The Urban-Rural Divide in Political Attitudes in the Netherlands

This is part of our special feature on Rurality in Europe.


Scholars, pundits, and policy-makers frequently express concern about growing polarization between urban and rural areas, arguing that it could become the dominant conflict line in Western democracies (Rachman 2018; Rodden 2019). Research from the UK and other European countries suggests that the urban-rural divide is especially pronounced when it comes to socio-cultural, or “cosmopolitan-nationalist” issues, like immigration, multiculturalism and, in the European context, EU integration (Jennings and Stoker 2017; Maxwell 2019). This concern has also been voiced in the Dutch media, with several outlets recently reporting on socio-cultural conflicts between densely populated urban and less densely populated rural areas, as well as between the most-urbanized western region, called “Randstad,” and more peripheral regions.

My research examines the development of cosmopolitan-nationalist attitudes in more- and less-urbanized municipalities in the Netherlands over the last decades (Huijsmans et al. 2020). Individuals with cosmopolitan attitudes are open to the world outside their own community and to different cultures, while nationalistic people feel that migrants and transnational institutions threaten the national interests and their way of life (Haller & Roudometof 2010). Is the Netherlands indeed experiencing a growing urban-rural divide centered around socio-cultural issues, and if so, why is this happening? After all, in such a small and densely populated country in which citizens can drive from the capital Amsterdam to the remotest rural areas in less than three hours it seems least likely to see an urban rural-divide in attitudes and behaviors. However, if there is one in the Netherlands, it is likely to exist elsewhere too.


A growing urban-rural divide in the Netherlands?

Like in most West European countries, social-cultural issues increasingly structure the party system in the Netherlands (De Vries 2018; Pellikaan et al. 2018). This is most vividly illustrated by the recent electoral fortunes of parties that can be situated on the ends of the socio-cultural divide: the populist radical right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) and Forum voor Democractie (FvD) on the nationalist end, and the green GroenLinks (GL) and the progressive-liberal Democraten 66 (D66) on the cosmopolitan one. A comparison between the outcomes of the 2006 and 2017 national elections shows that the vote shares of these four parties have sharply increased, at the expense of that of parties taking a more centrist position in the socio-cultural dimension (Figure 1). Between 2006 and 2017, the vote share for the nationalist parties increased from six to fifteen percent and the vote share for the cosmopolitan parties increased from 6.5 to 21.3 percent.

Figure 1. National vote shares for parties, in order of their cosmopolitan-nationalist position according to CHES data[1], in 2006 and 2017

The support for the four clearly cosmopolitan or nationalist parties is structured along geographical lines. Figure 2 visualizes the vote share of the two cosmopolitan (left) and the two nationalist parties (right) across Dutch municipalities in the 2019 provincial elections. The strongholds for the two cosmopolitan parties are mainly found in the urbanized western part of the country – “de Randstad.” Together, GroenLinks and D66 received about 40 percent of the vote in Amsterdam and Utrecht, whereas their national vote share was only twenty-one percent. These parties are also relatively successful in some medium-sized (often university) cities in other parts of the country, such as Groningen and Nijmegen. The support for nationalist parties, however, is higher in rural and suburban areas in the country. These parties received around 40 percent of the vote in a number of small and medium-sized municipalities in the peripheral provinces of Zeeland and Limburg, whereas their national vote share was only 15 percent.

Figure 2. Geographical distribution of the vote shares for cosmopolitan parties (GroenLinks and D66, left map) and nationalist parties (PVV and FvD, right map) at the municipality level. Source data: De Kiesraad (Dutch election council) [2]

The urban-rural divide also becomes apparent when we directly look at citizens’ views regarding socio-cultural issues such as immigration and European integration in surveys and compare them across urban and rural areas in the Netherlands. Statistics Netherlands categorizes Dutch municipalities into five groups based on their levels of urbanization, measured by the number of addresses per square kilometer. The five categories are: very strongly urban (i.e. large cities, 2500 or more addresses per km2), strongly urban (i.e. medium-sized cities, 1500-2500 per km2), mildly urban (i.e. smaller towns, 100-1500 per km2), hardly urban (i.e. villages, 500-1000 per km2), and rural (less than 500 per km2). According to data from the 2017 Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies (DPES) (Van der Meer et al. 2018), inhabitants of more urban municipalities are more positive towards multiculturalism and European integration than inhabitants of more rural municipalities. 65 percent of rural inhabitants indicated that ethnic minorities should adjust to Dutch culture rather than keeping their own customs and traditions, against only 44 percent of inhabitants of large cities (i.e. very strongly urban municipalities). Similarly, 47 percent of rural inhabitants indicated that EU integration had gone too far, against only 35 percent of inhabitants in the large cities.

The urban-rural divide is thus real enough, even in the small and dense Netherlands. However, while many have claimed that this divide would be slowly deepening (Carter 2010; Jennings and Stoker 2017; Johnston et al. 2004; Johnston et al. 2016), few have studied whether it is actually the case. Our recent study (Huijsmans et al. 2020) fills this gap by showing that the attitudinal differences between inhabitants of the more urbanized and more rural municipalities are indeed increasing in the Netherlands (see Figure 3). In 2006, 53 percent of inhabitants in the large cities indicated that European integration had gone too far, while 56 percent of rural inhabitants thought the same. By 2017, this 3 percent point gap had increased to a 12 percent point gap. Attitudes towards multiculturalism diverged between more- and less-urbanized municipalities as well. In 1979, 44 percent of rural inhabitants indicated that they would have no objection to having a neighbor from a different ethnic background, against 48 percent of inhabitants of large cities. This four percent point gap had increased to a 22 percent point gap in 2016. Inhabitants of large cities became substantially more positive towards the EU and multiculturalism over the last decades, while inhabitants of more rural areas less so (Figure 3). These patterns remain once sociodemographic background characteristics of inhabitants of these municipalities are taken into account (Huijsmans et al. 2020).


Figure 3. Trends in cosmopolitan attitudes by level of urbanization, based on analyses by the Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies data (upper two graphs) and the Cultural Changes data (lower two graphs) (Huijsmans et al. 2020)


Beyond “the city” and “the countryside”

The analysis above does not show yet whether the primary geographical cosmopolitan-nationalist divide is actually between monolithic urban areas on the one hand and rural ones on the other. Studies from various countries show that the geographical divide in political preferences is in fact more fine-grained. In the US, for example, voting patterns differ sharply between inner cities and their suburbs (Rodden 2019; Scala and Johnson 2017). Similarly, research in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands shows that suburban voters as opposed to urban voters tend to prefer conservative political parties (Ströbele 2017). Suburban inhabitants’ political preferences are thus similar to those of rural inhabitants in both the US and Europe. The question is whether these differences in party preferences between inhabitants of inner cities and suburbs are a reflection of differences in cosmopolitan-nationalist attitudes.

DPES data based on the four most recent national elections in the Netherlands (2006, 2010, 2012 and 2017) show that inhabitants in the central areas of large and medium-sized Dutch cities hold equally cosmopolitan attitudes. 47 percent of inner-city inhabitants of large and medium sized cities indicate that European integration has gone too far, compared to 57 percent of inhabitants of these cities’ suburbs. The attitudes of these suburban inhabitants are more similar to those of the inhabitants of towns (also 57 percent) and rural areas (63 percent). The same goes for tolerance towards ethnic minorities. 49 percent of inner-city inhabitants indicate that foreigners in the Netherlands should adjust more to Dutch culture, compared to 61 percent of suburban inhabitants, 62 percent of town inhabitants, and 69 percent of rural inhabitants. The difference between inner city inhabitants and suburban and town inhabitants is thus substantially larger than the difference between suburban and town inhabitants on the one hand and rural inhabitants on the other hand.


Explanations for the growing divide: social sorting or context?

Why do city inhabitants differ from inhabitants of other areas in their socio-political attitudes? Two types of explanations recur in the literature: social sorting and contextual effects. According to the former, citizens with different sociodemographic characteristics and different attitudes may choose to live in different areas. According to the latter, citizens (regardless of their sociodemographic characteristics) are changed by their environment (in this case by living in a city or rather the countryside).


Social composition and increased residential sorting

Studies show that individuals choose residential areas based on their sociodemographic background characteristics—an important one being educational attainment—and their lifestyle preferences. Higher-educated individuals move to larger cities for economic reasons (such as job opportunities), and because cities are attractive places to live in for individuals who prefer autonomy, diversity, and novel experiences over maintaining ties to their communities of origin (Sevincer et al. 2015). Because these higher-educated individuals generally hold more favorable attitudes towards European integration, multiculturalism, and immigration (Cavaille and Marshall 2019; Kunst et al. 2020), the political divide between “cosmopolitan cities” and “nationalist rural areas” could be an outcome of differences in social composition between these areas (Gallego et al. 2016).

Since roughly the 1980s, upper-middle class citizens have rediscovered inner cities in the Netherlands, and neighborhoods there have become increasingly popular for the wealthy. Simultaneously, inequalities in housing prices have increased between economically successful cities and struggling regions, and between inner cities and suburbs in the Netherlands and other European countries (Cunningham and Savage 2017; Hochstenbach and Arundel 2019). Lower-income households who cannot afford to live in these gentrifying inner-city neighborhoods anymore have been pushed out into the suburbs or even further away. Access to residence in the inner-cities has become more restricted over time. If only “yuppies” live in city centers nowadays, this may explain why spatial polarization along the cosmopolitan-nationalist dimension has been on the rise.


Contextual conditions, ethnic diversity, and economic restructuring

Geographic differences in attitudes remain after taking into account spatial socio-demographic composition, which suggests that the urban or rural context has a direct impact on its residents’ worldview too (Gimpel et al. 2020; Huijsmans et al. 2020; McGrane et al. 2017). The density and diversity of highly urbanized environments increases the likelihood of meeting people with beliefs and behaviors that are different from one’s own. It is therefore important for urban inhabitants’ economic and social success that they adapt to this environment and interact successfully with people who are dissimilar to them, and as a result they develop more cosmopolitan attitudes (Huggins and Debies-Carl 2015; Warf 2015). In particular, ethnic diversity is substantially higher in cities, and living in ethnically diverse areas is related to having more tolerant attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration (Janssen et al. 2019; Lee and Sharp 2017). Since density and diversity have grown to a greater extent in urban areas than in rural areas over the last decades in the Netherlands, this could partly explain why cosmopolitan attitudes have become more pronounced among citizens in the most urban neighborhoods of the country.

Another possible explanation is the economic polarization that has become apparent between central and peripheral areas in countries like the Netherlands (Kühn 2015). The central regions with their post-industrial, service-based, high-tech economies, also described as “knowledge economy hubs”, are often strongly urbanized. The high-end business and professional services—like software, finance, marketing, and consulting—present in these areas are often performed for internationally-oriented or foreign clients, so inhabitants of those knowledge economy hubs benefit largely from aspects of globalization, like trade liberalization (Lind 2020). The other important sector in these areas is lower-end service, like delivery, retail, hospitality, and catering. These service jobs are filled disproportionately by lower-skilled immigrants, who work but do not live in the inner-cities (Lind 2020). Therefore, inhabitants of these central regions benefit from labor migration, which may make them more likely to hold positive attitudes towards immigration.

In the economically struggling small towns and rural areas, the good-producing industries that have not been offshored to other countries—like factories, farms, and fossil fuel extraction—can be found. Inhabitants of those areas suffer the negative consequences of globalization, like the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the influx of low-skilled migrants competing for the remaining low-skilled jobs (Lind 2020), and are therefore less likely to hold cosmopolitan attitudes. The differential impact of globalization on inhabitants of these metropolises and “left behind areas” may have important consequences for their socio-cultural attitudes.


Let’s not overstate the urban-rural gap either

The significance of the spatial dimension of the cosmopolitan-nationalist divide should not be overstated. First, there remain plenty of disagreements among city dwellers or among rural residents. Almost half of the inner-city inhabitants in the Netherlands, for example, believe that European integration has gone too far, and almost half of the inner-city inhabitants state that immigrants should assimilate. Second, education level remains the most important predictor of socio-cultural attitudes (Bovens and Wille 2010). As a result, cosmopolitan attitudes might well differ more strongly between the higher and lower educated than between urban and rural inhabitants.

Indeed, the DPES data shows that individuals’ level of education explains three to four times as much the variations in cosmopolitan attitudes as the degree of urbanization of their residential area. Our models indicate that—all else being equal—rural inhabitants score almost 0.5 points higher than inner-city inhabitants on a seven-point Euroskepticism scale, as well as on an ethnic intolerance scale. With a full point gap, the difference between more highly educated and lesser educated citizens is twice as large. These educational differences are also present within all urbanization categories. Altogether, the educational divide in cosmopolitan attitudes is substantially stronger than the urbanization divide, which is in line with patterns observed in other European countries (Maxwell 2019).


The urbanization divide in perspective

As recent Dutch election outcomes suggest, inhabitants of more-urbanized areas hold more cosmopolitan attitudes than inhabitants of less-urbanized areas. More importantly, these attitudinal differences have substantially increased in recent years. However, the cosmopolitan-nationalist divide lies primarily within cities—namely between inner-cities and suburbs—and to a lesser extent also between suburbs and small towns on the one hand and rural areas on the other. Therefore, it is misleading to label the spatial cosmopolitan-nationalist opposition as a monolithic urban-rural divide. The term “urbanization divide” might do the variations between the various types of areas more justice. The cosmopolitan attitudes of inner-city inhabitants are not only a reflection of the fact that they are more highly educated, wealthier, less religious, or have ethnic backgrounds different from that of inhabitants of other areas, but also a consequence of the different environments in which they live. Future studies should therefore focus on contextual factors—such as ethnic diversity and economic opportunities—that shape political attitudes in inner cities, suburbs, towns, and the countryside differently. The fact that attitudinal differences between more- and less-urbanized areas are increasing does not mean that urban-rural polarization is becoming the main conflict line in the Netherlands. Differences between educational groups within areas are still larger than differences between areas. Failing to recognize this within-area heterogeneity leads to an overestimation of the polarization between urban and rural areas, and facilitates the use of stereotypes for certain areas and their inhabitants. Who you are is still at least as important as where you live.


Twan Huijsmans is a PhD candidate in sociology and political science at the University of Amsterdam. His research explores the geographical differences in political attitudes in the Netherlands, with a focus on the urban-rural divide.



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[2] Source: De Kiesraad. Data Available from



Photo: NETHERLANDS, MARKEN: People walking on the road through a dutch green meadow to the sea | Shutterstock
Published on November 10, 2020.



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