, Omtzigt positioned himself as a maverick centrist, “conservative on immigration and climate change but leftist on reducing poverty and improving healthcare.” Significantly, the centrism of the larger Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of out-going Prime Minister Mark Rutte is of the opposite order, leaning left on immigration and climate change while advocating small government, laissez-faire economics, and tax reductions. The centrism of the Turkish-oriented DENK party skews in yet another direction, to the left on immigration and multiculturalism, but increasingly to the right on social issues.

European integration, immigration, and climate-change mitigation were key issues in the 2023 Dutch election. Skepticism about all three figured prominently in the losses experienced by the center/center-right governing coalition, with some of its voters moving to the hard right and others to a less-internationalist version of Dutch centrism. Intriguingly, the story on the left was quite different, with its more Eurosceptical and anti-globalist parties losing seats to the more centrist and EU-oriented GreenLeft-Labour party.

Overall, the Dutch electorate clearly shifted to a more nationalistic and climate-skeptical position. Similar shifts have occurred recently in several other countries, although Poland notably bucked the trend, as was explored in previous GeoCurrents posts. This tendency challenges the idea that a single one-dimensional spectrum adequately captures the full array of political thought. It seems likely that we will continue to see the growth of parties and movements, like the Netherlands’ New Social Contract, that lean economically to the left but are more conservative on environmental, social, and immigration issues. Conversely, movements advocating the opposite mix, like the Teal Independents of Australia, could also gain clout, as could other alternative parties with their own eclectic policy ideas. Overall, the populist/establishment divide will probably intensify. As a result, democratic countries could see electoral destabilization with rapid swings in the fortunes of established political parties. Such a situation may be perilous, but it is also extremely interesting. Stay tuned.

The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands Read More »

Journalistic Hyperbole and the Electoral Geography of Poland

Although The Economist magazine is to be commended for analyzing and mapping the role of Poland’s old imperial divisions in its current electoral geography, it succumbs to unnecessary and misleading simplification and exaggeration, as is so often the case when journalists take on intricate geographical issues. Consider, for example, the following assertion:

More remarkable, however, is that rather than following a gradual gradient from east to west, modern Poles’ political loyalties remain firm right up to the edge of a historical line that cuts down the middle of the country.

This vivid statement is incorrect, as is demonstrated by the maps included in the two previous GeoCurrents posts. A detail from one of these maps (below) drives the point home. As can be seen, there is only a vaguely discernable difference in “Poles’ political loyalties” as one cross the old boundary between the German and Russian empires between Łódź and Wroclaw. More significant is the fact that two of the five constituencies that gave the lowest percentage of their votes to United Right, Łódź and Warsaw, and two of the four that give the highest percentage to Civic Coalition (again, Łódź and Warsaw), are located to the east of the dividing line.

The Economist article in question also makes a more interesting observation:

From the air, the former Habsburg and Russian territories look like a patchwork mosaic of small farming plots, whereas the west is divided into sprawling fields designed to facilitate mechanised agriculture.

This assertion is certainly intriguing, but is it true? I tested it by trying to find the old border on satellite images found in Apple Maps. I did so with a modest level of success. Although I could not precisely trace out the divide, I did find a significant general difference in the divisions of agricultural land found in the two sectors. Consider, for example, an image (below) of the Kalisz area, located astride the old boundary. The fields on the left side of this image are larger than those on the right, although not to the extent that The Economist suggests. They are also more irregularly shaped.

If anything, the term “mosaic” fits more closely with the field patterns found in the old German sector, as the various pieces of a mosaic are typically of different size and shape. The two images posted below reveal a more mosaic-like agricultural pattern in the west, and a greater degree of field uniformity in the former Russian zone. What the second image shows is not a “mosaic” composed of disparate pieces, but a rather a patchwork composed of many elongated rectangular pieces of similar size. Such an arrangement reflects the pre-modern farming system that used long, narrow fields to facilitate plowing, as it was difficult to turn plow-teams of oxen or horses around. But although the redivision of the land that occurred in the west facilitated mechanization, it was not a necessary precondition for it.

Journalistic Hyperbole and the Electoral Geography of Poland Read More »

Mapping the Results of Poland’s 2023 Elections by Political Parties and Coalitions

Poland, like many other countries with parliamentary systems of government, has many active political parties, most of which belong to broader coalitions. Five of these coalitions, one on the left and center-left, two in the center, and two on the right, received enough votes to win seats in Poland’s Sejm, its powerful lower house of Parliament. Two additional stand-alone parties together received 3.5 percent of the vote, which was not enough to gain representation in the Sejm. One of these is a hard-right populist party and the other is described by Wikipedia as being on the center-left, although some of its positions are more centrist in orientation.

This post seeks to uncover some subtle aspects of Poland’s electoral geography by mapping the vote-share of each of these seven parties and coalitions in the 2023 Sejm election. For comparative purposes, all of them are mapped in the same color scheme and with the same categories of vote percentage. As a result of their low vote counts, the five secondary parties and coalitions are poorly represented on these maps. I have therefore re-mapped them on their own terms, using different color schemes. On these maps, low votes counts for a given party can still be mapped with dark shades, indicating relative success in that area.

Let us begin with the right-wing-populist United Right coalition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party. Although it suffered a sharp rebuke in this election, United Right still received more votes (35.4 percent) than any of its rivals. United Right was the only organization to receive majority support in any electoral district. As can be seen on the first map below, its support was concentrated in the southern and eastern areas that had been under Russian and Austrian rule before WWI (see the previous post). United Right did poorly in major cities, getting less than 20 percent of the vote in Poznań. This map also reveals, albeit weakly, an electoral gradient in United Right’s main area of support, with its vote share increasing toward Poland’s southeastern borders. As might be expected, its main rival, the centrist Civic Coalition, exhibited an inverted spatial pattern of support, which is revealed in the second map posted below.

The major new player in this election, the centrist Third Way coalition, did not have strong regional patterning. It performed relatively well in some regions that had been ruled by Russia, German, and Austria before the reestablishment of Poland after WWI. Third Way did not do as well in major cities, however, as might be expected for a coalition that has a strong agrarianist bent. The only electoral district in which it failed to gain more than 10 percent of the vote is Katowice III. Although Katowice is not well-known outside of Europe, it is Poland’s largest metropolitan area, with more than three million people living in a group of closely clustered cities. (Metropolitan Warsaw, in contrast, has around two and half million inhabitants, while Krakow and Lodz, the next largest, have only a little more than one million each). Third Way’s vote-share was highest in the Bialystok district in the northeast; as the maps used in the previous post show, it even received a plurality of votes in a few areas in and near the city of Hajnówka, close to the border with Belarus. It is probably not coincidental that Hajnówka has a sizable (over 25 percent) Belarussian ethnic minority, whose members tend to shun the Polish ethnonationalism associated with the country’s right-wing parties.

As the next two maps show, support for Lewica – “The Left” – was strongest in urban areas and weakest in Poland’s more conservative eastern regions. As can be seen on the second map, Katowice III was again an outlier, giving more than 20 percent of its votes to a coalition than failed to crack 15 percent anywhere else in the country. Katowice’s economy has until recently been based on heavy industry, whose workers formed one of The Left’s traditional political bases. But as has been widely noted, that foundation of support has been slipping. As the Wikipedia article on Lewica notes, the coalition has lost votes because its “pro-LGBT rights platform failed to appeal to working class and economically left-leaning Poles, [who] tend to favour a more socially conservative policy (especially as both economically interventionist and social conservative positions were already being provided by the right-wing PiS party).”

The far-right Confederation Liberty and Independence, or simply Confederation, had a low but relatively evenly distributed level of support, receiving between five and 10 percent of the vote in every Polish electoral district. By mapping its results with a finer set of divisions, however, we can see that its support follows the typical pattern of rightwing organizations in Poland, being lower in urban areas and higher in the east. This geographical pattern is not so clear-cut, however, for the newest far-right party, There Is One Poland. Its elevated level of support in Nowy Sącz is difficult to explain. One of Confederation’s component parties is the monarchist and Russophile Confederation of the Polish Crown, which managed to secure two Sejm seats despite receiving less than one percent of the vote.

Finally, we come to the oddly named movement called Nonpartisan Local Government Activists. As its name implies, it is a highly decentralized organization that advocates increased regional and local autonomy. Many of its more concrete proposals have a leftward slant, but others are more conservative. It also has an environmentalist platform. At any rate, Wikipedia describes this organization as follows:

Formerly associated with the liberal wing of Christian democracy, the party advocates for proposals such as free public transport, free lunches for children and abolition of the personal income tax (PIT). The party also advocates for creation of a powerful ecological agency based on the American United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which would protect nature and its resources, prevent pollution environment and combat poaching and illegal hunting. The BS believes that the Polish government became too centralised and became unable to address local concerns; to this end, the party believes that the central government needs MPs who are “local government officials, entrepreneurs and community workers who are not concerned with political lists and agenda.”

As can be seen in the maps below, support for Nonpartisan Local Government Activists varied little across the county. Not surprisingly, it performed best in Legnica, which is located in Lower Silesia, the party’s birthplace. A Silesian autonomy movement has long enjoyed considerable support, buttressed by widespread suspicions about Polish nationalism and feelings of affinity with Germany and Germans. This is a complicated issue, however, that deserves its own post.

The most important aspect of Poland’s electoral geography is weakness of left-wing political parties in all areas of the country. The Polish Green party, for example, received less than one-third of one percent of the vote in the 2023 election, although, as part of the Civic Coalition, it did gain three seats in the Sejm.

Mapping the Results of Poland’s 2023 Elections by Political Parties and Coalitions Read More »

The Astounding Rise of the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement

The Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely populated and urbanized countries. But it is also a farming powerhouse; by some measures, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter by value, following only the United States. The Netherlands manages to profit so handsomely from farming in such a crowded land by focusing on the intensive production of high-value crops.

By many measures, the Netherlands’ agricultural system operates in an environmentally responsible manner. In 2019, the World Economic Forum lauded the country as a leader in efficient and sustainable agriculture. But Dutch farmers, like almost all others, are responsible for some environmental degradation, which the government of the Netherlands is now eager to reduce. Pronounced opposition is generated in the process. Recent restrictions on nutrient runoff and a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides have been viewed by most Dutch farmers as a threat to their livelihoods. In 2019, a new Dutch party, the Farmer-Citizens Movement, emerged to represent the country’s agricultural sector. This party seeks to enact a “Right to Agriculture Act,” wants to reduce the power of the European Union over Dutch farmers, and is wary of climate mitigation policies. It is generally regarded as a center-right to right-wing populist organization.

In the Dutch provincial election of March 15th, 2023, the Farmer-Citizen Movement achieved a shocking victory, not only coming in first place nationwide (with more than 19 percent of the vote), but also achieving a first-place showing in every province. In the same contest, all the Netherlands’ established parties saw major losses. The only other significant party experiencing a gain was the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren; PvdD), which took almost 5% of the vote nationwide. Intriguingly, these two growing parties are situated at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, particularly when it comes to agricultural issues. Caroline van der Plas, leader of Farmer-Citizen Movement, has stated that the Party for Animals is one of her party’s two main enemies, the other being Wakker Dier, an animal-welfare organization that seeks to end factory farming.

The recent Dutch election attracted a great deal of interest in the country. According to NL Times, “The turnout stood at 57.5 percent, higher than 2019’s already high 56 percent … [and] likely [to] be the highest since the late 1980s.” Its results have generated much analysis, if not soul-searching, among the leaders of the Dutch political establishment. According to EuroNews, the election represented a “resounding rebuke to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling four-party coalition.” As the NL Times reported:



Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the BBB’s massive victory “a very clear cry to politicians” and a “very clear relevant signal” from the voter. Rutte told ANP he does not yet know how to interpret this cry. He needs more time to think about it. Sixteen hours after the first results is too early for a “full-fledged analysis,” he said.

The electoral map of the 2023 provincial election in the Netherlands reveals precisely what one would expect: the Farmer-Citizen Movement had its best showing in provinces with relatively low population density and its worst in those of higher density. It might be surprising, however, that it did as well as it did in such thickly settled areas as North and South Holland and Utrecht, taking more than 13% of the vote in all three. But as the agricultural map of the Netherlands posted below shows, even these provinces have a significant amount of highly productive agricultural land. The Farmer-Citizen Movement also finds some support among Dutch urban dwellers; the national economy of their country, after all, rests heavily on its agricultural sector.

Intriguingly, the electoral returns of the Party for the Animals show very little geographical variation. I started to make a map of its vote by province, but abandoned the quest when I realized that it would reveal almost nothing. This party’s vote-share was almost the same in agrarian Drenthe (4.5%) as in highly urban South Holland (4.7%).

As the 2023 Dutch election indicates, Europe is experiencing a political realignment in which the division between rural and metropolitan areas figures more prominently than it did in the past. The same tendency is found in North America. Climate politics will almost certainly intensify this divide. It will be interesting to see how such a realignment plays out in coming elections.

The Astounding Rise of the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement Read More »

An Electoral-Geographical Paradox in Czechia? Not Really

In the January 2023 presidential election in Czechia (the Czech Republic), former army general Petr Pavel decisively defeated former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, with Pavel taking 58.33 percent of the vote to Babiš’s 41.67. Most political leaders and commentators in Western Europe and North America were relieved by this outcome. Pavel is noted for his strong pro-NATO and pro-Western views. He is also a social progressive. Finding inspiration in Scandinavian countries, he supports same-sex marriage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and increased economic redistribution. He also opposes the death penalty. Babiš, in contrast, has expressed skepticism towards NATO and is often regarded as having authoritarian tendencies. He rejects the European Union’s refugee policy, arguing that it is the responsibility of the Czech government to look after the interest of Czech citizens, and has made dismissive comments about his country’s Roma (or Romani) minority. In 2013, he won a satirical prize for the “anti-ecological comment of the year.” Babiš is also extremely wealthy and has been involved in a number a financial and political scandals.

Maps of the 2023 Czech presidential election show a distinct metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide. Although Pavel won the majority of the votes cast across most of the country, his level of support was significantly higher in the Prague metropolitan area, in Brno, Czechia’s second largest city, and in Plzeň, its fourth largest. Babiš, in contrast, did better in rural areas and those dominated by small cities. The one important exception was the metropolitan area of Ostrava, located in the northeastern part of the country. Ostrava is Czechia’s “rust belt,” a region formerly dominated by coal mining and steelmaking that experienced significant decline after the fall of communist rule. It is not surprising that the socially progressive, pro-Western candidate Pavel performed poorly in such an area.

The geographical patterns described above are similar to those found in recent elections in the United States and Western Europe. From an American perspective, Pavel would certainly be regarded as the more left-wing candidate and Babiš as the more right-wing one. But the situation is more complicated. Pavel, for example, describes himself as “right of center,” owing largely to his support for corporate interests and economic orthodoxy. The more populist Babiš, for his part, enacted some policies when he was Prime Minister that would generally be regarded as left-leaning, including increasing pensions and public-sector salaries. Many Czechs therefore reverse the “right-wing” and “left-wing” tags for the two politicians. Consider, for example, the map below, originally posted on Reddit Europe by the Czech commentator “Victor D.” Here the Prague region is mapped as almost always voting for right-wing candidate – as are the country’s other major cities, except left-voting Ostrava. Victor D. depicts rural areas and those dominated by small cities as habitually supporting candidates on the left. He understands that such categorizations run counter to those found in Western Europe:

Western Europeans please note: the usual European situation where cities are mainly left-leaning while the countryside is more right-leaning is reversed in Czechia. This is mainly because the left is, due to historical developments, seen as the “conservative” force in the country, while the right has been the driving force for change and reform. As a result, large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…”

It seems to me that the “usual European situation” is not reversed in Czechia: what is reversed is rather the meaning of the terms “left” and “right.” The connotations of these essential political categories have been in flux for some time in western Europe and especially in North America. The left historically found its main base of support in the working class, which generally opposes the economic interests of the elites but also tends to have somewhat conservative views on social and cultural issues. In recent decades, political parties previously identified as left-wing have turned more to affluent professionals, business leaders, and college-educated workers in the service sector, simultaneously losing support among the traditional working class. Put differently, traditional class politics in “the West” have declined in importance, whereas those associated with identity groups and social, cultural, and environmental issues have become increasingly central.

Such changes in political affiliation and categorization present major problems for communication. From the perspective of current political discourse in the United States, Victor D’s assertion that “large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…” makes no sense whatsoever. But if the terms are defined in a different and most historical manner, they make perfect sense.

I have long been reluctant to use the term “liberal” when discussing politics, as the meanings of this term can be so different as to be diametrically opposed. In the U.S., someone now described as an “extreme liberal” sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from a “neo-liberal,” whose views would be more accurately described as “paleo-liberal.” I now sometimes wonder whether even “left” and “right” have become so unmoored from their original meanings as to lose their utility as terms of analysis. But what could possibly replace them?  We seem to be stuck in a situation of fundamental paradox and ambiguity.

An Electoral-Geographical Paradox in Czechia? Not Really Read More »

Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence)

I recently gave a lecture on issues surrounding NATO in my Stanford University adult education class (Continuing Studies Program) on the history and geography of current global events. In preparing the lecture, I came across an interesting poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on attitudes towards NATO in different member states. This study found that in Europe those on the political right have a more favorable view of NATO than those on the political left. This divergence is especially notable in Greece, Spain, and Sweden, but less so in the United Kingdom. Contrastingly, in Canada and especially the U.S., support for NATO is associated with the political left. As can be seen in the chart posted below, American conservatives generally have a favorable view of NATO, but not nearly to the same extent as those on the left.

These findings are interesting but not necessarily surprising. The political left in Europe tends to be suspicious of the United States, and the U.S. is NATO’s dominant military power. On the other side of the Atlantic, American conservatives have been steadily abandoning their support for international military engagement and defense arrangements. To some extent, this change represents a return to the traditional Republican suspicion of foreign entanglements that was dominant before the Cold War.

But if Democrats and Republicans hold markedly different views on NATO, the U.S. public as a whole shows evidence of moving in the same direction regarding American foreign policy more generally. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Democrats and Republicans alike decreasingly favor the deployment of American troops overseas and are increasingly suspicious of U.S. involvement in military conflicts abroad. The same poll found similar tendencies regarding fundamental issues of economic globalization. Apparently, Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly favored tariffs on foreign goods and barriers to foreign investment. Such convergence is evident in the policy realm. Despite their many deep political differences, the Biden and Trump administrations both pursued protectionist policies during their periods in power. It will be interesting to see if these trends continue and if they will play a significant role in the 2024 election.

Part of my lecture on NATO examined the creation and expansion of the organization. I was frustrated in my search for maps that could clearly portray the organization’s enlargement. As a result, I created my own map sequence, beginning before the creation of NATO and ending with a peek into the possible future of the organization. These maps are available here in PDF format.

NATO Creation and Enlargement Map Sequence

This winter I will be teaching again in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, offering a foundational political geography class entitled “The World Political Map.” It will be given remotely through Zoom and can be taken by anyone willing to pay the rather hefty fee. The description of the class can be found here.


Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence) Read More »

William: Not Just Prince of Wales But Also Duke of Cornwall

Now that Charles has become king, Prince William has become Prince of Wales. That title is customarily given to the heir apparent by the reigning monarch. The day after he became King, Charles bestowed the title on his eldest son. The position is not without controversy. Thousands of Welsh people have signed a petition calling for the abolition of the title, which they see as an insult to Welsh national and historical identity. Many want much more than that: the independence of Wales. In late September, an estimated 10,000 people marched for Welsh sovereignty in Cardiff.

Public opinion polls, however, show that only around a quarter of Welsh people want independence, a much lower figure than that found in Scotland. Another poll found that 55 percent of the Welsh people also approve of the seemingly antiquated title of the royal heir, “Prince of Wales.” But Wales is not doing well economically and is now one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. As a result, the desire for Welsh independence does seem to be growing. As Welsh journalist Will Hayward recently argued:

Most [independence] supporters have simply looked at the state of the United Kingdom, seen that it isn’t working for Wales, and view independence as the most effective vehicle for fixing Wales’s problems. That doesn’t mean independence necessarily is the answer, just that the status quo is leaving the country both impoverished and unable to fix [its] problems…

“Prince of Wales” is not the only title held by William. When Charles became king, William automatically became Duke of Cornwall. Although the former is the more illustrious title, the latter is in some ways more consequential. Being Duke of Cornwall does not give any power over Cornwall, but it does bring financial rewards. This Dutchy controls landholdings of some 135,000 acres (55,000 hectares) as well as a portfolio of financial assets. All told, it is worth about $1.3 billion. In 2021, it provided Prince (and Duke) Charles with an income of some $25 million.

The land holdings of the Dutchy of Cornwall are not actually concentrated in Cornwall, the historical county located in far southwestern England. As is typical of such premodern and essentially feudal holdovers, they are widely scattered. Roughly half of the estate is located in Dartmoor, a scenic low plateau located in Devon, the county just to the east of Cornwall. Most of Dartmoor is administered as a national park. Unlike national parks in the United States, those of the UK include considerable private properties. But, also unlike in the United States, private land holders in the UK are not always allowed to exclude the public from enjoying their lands.

William: Not Just Prince of Wales But Also Duke of Cornwall Read More »

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.

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

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.


Economic and Class Factors in the 2022 Italian Election Read More »

The Development of National Languages in the Germanic Zone of Northern Europe

As was largely the case across the world, the development of national languages in the Germanic zone of northern Europe was more the product of state consolidation than the reflection of preexisting ethnolinguistic communities. As this process is most clear in the North Germanic region of Scandinavian, we will begin there.

The North Germanic Languages

At the dawn of Viking Age, circa 800 CE, the core area of Scandinavia (most of today’s Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) was linguistically unified, its people speaking Old Norse. A single language found over so large an area in pre-modern times indicates the rapid expansion of the people speaking it. Norse expansion would continue for several centuries, taking its speakers, as both settlers and conquerors, to Iceland, Greenland, Britain, and beyond, although only in previously uninhabited Iceland would their language persist. At the same time, Old Norse was gradually differentiating, eventually forming a complex dialect continuum. Neighboring dialects remained easily understandable, but those located at further distances had reduced mutual intelligibility.


Yet even today, the national languages of mainland Scandinavia come close to mutual intelligibility. The ability of individuals to make sense of other North Germanic languages, however, is not necessarily reciprocal; Norwegians can supposedly understand Swedish and Danish much more easily than Swedes and Danes can understand each other (see below). More to the point, the everyday spoken dialects that persist, especially in peripheral rural areas, tend to cut across political boundaries (as can be seen on the map posted here). As this map indicates, the Scanian dialect of southern Sweden is regarded by most linguists as a form of Danish rather than Swedish. Swedish linguists, however, usually analyze it as a variant of their own language. Caught between contending national forces, some local activists have campaigned for Scanian to be recognized as a distinct language. Some even view Scania as a separate nation that deserves independence.

States began to emerge in Scandinavia during the Viking age, as local leaders enhanced their power and expanded their domains. By the year 1000, the precursors of the region’s modern countries had come into existence as the Kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. (Note on the map posted here that Denmark originally included Scania, which only became part of Sweden in 1658.) Cultural affinity and worries about the power of the Hanseatic League of the north German cities led to a loose merger of the three kingdoms in the Kalmar Union, created in 1397. This union dissolved with the exit of Sweden in 1523, but Denmark prevented the Kingdom of Norway from doing the same. Norway finally seceded in 1814, but it was soon annexed by Sweden as a semi-autonomous kingdom. It would not gain independence until 1905.


The development of national languages in Scandinavia arguably began with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, when Lutheranism spread quickly across the region. As Latin was displaced as the language of religion, the Bible was translated into the dialects used in the core regions of both Sweden and Denmark. The process of national language development intensified during the nineteenth century as popular writers nurtured national consciousness. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, noted for his fairy tales, is often regarded as exemplifying this trend.[i] The nationalistic focus on the Danish language received a further boost in the 1860s with the kingdom’s loss of its largely German-speaking southern regions, Schleswig and Holstein, to Prussia. (This was a crucial event for the subsequent unification of Germany).

Norway, lacking independence, did not experience the early development of a national language. Danish long served as its written language, while most of its people spoke dialects that are sometimes regarded as intermediate between Swedish and Danish (as the American linguist Einar Haugen put it, “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish,” referring to the pitch accents found in both Swedish and Norwegian dialects). While the independence movement of the late 1800s prompted efforts to forge a national tongue, competing schemes foiled the quest. When Norway at last gained sovereignty in 1905, it was confronted with the “Norwegian Language Controversy,” called målstriden, språkstriden, or sprogstriden, depending on which would-be national tongue is used. Currently two written languages have official standing, Bokmål (“Book Language”) and Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”).[ii] Nynorsk tends to be used more in rural areas and in the west, whereas Bokmål is more prominent in the east and north.

A different North Germanic language, Icelandic, is spoken Iceland, a country that did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944. Not inhabited before the medieval period, sparsely settled Iceland experienced minimal dialectal diversification. Its language remained close to Old Norse, and even today Icelanders can read their medieval sagas with relatively little difficulty. The language most closely related to modern Icelandic is Faroese, spoken in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous area under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. Faroese is the official language of the islands, but Danish is taught in schools and is often used for public purposes. The long-standing Faroese independence movement evidently still has some support.

The German Language

The story of the German language is distinctive, as it emerged centuries before the creation of the German state. Rather than arising from a particular dialect, its foundations were laid by authors who wanted to reach a broader audience than their own parochial dialects would allow. As in Scandinavia, religion played a significant role, with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible being of crucial importance. Luther partly based his translation on the language used by the government of the Electorate of Saxony, a middling German state in the Holy Roman Empire whose dialect is roughly midway between the High German of the south and the Low German of the north. But Luther also drew on other central German dialects, essentially crafting a new language in the process.

Although this written language spread widely over the Germanic areas of the Holy Roman Empire, even those of Roman Catholic faith, it did not displace the region’s many dialects. Only in the nineteenth century did Standard German emerge as a common spoken language. As it did, it helped impel the German national ideal, which in turn paved the way for political unification. But such processes generated a persistent quarrel between those who sought a Großdeutschland, or Greater Germany – covering the entire contiguous zone where German was spoken – and those who advocated instead a Kleindeutschland, or “lesser Germany.” Advocates of Kleindeutschland wanted to exclude German-speaking Austria on political grounds; as the core of the multilingual Habsburg Empire, its inclusion would have threatened the ethnonational unity of the envisioned new country. Although this “Lesser Germany” idea triumphed, the outcome remained uncertain and contested until the mid-twentieth century. Hitler viewed it as an abomination, annexing Austria as soon as he could. Another ethnonational problem stemmed from the millions of Germans who lived further to the east, found in scattered communities extending to Russia’s Volga River and beyond. After Hitler’s failed bid to encompass these areas within the Third Reich, almost all their ethnic German inhabitants either moved to Germany or adopted the languages and national identities of the countries in which they lived. Some 175,000 German speakers, however, still reside in northern Kazakhstan.

After German unification, spoken Standard German spread relatively smoothly over the linguistic continuum that encompassed the Low, Middle, and High German dialects. Today, local dialects continue to be used, but most are in rapid decline. Only in Switzerland does a regional dialect – Schwiizerdütsch – retain full vitality, spoken ubiquitously in daily life. The country’s national language, however, is Swiss Standard German (along with French, Italian, and Romansh), a slightly modified version of Germany’s national language. In Switzerland, unlike in Germany and Austria, this standardized form of the language is used mostly for written communication. Austrian Standard German is also almost identical to German Standard German. Local dialects in Austria are still used in casual conversations, but the most important of these, Central Bavarian, is most closely identified with Bavaria in southeastern Germany.

Dutch and Luxembourgish  

The one area of the German dialect continuum that resisted Standard German, as both a written and spoken language, is the far northwest. There the Nederlands language – Dutch/Flemish – was already politically entrenched, both in long-independent Netherlands and in neighboring Flanders, which formed the northern half of Belgium after 1830. As a result, its speakers resisted the idea, favored by many German nationalists, that their language was a mere dialect of German.[iii] The Dutch language derives from the Germanic Franconian dialect, which is viewed by some scholars as the language of the early medieval Franks, who established the Kingdom of France but abandoned their own tongue in its lands. Franconian dialects still extend beyond the Dutch-speaking zone into Germany’s northern Rhineland. In northeastern Netherlands, contrastingly, local dialects belong to the Low German group, closely linked to northern Germany. The separate Germanic language called Frisian, the closest relative of English, is discontinuously distributed in the northern Netherlands and extreme northwestern Germany. The three existing dialects of Frisian are all classified as endangered or threatened, as their speakers increasingly switch to Dutch or Standard German.

Along with standard Dutch, one other dialect in the Franconian Germanic group has a secure future, again linked to its official status in an independent country. This is Luxembourgish, the French-influenced national language of Luxembourg. Luxembourg is an unusually multilingual country; according to a Wikipedia article, “as of 2018, 98% of the population was able to speak French at more or less a high level (usually as a second language), 78% spoke German, and 77% Luxembourgish (which is the most common native language).” Fluency in English is also widespread. After World War II, Luxembourg’s government created a regulatory body for what had previously been regarded merely as a local German dialect, elevating it to national status. The limited number of its speakers, coupled with Luxembourg’s ubiquitous multilingualism, has thwarted the development of Luxembourgish literature. Luxembourg’s rightwing Alternative Democratic Reform Party, however, champions the tongue, trying to install it an official language of the European Union and seeking to make knowledge of it necessary for the naturalization of foreign-born residents.

As we have seen, the development of national languages in Germanic zone of northern Europe has been a deeply political process. The situation regarding English, also classified as a Germanic language, is similar yet distinctive, as (I hope), we shall see in a later post.

[i] Some scholars, however, disagree; see  Thomsen, T. B. (2019). Funen Means Fine: Andersen the Anti-nationalist. In A. K. Bom, J. Bøggild, & J. N. Frandsen (Eds.), Hans Christian Andersen and Community (pp. 243-258). Syddansk Universitetsforlag. Publications from the Hans Christian Andersen Center Vol. 7

[ii] Two others have unofficial status, Riksmål (“State Language”) and Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”).

[iii] Kedourie (1960, 123).

The Development of National Languages in the Germanic Zone of Northern Europe Read More »