“How the Geography of the Knowledge Economy Structures Social Identities – Reviving a Cleavage Perspective on the ‘Urban-Rural’ Divide”

In light of electoral shifts across advanced democracies, spatial divides in voting behavior have gained increasing attention. Nevertheless, even where spatial divides in politics are evident, it remains unclear to what extent geography matters in its own right. This paper demonstrates that, at least at a subjective level of collective identities, geography can play an important role in the emergence of a broader sociocultural cleavage. Building on Lipset and Rokkan’s theorizing of urban-rural divides, I propose that spatial divides today can be understood as conflicts that are sectoral and educational at their core (driven by the emergence of the knowledge-based economy), but perceived by voters through a (culturally tinged) lens of place. Combining data from an original online survey measuring voters’ identities and electoral preferences with fine-grained data on subnational economic structure, I show for Switzerland how voters’ group identities relate to their place in the geography of the knowledge economy. A cleavage perspective points towards the importance of place-based identities for political mobilization; it shifts attention from level to type of economic activity in geographic areas; and it indicates the importance of struggles over status in addition to distributive conflict between place-based groups.